I’ve been thinking about anonymity a lot recently. I don’t have any media outlets to cite specifically but the whole “Twitter and Facebook helped organise the riots” hyper-reaction caused a number of commentators to become apoplectic with knee-jerk… -iness. “Back in my day,” I assume they spluttered as their calf muscles gave-way from search a violent reaction, “we didn’t have Twitbook and Facetweet – so riots couldn’t have been organised so blasted quickly!”
Ludicrousness aside, social media (Twitter especially) can be used under a cloak of anonymity – after all, there’s no requirement that you give your real identity (though I believe Facebook and Google+ are taking steps to make this the case) and you’re free to assume whatever persona and moniker you wish. Some of the best Twitter accounts are satirical ones, mocking (kindly) an exaggerated version of a celebrity. You might not know who the real person is, tapping away at their smartphone with witty comments on their way to work, but it doesn’t matter – it’s the content that really matters.
We’re really quite lucky internet protocols developed the way they did – open and free, allowing data to move almost unhindered between destinations. Secure protocols – the good ones – even prevent middlemen from gaining access to your data. You can be having a conversation with someone on the other side of the world about some insalubrious fetish you have (which I know you have) and no one could know. You can even stream video, audio and cash their way and people wouldn’t know (unless they really started to dig).
Anonymity on the internet allows us to reinvent ourselves as many times as we like. A famous example is a game like World of Warcraft: be an elf, be an orc; be a male, be a female; be green, be blue; be whatever you like – it doesn’t matter. All that really matters is that you play by the rules. Those rules are set by whoever’s server you’re on. You could call it anarchy, but that would seem to put pejorative slant on it – like calling it ‘chaotic’ or ‘disorganised’, when in fact the opposite is true. Things only seem chaotic when you don’t understand the rules. That perky, green elf you fancy might be Bob, your 50-something bank manager.
Of course, there are drawbacks. Hit-and-run personal attacks, fraud and theft all occur regularly. Furthermore, anonymity is used by those to commit serious crimes such as distributing child pornography or laundering money; things that no moral person can abide. While we might allow for some trolling on forums and stealing of swords in Warcraft as compromise, we certainly don’t allow for paedophiles and well-organised criminals and this is where we welcome intervention by the police, ISPs and other tech firms.
Unfortunately, to bring the topic round again, we are left in this grey area: between the pure, “white” benefits of anonymity, and it’s murky “black” drawbacks, sullying its name. My opinion? I think anonymity is a wonderful thing. As I said, I think it allows for genuine discussion and judging people on their content rather than appearance. So often, we hear of doing this in real life: judging people by what they do and not how they appear (hey, MLK’s “I have a dream” speech is based on this wonderful idea) – so why is this idea, for some, so difficult to grasp when it is actually applied to a medium that genuinely allows this?
Unless you live in a prison or small town, most people you pass in the street are going to be anonymous to you. They’re real individuals but you have no idea who they are. Most of us are happy to keep it that way unless we want something from them. The same is true online: except it is taken to the extreme – unlike real life, online anonymity allows to not only hide-in-plain-sight and not be seen but it also allows you to adopt a new identity with only your imagination as a limiting factor.
Were I, a bulky, hairy, young man, attempt to, say, impersonate a female supermodel in person, I would fail horribly – online, perhaps I would be more successful. This – the ability to create new identity or simply hide – is incredibly liberating, especially to the meek. Online, the shy do not have to worry about making eye-contact with people, being visually impressive or even quick-witted. They are given the space and time to be considerate; time to refine their thoughts and actions, and present themselves in the best of light.
Furthermore, people who face genuine intimidation or physical danger in person are free on the internet. Abused women can hide from dangerous ex-partners; freedom fighters can organise themselves so long as they have a mobile phone; teenagers are free to pursue their interests, without worrying what their peers will think of them. If you end anonymity on the internet – if you create Cold War checkpoints on the gateways to the internet then you are slamming the door in the faces of so many people.
Anonymity online is such a powerful tool that it is actually baffling that we still have it – but it is such a precious thing. I have this blog, where I am free to write as myself and attribute my thoughts and feeling to my name, but I also have an anonymous blog, kept under a pseudonym, where I am free to simply express myself however I feel and talk about whomever I want in whatever manner I choose. Of course, I run the risk of being found out – but like all glorious things, it’s worth the cost.
Anonymity is liberating: you are free to act how you wish, to a reasonable limit, and it epitomises the libertarian idiom of having the right to be free, so long as you do not infringe other’s freedom. Let us be rational when we are faced by threats to our liberty: let us handle them with cool heads and unjerked knees. When one abuses a freedom, they must be punished swiftly and sternly – you do not punish them by removing other people’s right to that freedom; what could that possibly achieve?