Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

anonymity revisited

One of the most common defenses of anonymity on the internet is the one offered by Daniel Solove here:

For all its vices, anonymity has many virtues. With anonymity, people can be free to express unpopular ideas and be critical of people in power without risking retaliation or opprobrium. The anonymity in everyday life enables people to be free to do many worthwhile things without feeling inhibited.

I have no idea what that second sentence means — what “worthwhile things” are people “inhibited” from doing when their names are known? — but the previous sentence I get. And it’s true. But only in certain narrow circumstances. The problem is that over the years I have heard from many people who insist on anonymity in order to protect themselves from “reprisals” when in fact all they’re going to suffer is disagreement. And grownups ought to be able to deal with being disagreed with.

Moreover, every protest against injustice is far more meaningful when the person making it is willing to sign his or her name to it. As the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin pointed out long ago, in his early work Art and Answerability, to undersign a statement with one’s own name is a powerful act — an act of commitment, responsibility: one becomes “answerable” for it. This is a strong witness to others. Anonymous dissent, by contrast, is often empty to others because no one is answerable to it. Anonymous dissent requires numbers to have an effect. When many protest anonymously their position gains weight additively; the single anonymous protester comes off as a crank or a troll.

Anonymity on the internet may be desirable often but it is necessary only rarely, and surely in 98% of the cases in which it is invoked the conversation would be better when conducted by answerable individuals. Therefore anonymity ought to be hard to achieve. If “undersigning” is the online norm, then people whose hatreds and resentments are just casual will be less likely to trash conversational spaces. The people who genuinely need anonymity can create subterfuges when they need to; even when the use of real names is mandated, that demand is relatively easy to circumvent. On the internet, nobody has to know you’re a dog.

10 comments:

  • I've adopted a screen name/identity that I use most places I go online, but I don't have an elaborate argument to justify it. The simple reason, though, is that I prefer to keep my privacy and avoid harassment that seems to adhere to people who live large online. That said, my true identity would probably not be difficult to discover. I tell lots of people in meat world to visit my blog, who obviously know who I am. And I don't use my online identity as a shield to enable misbehavior.

  • “The great temptation of modern man is not physical solitude but immersion in the mass of other men, not escape to the mountains or the desert (would that men were so tempted!) but escape into the great formless sea of irresponsibility which is the crowd. There is actually no more dangerous solitude than that of the man who is lost in a crowd, who does not know he is alone and who does not function as a person in a community either. He does not face the risks of true solitude or its responsibilities, and at the same time the multitude has taken all other responsibilities off his shoulders. Yet he is by no means free of care; he is burdened by the diffuse, anonymous anxiety, the nameless fears, the petty itching lusts and the all pervading hostilities which fill mass society the way water fills the ocean.” Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

  • Answerability is great if you want credit or payment for your work. Too bad most “geniuses” who hide behind such lofty rhetoric feel they have to sign the front of their canvases and not the back (like the rapper who inserts his name into every other verse, turning their products into mere advertisements (and of course to help us distinguish one interchangeable abstract painting from another, so the right people get paid and no superior unknowns get in on the hustle)).
    Too bad Michelangelo was so irresponsible as to avoid answering for every little abstract doodle he did so we could know if it were good or not, according to its label, and not merely some peasant’s cowardly, unlearned scribbling or graffiti.
    Personally, I always saw this obsessive credit-seeking, (laughably excused by high-fallutin’ moral terms of rhetoric (like ‘answerability’ or ‘authenticity’) that dress up what might be the epitome of bourgeois vulgarity as some selflessly heroic act of commitment to truth or beauty) as a sign weakness, insecurity, and a sneaking suspicion that their fame was dependent on the branding of dealers and hucksters, and worth more than any of their paintings, which by themselves would have long ago been ignored and forgotten as unimpressive, gimmicky and crude. And I have little regard for those who are so arrogant as to sign their name to every little note or passing thought that occurs to them (as if what they say is actually theirs, emerging ex nihilo from their own unique genius; and not simply pieced together regurgitations or restatements of something others said it better (all of whom, even the most responsible, magnonymous writer cannot fairly be bothered to cite or name).
    I would much rather be considered a cowering, faceless coward by any of the self-advertising name-touters than actually be so overbearingly vain as to insist that my identity somehow be attached to my opinion through my family name. Usually my arguments can stand or fall on their own.
    Likewise, it makes no difference to me whose ideas I am actually agreeing or disagreeing with.
    It is true that arguments for justice often carry some weight if undersigned, but outside an official political or legal context and capacity, signing one's name is just appended rhetoric that echoes the same seriousness as a Caesar or a Hanckock.
    The same signers of the declaration and constitution, for example, had no real problem not being as answerable to their actual arguments in defense (or against) those same documents (well maybe later in life, Hamilton got the answerability bug).
    The names of credit-seekers are just superfluous, comforting distractions that in the timeless realm of ideas and truth, usually just get in the way of their arguments. And, in my (anonymous and irrelevant) experience, the delusional identification of credit-seeking signatories with the words they happen to piece together can often infect or compromise the words themselves - pride or responsibility holds them back from thinking through or stating the full ramifications and truth of what they only begin to say "in their own name."
    Self-interest is essential to survival, social mores, law, and order, but is poison to truly honest argument and discourse.

  • Anonymity online is not about courage, it is about control. The "employer reprisal" canard is a red herring. The moment you post anything to the web it is stored permanently, copied infinitely, and broadcast worldwide. This is quite new in human interaction, particularly when applied to what our customs still consider "casual" conversation. To apply the customs of different media is to miss the point badly. Appending your name to words that may be captured and manipulated by countless, unaccountable others requires a new kind of prudence.

    The barrier to entry for posting anonymously is low, and next to nothing appears to be at stake -- we are alone with our screens sending words into the invisible ether. Jacobs's wariness would be appropriate if the poster retained some options once he presses "send." He doesn't. Only a fool would be so reckless with his good name.

    Enter the concept of "limited liability personae."

    http://tinyurl.com/44gs4oh

    As in corporation investment, risks are encouraged by curtailing the possibility of catastrophic damages. Greater risk, greater reward. Who among us would speak truth earnestly felt in a comprehensive surveillance state? Even the faint possibility of disproportionate, outsized, and unjust results -- such as, say, your name becoming the laughingstock of the world (cf. Rebecca Black) -- would render all but the most promiscuous silent.

    Finally, anonymity is a boon for good commentary. While Jacobs implies cowardice in those who use aliases, the aliases enable a fearless expression of honesty that can only be judged completely on its merits. This is Aristotle's rhetoric stripped of the ethos component, which has its advantages. Online we must judge the content of the rhetorician's speech independent of the rhetorician's (often misleading) reputation. It stands or falls on what has been said, rather than who has said it.

    I am glad for this discussion. New etiquette and custom must be thought through, experimented with, and established. The internet is still in the state of nature. We must submit to a rule of law or the bellum omnium contra omnes, lest unmoderated commentary continue to be the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short phenomenon that it is. And what naive child would walk naked into such a dangerous place?

    To which website do I go to get my reputation back?

    [cross-posted at First Thoughts]
    http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2011/06/28/anonymity-gets-no-respect/comment-page-2/#comment-43968

  • JingoJim, this is one of my favorite comments ever, even though I probably ought to delete it for the sake of the internet. I can hear it now: "I'm not a troll, I'm just so humble that I don't feel the need to claim credit for calling you a jerk and a moron."

  • And what was so unpalatable about my response that you felt the need to erase it after posting? Was it my pseudonymity? The presence of links and HTML tags?

    I am not spam. I'll fill out whatever CAPCHA gizmo you have to prove it.

    Let me tell you: to take the time to craft a thoughtful response, and then to see it capriciously deleted is beyond disappointing. It is positively indicative of the dogmatism that led you to condemn noms de internet in the first place. We have better reasons to stay private than your cursory analysis gives us credit for. It is not to conceal the source of simple name-calling, nor is it simply because we like our employment. To explain would require an opportunity to speak, which you denied me.

    I acknowledge the need for online moderation, and I prefer the sites that use it effectively. But considering your abuse of this power (or perhaps worse, your negligence), my estimation of your integrity, and therefore your writing, has dropped. There was nothing in my message that needed to be protected from your readers.

    Your comment sections are extensions of your ego, reiterations of your thesis, and criticism you can contain. They bear the hallmarks of insecurity. A contrary position presented in civil tones should strengthen your argument -- it's nothing to be afraid of. As someone said in a not dissimilar context, "[G]rownups ought to be able to deal with being disagreed with."

  • Okay. Since you will delete this post as quickly as the others, let's you and me have a one-on-one. Let me give you my full name, social security number, and home address so you can come to my door and I can describe to you just how completely your actions discredit what you profess. Will you accept the criticism as valid then?

    Can you direct your readers to a reliably enforced comment policy, or is that also a product of your whim and/or maladroit facility with the new technologies?

    You make a pronouncement about trolls, and yet you create them with your presumption. You use the internet to bravely skewer the false courage of the internet, and you snuff out the slightest deviation from your script.

    This is why we preserve a level of detachment from our good names! Who in their right mind would submit what is perhaps a person's most important asset in the information age -- his identity -- to the caprice of a tinpot webmaster with an outsized estimation of his own importance?

    The New Atlantis is a fantastic publication. You are a blot on its mission, a living reproach in deed to its stated purpose of applying sober judgment to our adoption of poorly understood new technologies.

    Will your minuscule portion of the blogosphere suffer from my future inattention? No: I was hardly aware of your existence, and those who put up with your abuse will continue to yield the quality of conversation you deserve. Does the Center for the Study of Technology and Society suffer for employing someone lacking the wit or grace to handle gentle criticism? Yes.

    Really, how much contempt for its subscribers can an unprofitable journal and foundation deal out before consigning itself to extinction? If you don't possess the requisite magnanimity or style to co-opt those who would otherwise disagree, then at least show a desire to engage and discredit critics of your position in public. As it stands you don't even have the strength to admit the thought of a challenge appended to your half-cooked blog utterances.

    I have read your blog and once had it bookmarked. How quickly seemingly solid observations prove to be papier mâché when the observer demonstrates the flimsiness of his character. How sour one's formally expressed wisdom becomes when a man fails to demonstrate the simpler, profounder wisdom of common courtesy.

    You have the temerity to call out the people who, for good reason, stay pseudonymous in the unproven byways of a brand new medium of communication -- and yet you silently manipulate that medium to produce an artificial effect. Which is worse? The pseudonym that everyone knows is pseudonymous, or the anonymous manipulations above which you sign your name?

    "Alan Jacobs" is only slightly more accountable for his scribblings as "King" is: who, after all, will go through the trouble to hold your tangible person to account for the shoddy behavior you've already perpetrated on your readers? And yet you seem to believe this slight advantage in verifiable authenticity entitles you to regard certain unsigned commentaries as beneath the dignity of your readers' notice and beyond the strictures of propriety for the internet at large. "I probably ought to delete it for the sake of the internet" may be tongue in cheek, but it is more revelatory of your arrogance than you know.

    Your caprice and negligence is every bit as constitutive to the poor quality of internet discourse as you believe pseudonymity to be. Congratulate yourself for having read this far through a piece critical of your behavior: that is a small, very small step in the right direction.

    I expect you to forward this and my previous posts to your editor. If you had provided an obvious way to e-mail you and copy your editor, I would have done that as well as supplied my identity. Difficult as it may be for you to believe, those of us who do not trade our name for compensation have legitimate reasons to control how our identity is used by others.

  • Dear King,

    Since I'm traveling and only have intermittent internet access, I just now discovered that your comments were caught in Blogger's spam filter, and have marked them as "not spam."

    Any statements you'd like to reconsider now?

  • And with that cleared up, I would just suggest to my readers to

    (a) read King's comments (their tone and their substance alike);

    (b) reflect on the different positions on anonymity taken by me and by JingoJim;

    (c) draw any and all appropriate conclusions.

  • (c) draw any and all appropriate conclusions.

    What is "Information Technology conveys the various shades of meaning that can be contained in silence very poorly", Alex?

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