With dreary regularity, we hear news reports of outrage and shock over anonymous people on the Internet doing something we object to as a society. Recently, the big flap was over anonymous commenters on YouTube spewing racist screeds over a Cheerios commercial featuring a mixed-race family.
It will come as a shock to no one who regularly visits YouTube that the comments section is and has always been a cesspool. A cesspool, by the way, not at all unlike the comment sections of most media websites. Regardless of this, when it happens to a cereal box, we apparently need to comment on it in mainstream media.
The reaction of many has been to take out their frustrations on anonymous commenters. As the theory goes, the anonymous would not be free to spit out vitriol if their names were attached to their online identities. Never minding, of course, that Mohammed Hussein of Iraq is as anonymous to Tom Belknap of Rochester, NY as is FuzzyBunnyFeet2012. Really: what is in a name in a community of millions of online users stretched over an entire globe?
But before we consider “real names” to be a foregone solution to the problem, let’s first consider the benefits of anonymity online. Here are five perfectly good, legitimate reasons to keep your identity a secret online.
5. Don’t waterboard me, bro!
So. You’ve got questions about terrorism. Whom shall you ask?
While many of us have bland English names and white skin, for the majority of the planet, asking these questions with our names public and avatars personalized might raise suspicions on the Internet that we’d rather not colour the responses.
Yes, you’ll get hateful and predictable accusations. But even well-meaning people may temper their answers to avoid offending a culture you might not even belong to.
I honestly might never have thought of this one had I not searched Quora for questions about anonymity. One of the first questions came up was exactly this. “Is it normal to want to ask questions about terrorism anonymously?”
4. Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful
In line with the next most obvious biases you might want to avoid in cyberspace, gender and sexuality biases are always a concern. You might either wish not to let the general public know your sex or sexuality, or you just don’t want your name attached to a question.
I mean sure: you’re proud of your duck-face avatar with the cleavage hanging out. But that doesn’t mean you need to show off all the time, right?
3. Social agreement
Depending on the circumstances and your point of view, this can be both a positive and a negative of social anonymity. A study done at the University of Amsterdam and published to the Sage Journals shows that anonymous groups take on the agreed upon traits of the group much more readily than groups of named individuals.
It’s all a part of what is known as the Social Identity of Deindividualized Effects (SIDE). The study found that when groups were anonymous, users conformed to the agreed-upon behavior, even if they were introduced into the system much later.
The result is a double-edged sword: on one hand, groups formed around civil discussion are likely to remain that way. Medical help sites tend to be this way. But comment sections like YouTube can get nasty if the agreed-upon behavior is generally nasty. Nevertheless the potential for more productive collaboration – like that in Open Source community projects like WordPress or others – does not just exist: it is well-documented.
2. Your creative selves
The old-school Internet users know, even if our modern community tends to forget: you can be whatever you’d like to be on the Internet. Does that seem fake? Artificial? Vain?
Of course! And nobody needs to know but you. Go ahead and create an account, play a role. Creativity with identity isn’t a bad thing, in fact, it was super-popular in the Renaissance. Of course, so was medical blood-letting. It’s not a perfect example…
1. The Internet is forever.
Regardless of which of these reasons you might chose to keep your identity private, one thing I’m sure we must all know by now is: the Internet is forever. Whatever question you ask or opinion you share, there it is, more or less forever.
It’s worth stopping a moment when you chose to express yourself and wonder whether this is really a thought you’ll be OK with surfacing twenty or thirty years in the future, because the potential is there. God help me if the unfettered praise of my 12-yo self for Rick Springfield were still on the Internet. I’d never get a job.
So, before we get to cavalier in our desire to remove the trolls from our midst, remember that you sometimes have to defend what is wrong in order to defend what is right.