All Hail Anonymity

Real-name policies won't end the introvert's experience of the Internet, but it might end the Internet's experience of introverts.


Have you ever posted anything online anonymously? You really should. There's nothing else quite like that gleeful feeling of endless possibility when speaking without identity. That sensation of shameless, reckless abandon, without the confines of guilt and the burden of history, is something that just doesn't exist in a public setting outside of the Internet.

After an infancy when anonymity or pseudonymity were the norm, the Internet has increasingly become a place where real names -- the main link between our offline and online identities -- have become a requirement. Identity is being reattached to online speech.

Our physical quirks, our mistakes, the inflection in our name, our proclivities and our tendencies, they all get rolled into a singular collection of traits that define who we are. And that collection is what people see first and foremost when they receive our personalities. 

Without that identity, all anyone has to judge a person on is their words via the prism of objective reality. It only cares whether our views on organic chemistry or foreign policy are relevant. It separates the world of ideas from the filthy meatspace we are bound by.

Anonymity can be a positive force. The idea, as expressed by people like Google CEO Eric Schmidt, that "if you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to worry about," just doesn't hold up. It assumes an infinitely just world, and not simply in legal terms, but also in social norms and political interests. It ignores the fact that voicing opinions and unflattering facts can have consequences.

There are plenty of good examples. What kind of support would there be for gay rights, particularly the rescinding of Don't Ask Don't Tell, if every online supporter had to expose their identity? There is a reason voting is anonymous

Online, there is another good reason for protecting the anonymous commons: it increases the diversity of people who speak up. To speak publicly is to take a risk. What if you say the wrong thing? What if you insult somebody? What if your words are misconstrued? Every spoken phrase could be measured up against your current and future employers, your friends, your family, your reputation. Only those without much guilt or shame - either by way of purity, nihilism, or sociopathic narcissism - are left to voice their opinions. They control the conversation. Whereas in the anonymous world, there is no ego to feed. There are no Sarah Palins.

The downside to anonymous speech, particularly the online variety, is that it can become a tumultuous hive-mind of surly, racist, misogynistic, pornographic filth and politically incorrect doggerel, but that messy breeding ground of the collective id is democracy at work.

People can, and regularly do, say horrible, horrible things with little empathy, but I would rather encourage more denizens to speak their minds and reveal themselves for who they are rather than to have them covet those beliefs in private. Anonymity tends to become a haven for introverts, particularly for those that are unnecessarily shy about discussing topics that, in actuality, aren't that controversial. The hope is that those introverts will emerge from this anonymous realm secure in their thoughts and ready, eager, and willing to enter the social fray, righteous and confident, without a desperate fear of what they think of as their identity.

Google and Facebook's enforcement of tighter links between speech and identity won't end the introvert's experience of the Internet, but it might end the Internet's experience of introverts. People who use social networking sites can choose to remove their profiles from public view or restrict what gets shown. The raucous conversation on the Internet will increasingly come to resemble our celebrity-driven, gridlocked national debates at precisely the time when we need something different.

Image: Alexis Madrigal.

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Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones is a Washington, D.C.-based writer whose work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, Morning News, Washington City Paper, and the Awl.

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