Anonymity online is usually depicted as a universally bad thing – anonymous forums and comment threads are the home of trolls, racists and generally bad people whose ability to hide their identity simply makes them more vitriolic, more violent, more awful. Attempts have been made to force online interaction to attach real life names to online identities, in part to try and curb abuse and trolling. While there were other salient issues with Google+, one of its policy planks was that only real life meat space names could have profiles. No usernames, no fake names. Facebook recently tried to enforce a policy that held performers and other fan page creates to using their official names.
I submit that being anonymous online, that hiding behind a username and the ability to create identities that Internet users can’t automatically tie back to your meat space identity has been a force for good in the relatively fledgling world that is the internet. Anonymity and the possibility of at least not being discovered at a glance has made the Internet a better place than it would have been if anonymity had not been an option. It has created a safe space for minorities and the oppressed the world over, a place where dissidents could blog, isolated LGBTQA teenagers could find other people like them and battle the loneliness the difference so often engenders, communities sprung up around everything and anything, offering a new source of friendship and support to every person with an Internet connection. All of these communities thrive in the safety of anonymity and online spaces that permit anonymity are important refuges from the storm of the world for many, whether they be minorities searching for a place where they can escape persecution at least for a little while or simply someone looking for a place to explore their identity.
But is the price of online anonymity too high? Is letting trolls and terrible people do awful things to people with their names obscured, or letting children be bullied by multiple anonymous accounts an acceptable hit to take in the name of letting some people feel a little safer? This is the question often asked of those in favour of maintaining online anonymity. It’s probably the wrong question. No one is suggesting that the threats of violence and abuse are acceptable or that trolls and assholes be allowed to do whatever they want. But the internet didn’t create these people and it doesn’t follow to blame the internet for causing these actions to happen. Neither does it follow that non-anonymous spaces are safer or less the abode of trolls. Recent cases in which individuals were arrested for Twitter threats show that many people are perfectly willing to attach their real name to terrible things. If you’re of a strong disposition, read the @replies of any prominent women in pop culture and watch as apparently hundreds of normal people, using their real names, threaten violence and retribution for the most minor of grievances.
As sickening as troll behaviour can be, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of people who use the Internet and avail themselves of the opportunity of anonymity as decent people who have little interest in abusing others. They have a username that hides their identity because they have legitimate reasons for it. Perhaps they are afraid of the potential social sanction that could result of their actions. The serious example of this are LGBTQA children in conservative areas for whom the Internet is one of the few places they can communicate with other young people going through the same suffering and who, if discovered by their peers or families, would face social exclusion or bullying. Less serious but still a legitimate reason for obscuring your identity is just simple embarrassment. Maybe you just really want to read some Harry Potter erotica (I don’t know your tastes) and don’t particularly want a potential future employer to be able to google your name and find that. Maybe you want to ask some stupid sex questions on yahoo answers and not get made fun of it, or if you do get made fun of it, it at least to not get back to your meat spaces friends and family. There are legitimate reasons for obscuring your identity online and the actions of a few assholes shouldn’t remove that ability from the rest of us.
[Bethany Garry – @brgbethany]