Five good reasons to stay (legitimately) anonymous on the Internet

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.


U of R study weighs the costs of being in the “in crowd.”

We all put up with it in high school. And even if we don’t like to admit it and the game is slightly less obvious, many of us have experienced the peer pressure to exclude people from our social circles. If you felt bad about that, but did it anyway, you’re not alone.

And new research from the University of Rochester shows that going along with the group in these cases really does have a negative impact on you. Much beyond the hurt inflicted on the one ostracized from the group, the group itself pays a price:

Consistent with earlier research on ostracism, the study found that being shunned, even by faceless strangers in a computer game, was upsetting and lowered participant’s mood. “Although there are no visible scars, ostracism has been shown to activate the same neural pathways as physical pain,” says Ryan. But complying with instructions to exclude others was equally disheartening, the data shows, albeit for different reasons. This study suggests that the psychological costs of rejecting others is linked primarily to the thwarting of autonomy and relatedness.

So, based on their research, this social ostracism pain is two-pronged. The first is the natural impulse of human animals to be connected to one another, and the second is the lack of autonomy that happens when we bend our will to meet social demands.

This research has important implications for a variety of social situations, but in particular, it bears on bullying. Because a bully never bullies in private. They never bully just the victim. As many of us have experienced in our past, this study now proves: the bully also beats on his “friends” who join in or do nothing.

Politics Technology

Is Maggie Brooks’ cyberbullying bill just shallow politics?

Whilst working on another post about cyberbullying, I’ve had time, thanks to good friends in conventional media, to review the actual bill the Monroe County Legislature just passed on the issue. Near the bottom, I find this curious passage:

382-8 Reverse Preemption

This law shall be null and void on the day that statewide or federal legislation goes into effect, incorporating either the same or substantially similar provisions as are contained in this local law or in the event that a pertinent state or federal administrative ….

So in English, this basically means that the whole law gets thrown out the minute another, similar law at the “statewide or federal” level goes into effect. But this bill was signed into law one day after a state law was passed, and a mere six months before it goes into effect. The bill was initially introduced to the Monroe County Legislature on March 20th. So what is the need for this law that garnered so much press?

Even had there been more time for the law to go into effect, it is difficult to imagine how Monroe County could possibly enforce such a law. There is nothing in the bill itself to indicate any additional powers or responsibilities on the part of law enforcement, the County or any other body. It merely says that violation of the letter of the law will be punishable by up to a year in jail. By whom? How do they intend to apprehend an attacker?

A basically unenforceable law with a six month shelf life. Hard to see what benefit there is for anybody not running for US Representative in NY25.

I attempted to contact Legislator Barker for comment, but he was not available. I’m waiting to hear back from him.