Anonymity is a many-headed beast. While you're petting one head, the one that's offering you safety and security, another one is snaking around from behind to bite you.
Even though it's not as popular now as it has been in the past, anonymity will never completely fall away. It's needed in certain situations for very legitimate reasons. Remember the backlash when Google made people's frequent contacts public on their profiles as part of Google Buzz? The one example of how wrong this was, which always sticks with me, is “Harriet Jacobs”.
When Buzz went live, she suddenly found that her abusive ex-husband was given access to personal information like her location, place of work and other people she contacted regularly, including her current boyfriend. This access was also automatically granted to people who left abusive comments on her blog.
In situations like that, anonymity plays a vital role in maintaining our privacy and our sense of safety. Another example: S&M author Clarissa Thorn, who wrote on International Coming Out Day that she wasn't sure she could ever drop her pseudonym because her lifestyle choice is still frowned upon in many areas of society.
“BDSM – and sexuality in general – is still very stigmatised. People who write openly and personally about sex are taking huge risks with their employability,” she said, citing examples of others who had lost their jobs when their true identities were discovered.There is a whole host of other reasons for which one may require a false name. Good, solid reasons. Being able to troll on Internet forums without any consequences is not one of them.
Social news site Reddit has been at the centre of a controversy this week. When Gawker journalist Adrian Chen “unmasked” the site's biggest troll, the site went up in arms and many moderators banned all links to Gawker from being posted on their forums (or “subredits”).
The reasoning behind this was that the troll, violentacrez, was also one of the site’s foremost volunteer moderators, and the fact that his true identity was publicly revealed made the other mods uneasy. What did he have to be concerned about? He moderated subredits of a distasteful nature, including: Jailbait (sexy photos of underage girls), Rapebait, Misogyny and Incest. His anonymity was possibly all that was keeping him from losing his real life corporate job and maybe even facing lawsuits.
Anonymity, it is said, allows for “de-individuation” – letting us lose ourselves behind a mask of our own making. We can try on different personalities and discard them at will. It's all fine and good, however, as long as no one is getting hurt. Sadly, with trolls, this isn't the case. Even if they aren't posting borderline illegal and morally reprehensible content on the Web, they could target just one person and make his or her life a living hell. Leo Traynor's troll, for example, started off merely harassing him on Twitter and then began delivering parcels to his home address.
Should such psychopaths be entitled to anonymity?
And what about Anonymous, the hacker collective that systematically terrorises companies and governments, trying to convince us (and them) that they are “hacktivists” doing good?
In a civilised society, we do not allow half of the horrible things we allow online. In a civilised society, we only have one body, however. One person. We are that person and we are responsible for what that person does. Online anonymity allows us to be many people, all at the same time, and there is very little chance we'll ever be held responsible.
There are success stories. Traynor's computer-savvy friend helped him track down the troll who turned out to be a friend's teenage son. I believe the violentacrez revelation is also a success story – a journalist doing his research and unmasking the villain. But, for the most part, the monsters are allowed to roam free on the Internet in a way we'd never allow them to in real life. They are sheltered and protected by the sites they call home – because the sites they call home are the ones they support with their time and the hits they bring in. Freedom of speech is used as a blanket term to excuse anyone saying anything, no matter how offensive.
There is this assumption that everyone has a right to a soapbox online, and to use it anonymously and without consequence, even when they are using that soapbox to spread hate, to attack people or to cultivate a cesspool of depravity.
It's wrong. We all know it. And we shouldn't accept it. Yet we do. We do, because no one can offer an alternative. We're so afraid of losing our freedom, afraid that anyone who tried to police the Internet might try to impose a Great Firewall of China mentality that we'll give up other rights in exchange. We'll turn a blind eye to the distasteful content, we'll shrug off the antics of trolls and we'll defend to the death the right of people to say whatever they like, lest we lose the freedom to continue to be ourselves in the same space.
Sometimes the Internet does feel a bit like Frankenstein's monster, sewn together from mismatched scraps and given life with technology. We're responsible for this monster we've created. Will we all play a part in making it something good, in creating content we are proud to put our names to? Or will we hide behind masks, playing mind games for entertainment, happy to accept that it's just the nature of the beast?
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