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Sunday, June 6, 2021


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. 


jeffrey g kessen said...

"I would be interested in what you all have to say". A bit of agreeable snark there in that line. I entirely approve.

s. wallerstein said...

Internet is the ring of Gyges. You can say whatever you always secretly wanted to say, but were afraid to say because someone might slap your face or fire you from your job or exclude you socially.

My take is that we accept internet for what it is, the ring of Gyges, and
let people comment as Anonymous, Donald Duck, Paul of Tarsus, Uncle Joe Stalin or whomever they please.

I don't see the problem. Let people enjoy the freedom of commenting without revealing their name. Maybe to avoid confusion, people, if they comment as anonymous, should add an x or xx or xxx, etc.

David Palmeter said...

I don’t mind anonymous comments as such. I mind the confusion they cause. I can’t keep track of who is who once they get started, so I tend to skip reading them. If I see that a post is by s. wallerstein or LFC, among others, I always read it. For all I know, the person who calls himself s. wallerstein and claims to live in Chile may well be Joe Doaks from Des Moines. It doesn’t matter so long as it’s the same person posting. So my request to anonymous posters is to get a pen name and use it consistently on this blog.

PS to s. wallerstein: which ring of Gyges? Herodotus' or Plato's?

s. wallerstein said...


What does Herodotus say? I've never read him.

Another Anonymous said...

Prof. Wolff,

What you have written actually runs counter to a literary thread which runs through several folklore plots. According to these folklore tales, concealing one’s identity is not associated with cowardice, but rather with heroism and acts of courage and benevolence. I am referring to the characters of Zorro (based on an actual Latino bandit), the Lone Ranger and Batman. Their anonymity facilitates their ability to perform their acts of heroism and benevolence, by preventing retaliation against their actual persona and family members.

A variation on this theme also appears in folklore via a cloak of invisibility, which allows its wearer to avoid his enemies or obtain helpful information without being observed, the former in the form of a helmet, Tarnhelm, worn by Siegfried in Der Ring des Nibelungen, the latter used by Harry Potter.

Does this plot device translate to comments on a blog with equivalent justification? Perhaps. I submit that it depends on the commenter and his/her motives, which may be discerned by the content of the comment.

Jerry Brown said...

LOL! Maybe you should just comment as Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne :)

Another Anonymous said...


Superman never wore a mask. Anyone with 20/20 vision could have seen he was Clark Kent without the glasses. I don't recall - how long did it take Lois Lane to figure out who he was. Did one have to first kiss Superman to figure it out?

David Palmeter said...

s. wallerstein

There’s no magic ring involved in Herodotus. The king, Kandaules, believes his wife is the most beautiful woman in the world, and he insists that Gyges see her naked so that he will agree. Gyges wants no part of this scheme and insists that he doesn’t need to see her naked to believe she is the most beautiful woman in the world. But Kanduales insists and concocts a scheme by which Gyges can see her as she undresses. However, as she was undressing she caught a glimpse of Gyges looking at her. The next day she told Gyges that only the king should see the queen naked. Therefore, Gyges had a choice, he could either be put to death or kill the king, marry her, and become king himself. It didn’t take Gyges long to decide on the second alternative.

Jerry Brown said...

Well it isn't my fault that all the people at the Daily Planet were oblivious- I didn't write the show- probably some anonymous guy wrote it under a pseudonym.

Another Anonymous said...


Gyges obviously did not know logic. Even if he killed Kandaules and became king himself, there still would have been two kings, not one, who had seen the queen naked. To be logically correct, Gyges would have to choose death, preventing himself from becoming king, so that there would still be only one king who had seen the queen naked. Why choose life over logic?

Another Anonymous said...


On second thought, does the queen’s riddle turn on her use of the definite article “the” and the use of the present tense in “see”? Is this sort of the point that Bill Clinton was making at his deposition when he said, “It depends on what the meaning of “is” is.” I maintain that with that answer he was not committing perjury, and you cannot be impeached for being a smart aleck. History now shows, however, that you can be impeached twice for obstructing justice, but you cannot be convicted, as long as your party is full of a bunch of idiots who control the Senate.

s. wallerstein said...

David Palmeter,

Thanks for the explanation.

DJL said...

I think the main point of posting anonymously or pseudonymously on the internet is to not have a public persona, as it were, regardless of any potential consequences. This post focuses on negative consequences or retributions, but I think that is by-the-by; for me at least, it is not about any consequences a comment might elicit, real or imagined, but about not being 'out there', at least not explicitly.

I must add that I am a bit mystified by this insistence on knowing authorship, surely what matters in most cases is the content of a comment and not who wrote them. I have submitted many papers to journals and have received a fair number of both positive and negative comments, and not once have I cared to know who had written them.

(I'm putting to one side the case of people who comment anonymously in order to be offensive/abusive, but I doubt this is very prevalent, the experience in this blog notwithstanding; there's plenty of abuse on Twitter, for instance, and most of it is actually not anonymous at all).

aaall said...

The problem with appending something to "anonymous" is that one still has to type out "anonymous +" instead of just checking the box, so why not just use a name, initials, or pseudonym which is less confusing when trying to follow comments? Even in a face to face encounter one can rarely know that the name used is the one on the birth certificate.

Sal said...

The main social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, reddit, YouTube, pornhub etc need to make the metadata they collect to form your "online identity" easily accessible. Also these sites need to make the information about who they sell your data to and what it is used for easily accessible if they care about having honest discourse on their site.

Michael Llenos said...

D.P. & S.W,
I believe it was a coincidence that I read that same story in Herodotus' Book 1 (of the Histories) by Robin Waterfield yesterday afternoon. Now I won't condemn and say Candaules was crazy. People say and do stupid things all of the time: especially including myself--and I believe in some karma in general. But the Histories of Herodotus are filled with such little myths and tales (which I believe) make that Greek book fun reading & not just a book of historical facts that are good to know concerning the Ancient World.

David Palmeter said...

Michael Llenos

Herodotus indeed is a joy to read. I just finished the Landmark translation last Fall. History has been my major reading interest for the past couple of years, and I’m hoping to read most of the “great” ones. A number of years ago I ran across the Modern Library 3-volume edition of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I took advantage of the pandemic and read it at last. The later volumes can get a little tedious as he goes through one Eastern emperor after another for a thousand years, but he gets off many enjoyable lines. One of my favorites, perhaps relevant to this blog:

“The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.”

Michael Llenos said...

I'm a slow reader so it takes me a long time to read something. If you have read Livy's works and then you read Niccolo Machiavelli's Discourses it does seem that the Discourses summarizes and explains the political and military lessons (& major events) Livy describes in a better way than anyone else could--it may even make you think that you don't really need to read Livy if you have possession of the Discourses. I've read some of Gibbon's Decline but only some paragraphs, snippets really. The most interesting story I can recall is when Attila passively stayed in Athens & didn't sack the city because (Gibbon may have assumed) of its patron goddess & her watchful eye. I guess Attila realized that you don't mess with Sophia herself (i.e. Wisdom) or any of her property!

Ridiculousicculus said...

It's worth noting that anonymity, screen handles, and "characters" have been a feature of the internet practically since it's inception - think old usenet boards, IRC chatrooms, and multi-user dungeons ("MUDs").

When "the internet" and internet culture hit critical mass in the mid '90's, the ability to communicate with anyone around the world anonymously or under the guise of a handle was thought to be one of the most liberating and emancipating features of the web - finally, human beings were able to shed the personas that had traditionally defined them and become the person they always wanted to be, in communities that they created online and could never replicate IRL ("in real life").

Although Facebook and other platforms have placed restrictions on anonymity over time (for the reasons Sal identifies, among others) there remains a large contingent of old-guard internet users who still romanticize the "wild west" of the early anonymous internet. That's not to say that Professor Wolff shouldn't moderate the comment section of the blog in the manner he chooses - but it is to say that there are people out there who see value in anonymity on the internet in and of itself, for reasons other than the opportunity to troll at will.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Among the oldest human representations are cave paintings; does anyone know whether there is any indication that they were signed? I suspect not. The Sulawesi cave art, about 40,000 years old, with its hand images, may have been an early form of authorship assertion?

Michael Llenos said...

It seems I messed up and confused Alaric of the Goths with Attila the Hun. Alaric seems to have made a treaty with Athena's city in Chapter 30 of the 3rd Volume of the Decline and Fall.

Sonic said...

I believe this analysis is missing an important element that is hard to grasp from the perspective of someone sitting as the object of anonymous criticism. I am perfectly comfortable making my criticisms publicly. My criticism would be so pointed, obviously correct, profound... -and utterly ignored. It's a very deliberate decision on my part, then, to go on Twitter anonymously and say the most inane nonsense to people I want to criticize. It may not be accurate, but at least it wont be ignored, which is infinitely worse.

Anonymity covers for my bad behavior, sure, but it's not because my criticism is embarrassing. It's my need for a response.

DDA said...

As the very old pre-meme meme had it: On the internet nobody knows you're a dog.

David Zimmerman said...

It's spreading......

Please stop "Caillo Lisa."

There obviously is a Platonic Form of "Troll."

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