Anonymous, Anonymity, and Animosity; The Future Of The Interwebs And The Ways We Interact

Posted: September 18, 2011 in Culture, Technology
Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Whole Sort of General Mish Mash (WSOGMM) is the sum total of all the different ways that exists of looking at things, or more specifically, all the different probabilities that exist through which you could look at things.

The Whole Sort of General Mish Mash is a metaphor created to help people better understand a part of the complex concepts presented by the complicated web of probabilities and possibilities (parallel universes, one could say) presented by creation.

The Whole Sort of General Mish Mash, one could say, should be viewed as a plate of pie, or as a large tank of water. You could slice it and divide it up any way you’d like, and you’ll almost always find a way of looking at things somewhere in probability (a parallel universe) that somebody will find familiar.

-Douglas Adams*

The Internet is a really big, imaginary village.

Wait. Village is the wrong word. It’s a quaint little digital giant megatropolis. It started off as a village though, and that’s still how a whole lot of us perceive it.

And that’s a problem. Because Megatropolisses (megatropoli?) need different…I want to say rules, but really it’s just conventions, than villages do.

I want to get something out-of-the-way up front. I am, in general, a big believer in privacy and our rights to it. For example, the only reason that I’m not as famous as I should be, is that I don’t want to expose myself or my family to the prying metaphorical eyes of you lot. (heh) I believe that we should all be afforded as much protection from outside examination as is possible; no one should be allowed to peek in our windows.

But that’s when we stay indoors. When we’re out in public it’s another story altogether. People will look, and we have to be prepared to accept that. The alternative is to never go outside.

Much ado has been made of Randi Zuckerberg’s comment that:

“I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away. People behave a lot better when they have their real names down. … I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.”

Google has come under a tremendous amount of fire for their real names policy on Google+. Bloggers and commentators from all over have decried the policy as the ultimate in draconian behavior; how dare they take away my right to call myself GargleplatzTheCheneyHater42?!!!

Well, I’m here to tell you that they’re both right. And you’re wrong. Nyah.

There has been a whole lot of antisocial behavior on the web lately. Anonymous, that organization that isn’t an organization, has made it their mission that isn’t a mission to use the Internet to do…pretty much whatever they want, so long as it pisses off perceived authority figures and their media lackeys. Anonymous has spawned imitators (like Lulzsec) and a  proselytising fandom that would make Joss Whedon (all hail Joss!) jealous.

And, I’m not going to sugarcoat this, I kind of like them.

Kind of.

This wave of nouveau anarchy appeals to the angry fifteen-year-old in me. The Julian who watched Hackers and Gone in 60 Seconds and thrilled to idea of taking those first steps into heroic irresponsibility, frikkin’ loves the idea of this movement. But I’m not fifteen, and I don’t have the luxury of idealism anymore and so I look at this from a vantage point  that’s a bit more removed than that of the indignant tech community who feel like someone’s trying to kick them out of their sandbox.

There is a difference between anonymously using the web, and anonymously living in it. You can have the first; you cannot, for the good of everyone, have the second anymore.

I remember when the Internet really started picking up use in the public sphere. Message boards, text-based gaming and lots and lots of .gifs. Contrary to what the brilliantly demented writers of Hackers would have us believe, it would have been very difficult to do any significant damage using your computer and a 56k connection back then, mostly because almost no one you would want to do damage was connected to the web yet.

So you got to run around and mouth off about celebrities you didn’t like and nobody knew who you were and it was awesome. But really, at that point, you were just on the Internet; you didn’t live there yet.


Whole economies exist online. People spend more time interacting with one another on Facebook than they do in person. I’m writing this using an online word processor and a copy of it will never touch my hard drive. I consume news content from hundreds of different sources, comment on it, share it and collect it for future reference, using online services that have a better memory than I do. I do all my work online, I consume media there, and I plan my weekends using shared Google and Facebook calendars.

In short, there is a me that exists in the real world but, increasingly, that me is becoming a life support system for a version of me that lives online. I’m not saying that’s all the real me is; I play with my kids in the real world, snuggle with my wife, drink beer and diet, think about jogging there; but a big part of my intellectual life is spent online.


If the Internet is increasingly becoming less and less virtual and more and more practical, some conventions of human behavior are going to have to start carrying across. The idea that I should trust you; what you say, what you think, what you share, the value of your opinions etc,  when you hide behind a handle is patently absurd.

Think of this in terms of your “real” life. Imagine someone calls you up on your home phone. This person sounds fairly reasonable, and they give you what they claim is a fantastic stock tip. But they refuse to tell you their name, how they came across you and your phone number, the background of the tip they’ve given you, and they’ve called from a blocked number.

How likely are you to take that person’s advice and liquidate your assets to make that investment?

Oh? You’re going to hold on to your cash for just a little bit longer?

Why should it be any different online?

I get and support the notion that where you browse and what you consume online is no one’s business but yours. I will defend to the death your right to look at midget/horse/snuff(fake) porn without anyone ever knowing about it. But once you start interacting online? Once you start speaking to people and giving opinions and, say, hacking the firewalls of multinational corporations? Yeah, at that point I want to know who you are.

Browsing is you being inside your home; using social tools and comment boards is you going to the mall. You don’t have the same right, nor should you have the same expectation of.  privacy at the mall that you do in your living-room.

Yes, the Internet is open. And yes,  unless and until that changes, you’re entitled to and likely will do whatever the hell you want. I’m not advocating for that to change. Part of the beauty of online living is that you can do whatever you want.


Technically, you can do whatever you want in the real world too. We govern ourselves and pass laws in the real world to prevent the wants of the individual from negatively impacting the group; shouldn’t the same standard of behavior exist online? Shouldn’t we voluntarily differentiate between private activities and public activities on the digital plane, with appropriate and binding social conventions for each?

Do we really want anarchy? Is it ever as productive as honest collaboration and mutual respect?

I’ve been riding the web without a handle that means anything for years now.  My name, workplace and city of residence have been fully accessible to pretty much everyone since I first started engaging in social networks, back in 2007.

You know how that’s impacted my life?

I think before I speak. I never write anything that I’m not comfortable being called out for later. I’m unlikely to be unnecessarily callous or intellectually dishonest. I behave online the way I behave in the real world; carefully and with concern for the feelings  of others. My opinions are given context by a consistent online profile that transcends individual services to give an honest description of who I am.

Why do so many people have a problem with being asked to do the same?

There are cases to be made for the other side of the argument. Revolutionaries can’t thrive in a completely exposed environment. The loss of gender masking affects the way certain views are shared and digested. Who’s business is it anyway? And, because those arguments are good, I’m not advocating for the rules to change.

But I am suggesting that we shouldn’t need rules to tell us how to behave. And since, online at least, we seem to need some sort of externally applied incentive to play nice, perhaps it’s time to force a bit of transparency into the equation. If you’re that scared of people knowing who you really are, maybe we need to. Maybe you shouldn’t be given a total licence to be a jackass.

If you don’t want to be on Google+ because you have to use your real name, don’t be on Google+. If you won’t comment on website comment boards because they ask you to login with your Facebook account and you don’t want your friends to know what you actually think, don’t comment. If you can’t be mindful of other people, please don’t interact with other people. If anonymity is that important to you, stay home.

There’s a lot of us living in this neighborhood now, and we’d like to know who our neighbors are. You don’t get to just draw your blinds and shoot at us from the shadows.

I could be wrong though. Let me know.

*I thought that passage was going to have a whole lot more relevance than it did. But I like it, so I’m leaving it there. You’re welcome.

  1. Marketplace of Ideas says:

    If I make an anonymous call you with investment advice, the reason you will not take it is, broadly, that I did not succeed in convincing you of the value of the advice. …*not* specifically because you do not know my name.

    I *could* back it up by giving my name and therefore a kind of assurance staked on my reputation (and your assumption that I would not do anything that would cause you to come after me).

    …but I could just as well give you compelling evidence of the value of the advice. In fact, since people can be wrong about things, that is actually a better standard for judgement.

    More to the point, though, if I post anonymously online, I am not *expecting* to distribute investment advice and have it automatically followed.

    All I am ever seeking is for people to consider the ideas I present *on their own merit*.

    To me, the fundamental beauty of the internet is that it allows ideas to be considered without the readers’ minds being clouded by thoughts about the background of the person presenting them. People are very poor at ignoring such entanglements, so the best case is that they not be available to distract at all.

    • The Walrus says:

      Unfortunately, we don’t live in an idealized world where people treat each other with respect and dignity as a rule. Since the vast majority of anonymous commentary that I’ve ever seen is borderline hate speech (see, for example, the commentary on my C-11 article at the top of this site.) I can’t support the argument that anonymity makes for more enlightened discourse.

      • Marketplace of Ideas says:

        You are right about it not *ensuring* enlightened discourse, but it certainly enables it.

        Consider a person presenting an idea you don’t initially like. The degree to which you will carefully consider that idea is dependent on many, many irrelevant factors such as how much you know that person, if so, how much you have agreed with him or her in the past, but also the many stereotypes and expectations we all hold (and that are not obvious to us).

        The internet is the only large forum that allows us to break free of that, and that capability should not be sacrificed for the sake of avoiding being offended.

        It may be a fine goal to set up discussion areas specifically for especially sensitive people, but it would not be a good idea to force that model on everyone. I will take the bad with the good any day.

        Also, having *persistent* pseudonyms and comment rating systems would seem to accomplish most of what you are looking for. The only extra thing linking a person’s real name to his or her account does is open that person up to real-world retribution instead of only virtual types like having ones account deleted or banned. Note that having one’s account banned is quite a punishment for anyone whose comments are actually being read in the first place due to (up until that point) scoring well in the comment rating system.

        For retribution for online activity to extend to the real world is not a good idea in general. For theft etc., sure, but not for comments.

        Finally, you did mention the plight of people who are not as free as others to publish everything about themselves, but I feel like you have not considered it enough. If Google+ ends up being *the* place to be—*the* place to meet up online, to discuss anything, etc—then are you really comfortable excluding all people for whom open comments could mean:
        – persecution by their governments
        – persecution by other groups (their religions, their ex-religions, or other religions come to mind)
        – persecution by individuals who disagree with their positions (or even simply their existence)
        – unjust firing or limitation of advancement or opportunities at work
        – family conflict

  2. Megalopolis rather than megatropolis [ ]
    Metro- in metropolis means mother [ ]
    while megalo-/megalos means great or large [,_Greece & Oxford Dictionary of English]
    The (preferable) plural of polis is poleis, not polises [ & Oxford Dictionary of English]
    The latter have been used by some mediocre writers, though [ ]

    BTW, this is a fake identity, I wouldn’t have felt free to correct your words using my real name. Most people have the tendency to take any kind of critic as a personal attack.

    As for the topic of this post, I also believe that the use real identities can bring some benefits in certain places.

  3. Although I have been connected to the internet for very few years, I have seen many of the people whose ideas i related well to ‘come out’ and disclose their real names on their blogs. This has meant a lot to me. I know their names could be false, but this seems likely to be very rare in practice. Perhaps it’s a good idea to have a forum for the inadequates who cannot relate to real people with real ideas, without showing the anger within them. Personally speaking, if laws were passed to restrict net communication except between legal and traceable identities, i would be delighted and feel not the slightest restriction on any ‘freedom’ i place a value in. How nice it is to be old!

    • The Walrus says:

      Heh. Thank you, sir, for summing up in one paragraph what it took me 1700 words to write. And yes, I might not be quite as accelerated as you in the age department (:D) but I do think that age and maturity may have something to do with not minding so much when people ask for a formal introduction.

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