Late yesterday evening, Danny posted this comment: “But also, online harassment has been a huge topic of discussion right here in domestic America over the past few years, and indeed, I think of 'those who need more information on a given topic but don't want to be caught seeking out that information', and it occurs to me that most people actually fall into this group without realizing it. How would you feel if every single question of yours was tied to your real-life identity? Online anonymity isn't just for those who are up to no good. Or maybe put it as a question, do I *believe*, that the internet should not be anonymous? I think it's a very interesting topic to debate.”
It is indeed an interesting topic so let me talk about it for a bit. First of all, let us remember that for the overwhelming preponderance of the 200,000 years or so that human beings have existed, communication has been almost entirely face-to-face. To be sure, once writing was invented and became commonplace, it was possible to send anonymous communications – clay tablets without an identifying mark, papyrus unsigned, or after a while books published pseudonymously. And then there are ransom notes, death threats, shy love letters, that sort of thing. But that is not what we are talking about here. It is the technology of digital communication, the Internet and the cloud, that raises the question in interesting ways.
Let us distinguish between asking a question or seeking information anonymously and making a positive or negative comment anonymously. The first, it seems to me, is entirely acceptable, but the second in my judgment is not, save in very special circumstances. Now mind, I do not have to put myself out there in a blog. It is my choice to do so because I am eager to communicate with people who might be interested in my opinions. If I cannot stand having somebody snark at me, I can just stop blogging. If I dislike disagreement, that is my problem, not the problem of the people who disagree with me. Nevertheless, I feel a certain disdain for folks who want to hide their identity while taking pot shots at those who express opinions and put their names on them.
I do not think I have made an anonymous comment in my life, at least not on purpose. Even when I have been asked to serve as a reader of a manuscript for a journal or book publisher, I have insisted that my name be revealed so that the author knows who is making the comments, especially when they are negative. Now, to be sure, I received a tenured professorship when I was 30 so for the last 57 years my income has been assured, but I started expressing my negative opinions about powerful people when I was 17 and it never occurred to me to conceal my identity for fear that I would suffer retribution. Indeed, even after I had tenure, I lost professorships three times because of my expressed political opinions. Nevertheless, in this world I am one of the privileged and I am well aware that I have been unusually protected from retaliation in my expression of unpopular opinions. If a reader of my blog were to write to me privately and explain why he or she was unwilling to risk coming out from behind the veil of anonymity on this blog, I would of course be understanding and accepting. But that is not the sort of thing we are talking about here.
One of the things that I find particularly striking is that digital communication, which feels anonymous, is in fact no more privae that broadcasting one’s opinions with a shortwave radio. To an extraordinary extent, the anonymity is a delusion.
Well, those are my first thoughts on the subject. I would be interested in what all you have to say.