Question Of The Week: Anonymity And Urban Life

by Conor Friedersdorf

For centuries, one reason people have chosen to live in cities is the comparative privacy that they offer: unlike the small town, where everybody knows your business and community ties are pervasive, the city dweller can cultivate strong community ties if he likes, even as he is an anonymous man in the crowd everywhere except his apartment elevator, his weeknight soccer league, and trivia night at the corner pub.

Early on, the Internet Age seemed as though it would enhance the ability of city dwellers to calibrate their community ties as they saw fit. A mere Internet search could yield like-minded people, whether for sex or volunteerism or shared activities. And it remains easier than ever before to find whatever it is you’re seeking. But the anonymity that seemed such a pervasive and intrinsic feature of the Internet Age turns out to have been illusory. These days 24-year-olds pack up their belongings, drive to a metropolis a thousand miles from their previous home, and arrive with a Google trail, a Facebook identity displaying status updates and friend networks dating back to high school, and perhaps even blog archives or Twitter updates that detail years worth of thoughts on sundry subjects.

And ponder what’s next. We’ve all got cameras on our phones. Photo sharing Web sites already have tagging and facial recognition technology. Patronize a sex shop or a gay bar or Sunday morning services at a Catholic Church, and who knows when a passerby might snap a cell phone photo, post it to the Web, and expose activities you’d rather keep private to your Facebook friends/landlord/Jewish mother. In this world, the dystopian future looks less like 1984 than Gossip Girl.

Here is the question I want to pose: Does the Internet age portend the end of cities as a place where anonymity is an option? I’d love to publish all sorts of responses. Examples drawn from the news. Musing on the same theme. Co-signs that suggest I’m right. Arguments that prove me wrong. Thoughts about whether we exert any control over the privacy norms of tomorrow. And especially notes from city dwellers sharing relevant anecdotes, concerns, or even making the case that less anonymity would be a good thing.

E-mail with "city" in the subject line, or send relevant links via the Twitter handle @conor64 – as always, comments published anonymously unless otherwise requested.