Anonymity has its place. In oppressive regimes, it protects those who speak out against the government. Anonymous critics, at their best, can inspire necessary change without fear of unjust reprisal. Unfortunately, at its worst, anonymity can lead to brutal personal attacks that can ruin a person’s sense of worth and safety. This is the case with cyberbullying; cyberbullies rely on the easy anonymity of the Internet to attack their victims. Setting rules for anonymity on the web to protect both whistleblowers and the victims of baseless anonymous attacks is difficult but worth while, and I am glad to see it getting so much attention with the recent focus on cyberbullying by the news media.
Identity on the web is not all it may seem; on many sites, one can comment without leaving any record of one’s identity, and even when one does need to leave a record, it is often under an assumed name that can be created and abandoned easily. Thus, as pointed out in the Washington Post earlier this week, requiring user names and logins does not aid transparency; I am just as anonymous as “happyguy102” as I am without any handle at all. To truly increase transparency, the Post suggests that web users on all forums be required to use their real names, and back their user names with phone numbers (which would be used for verification purposes).
Although this is a solution, I do not agree with the Post that requiring people to post their real names with their comments will alleviate the problem; as a person with a relatively common name, I feel roughly as traceable as “Matt Bowen” as I do as “happyguy102.” Furthermore, verifying that a person is really entitled to use the user name that he or she has entered is difficult and costly. Instead, I’d suggest that we give people an incentive to create a single identity online that he or she is invested in — similar to the way we all have legal first names and last names (that we could change, if only at some bother and expense).
To help frame the rest of this discussion, I’d like to work from an example. I read slashdot.org. I know that the “news” there is often misleading, old, or just plain wrong. But, this site keeps me broadly apprised of what’s going on in technology and helps me stay abreast Internet security threats. The news, though, isn’t really what’s valuable about slashdot. It’s the community; it’s in the forums when you find out that an article is actually a hoax or extremely old and where you see lots of related information about topics that might interest you.
For the slashdot community to function, it can’t be dominated by tricksters and bullies. The creators and managers of slashdot know this, so they’ve created a system where comments are rated by the community, and poor comments (mean or inaccurate ones) are hidden from most viewers. If you comment well (and you’re a registered user), you accumulate good “karma,” which means your later comments are more likely to be seen by everyone. If you decide to make a comment without logging in to the system, you forego the chance to accumulate karma, and your comment is unlikely to be viewed by readers. Your comment also goes up under the nom-de-plume “Anonymous Coward.”
Slashdot has made having a consistent identity on their site valuable. Many others sites that depend on their communities have done same — on eBay, sellers and buyers get rated on every transaction, and a high rating translates into higher prices for sellers. The same is true of Amazon.com’s community sellers, and even their raters. Where identity is vital, individual sites are discovering ways to create persistent online identities. There is now a movement to make identity consistent across websites. To me, this is the next crucial step — the biggest difference between online identity and physical identity is that, in the real world, your identity is tied to your body, and your body is basically the same from place to place. For people who worry about anonymous posts on their sites (and want to prevent them), we will need identities that carry from one site to another and that develop histories and reputations, so that a person can’t simply pick a new nickname and effectively post anonymously. Whether this is truly desirable is a question better left for your comments.