The Trouble with Anonymity.

by , under personal, Pirate

Anonymity is important. I’m going to say that upfront. Anonymity is necessary for people to be able to speak freely about atrocities going on, without fear of repercussions from others. So that they can speak up.

But that isn’t what you typically see anonymity used for.

Over on Tumblr, a few friends of mine have been hurt by anonymous users who’ve started campaigns to bully them. One was couched as an “academic discussion” – but really, it was bullying masquerading as something intellectual. If it had really been a discussion of how possibly problematic themes were used, there wouldn’t have been any need to hide behind a pseudonym.

And that’s how it’s done these days. Decide you hate someone? Log out and start spewing garbage, because you’re no longer a person. Just an angry voice in the wind.

It doesn’t matter if you have a screenname, the second you’re not the name you’re known as on the street, you’re technically anonymous. Just look at the hate spewed towards Anita Sarkeesian when she even proposed a video series to discuss sexism within video games. (And unfortunately for that, not all of it was anonymous)

I love Tumblr. I’ve met a lot of wonderful people there- but I’ve seen so much hatred and wank that it’s painful to be there at times. The worst part is when there’s someone you thought might become a friend, who turns out to be part of the problem.

Likewise, I love G+, but it’s just as bad. Last week I shared a funny video that had a bit of a feminist message to it – it was a parody of those “Trends Men Hate” lists that were going around, that essentially mocked both the lists in general (since those are nothing knew) and the idea of catering to men. But out of nowhere, I had bros popping up to tell me that I had completely missed the point of the video… one even going so far to imply that I had no right to share my opinion. Which let’s just grasp that logic. I couldn’t share my opinion, but he apparently could. Cultural misogyny at its finest.

I don’t have any solutions. Because as big of a problem as it is… there will always be the people who need the anonymity. Whistleblowers. Abuse victims. People trying to get information out of media blackouts (like tweets from Iran, Egypt or Syria).

What are your thoughts? Is anonymity worth it on the internet anymore? Or have we reached a point where the bad outweighs the good?

  • Tigger

    I’m not a fan of it, really. I know, I say this as someone who uses a screenname and not my real one and there’s some hypocrisy in that. I do it not to be mean, but to hide from certain people in my life – because I need a safe place and they need to not find me. Which is not to say they couldn’t, because I use the same name everywhere, or a slight variation on it, and if they wanted to find me they could…but this adds an extra layer.

    I am a believer that if you say a thing, put your name on it. For me, this IS my name. My name HERE, at any rate. Because I use the same name, everything is connected. I could use a different name, but I’d have to start all over and lose everything I’ve done for the past decade or so…all because I wanted to be a rude asshat. It’s not worth it. If you’re going to say something, at least claim it – don’t do it under “anonymous”. Leave me a way to contact you or hold a conversation with you or anything – drop it and leave isn’t cool.

  • Lis

    I’m a huge defender of anonymity on the internet (but I think folks know that)! I think there are things that are easier to say without fear of repercussions, and while that can be abused, I think it’s necessary. I also think it’s a way to level the playing field in discussions – in anonymous discussions, everyone’s opinion is equally important. I spend a lot of time in anon spaces and in name spaces, and they’re important to me for different reasons.

    Not to mention the entire kinkmeme culture, where a lot of kinks get explored in ways they really couldn’t in namespace.

  • I do think there’s a place for anonymity – I started writing fanfic as wingedkiare here and there, and as public as it ever got was that my name was Whitney. (I’m actually active in a couple different communities and circles on Tumblr as a completely different s/n because it is discussing kinkspace)

    That said, I firmly believe that far too many people abuse anonymity. There’s something to be said for anonymous discussion, but far too often it turns into a Burn Book if people aren’t actually held accountable for what they say.

    Over on G+, someone brought up an interesting point, that as a society we’re growing less compassionate in many ways. Even as we try to become more inclusive, teens aren’t taught basic manners and courtesy, so when they graduate to the internet where it’s easy to hide behind a grey face on Twitter, or elsewhere… they do.

    I do believe that there are reasons to. I just have seen FAR too many people that I care about hurt by anonymous jerks to not want to try to remind people about courtesy and decency.

  • Precisely. When I really graduated to the internet… and started writing fanfic and posting on communities… I didn’t really want my full name to show up, so I started to use the name I use on Tumblr. Now, I don’t really care – because my kids use my husband’s last name and I don’t post their full names here. So I can be a little more open.

    But you know what, if you want me to take your opinion seriously, at least put a name to it. Show me that you’re willing to stand behind it.

  • ExorcisingEmily

    I followed you over from Annie’s blog, and wanted to leave a message here. Thank you, first of all, for writing this. I DO believe that anonymity is problematic in internet communities at times; because of how it’s abused.

    I’m not certain what the answer is. But I think a large part of the problem is the complete disinhibition that comes with complete lack of responsibility. People are cruel. They are spiteful. And they gather together rarely in celebration of something, but rather to feed each others’ negative behaviors.

    Unfortunately, the typical anon comms never enforce their own lip-service rules to civility, because they are run by similarly anonymous moderators, who will be just as quickly wanked at, or just as easily drawn into partisanship.

    Meanwhile, I respectfully question your assertion, Lis, that in anonymous discussions everyone’s opinion is important or equal. It’s funny, I’ve actually gotten my crash course in the anon comms the hard way; because of “Social Justice Warriors” wanking one fic while lauding other far more problematic pieces, and also because of individuals who decided to take my LACK of anonymity to bring my personal information, including that about my children and family and profession, and my personal opinions or blog posts, and make them a matter for community disdain.

    Do you not realize how quick you anon comms are to dismiss (and rudely) ANY opinion that you do not hold as your own? How many threads I’ve seen where one anonymous person had to say “No, I’m NOT the person you’re talking about, I just think you’re being a douche” only to be jeered down.

    That is not anonymity for altruistic purposes. That is anonymity that actually derides any given statement that comes across as ‘judging’ the people who are passing judgement.

    It’s a culture built around getting away with being as crude as you wish to be, or as hurtful.

    So again, though. Thank you, Whitney, for writing this. I don’t know the answer, long term. I don’t think there IS one, because anonymity is location dependent and site specific. But I know that the culture of internet anonymity makes news site comment boards, YouTube responses, article replies and fandom anon communities something that everyone seems to be wary to approach.

    What does that say about our online culture that we look to these forums of open discussion as if we were edging closer and closer to a snake pit?

  • Emily – thank you for posting. Sorry it took me awhile to reply. And I do agree, when you get people together and place them in a group without restrictions or responsibility – they’ll behave badly. Mob mentality.

    I wish there was any sort of solution other than people individually trying to be better behaved, or pointing out that if people keep being jerks it’s going to affect the areas where we do need anonymous protection (like communities seeking help for abuse, struggles with sexuality, eating disorders or mental health issues).

    Over on Twitter, an artist I love (Dean Trippe) was talking about his own frustrations with anonymous commenters on his site Project Rooftop (where they redesign superhero costumes). It’s a fun site. Shouldn’t be filled with much wank, but the anonymous commenters are consistently the only nasty ones.

    We all like to think that on Anon we’re like Anonymous, on some sort of a mission. But for the most part… it just isn’t that.

  • I generally give more credence to people who are willing to put an “identity” with their comment, even if it’s a persona. It seems more like they’re trying to make a contribution to the conversation.