Friday, August 21, 2009

Who Are You? Anonymity on the Internet

So, how anonymous are you on the Internet?

I'll admit my level of anonymity depends on the portal -- and my lack of consistency in deciding how private I choose to be.

This blog, for example. My name doesn't appear here. But my photo does. And I talk enough about my family that it's pretty easy to pick me out of a crowd. On Facebook, there are no pretenses of anonymity. My name and photo are there, so everyone knows who I am.

And I'm fine with that. That I'm not anonymous on the Internet doesn't bother me. I don't avoid expressing my opinion, but at the same time I'm not opinionated on everything. I rarely blog or write about work, for example, because of the somewhat sensitive nature of the work I'm involved in. It's not exactly secret, but at the same time I'm also not the company spokesman. So I keep what I write about work to a minimum.

I've done some reading on the Internet this week about anonymity that makes me wonder why people think anonymity is such a wonderful thing. Lance Ulanoff, for example, writing at, declared this week that the time for Web anonymity is over. Ulanoff sees the distinct advantages of anonymity -- with the prevalence of identity theft, it's the wise person who keeps as many details as possible out of the public view. He points out, however, the darker side of Web anonymity:
But there are, as far as I'm concerned, too many people who use online anonymity as a license to say and do things they'd never do in the real world.
There's where anonymity crosses the ugly line from protection of self from illegal use of one's identity to the presupposition that anonymity offers us the opportunity to be rude, crass, loud, vulgar, insulting, demeaning and otherwise obnoxious without facing consequences because, hey, nobody know who we are. That's the dark side of anonymity, and, like Ulanoff, I think there's way too much of it. And he nails it on the head why:
It's less likely that people will feel comfortable hiding behind the moniker "fancyman34" as they post mean-spirited comments on blogs or on sites like YouTube and Digg. Have you ever read any of those comments? They can be incredibly cruel and profane. Imagine someone walking up to you on the street and talking to you that way, or a co-worker venting like that in the office. Public discourse doesn't work like this (though, sadly, I'm beginning to see some of it bleed over into everyday life—it isn't pretty).
That's what I object to -- people get away with being rude and vile in an anonymous situation and before you know it, they're doing it in public. I don't want to live in the kind of world that allows insult and invective to be the start and end of public discourse.

There's more. John D. Sutter writes at about bloggers and other Internet writers actually losing their jobs over what they write online. Sutter, however, misses one vital point: He doesn't really say why the focus individual in his story lost her job because of her writings. Nevertheless, this is one of the reasons I'm cautious about what I choose to write on the Internet. I took advantage, of course, of 2 1/2 years of masters classes to post some of the things I've written in those classes, to hopefully show potential employers that I can be a serious person. Of course, these postings are interspersed with things like my last post, the Sesame Street Martians. I offer them up as a balance. I am a human being, after all. Above all, on the occasions where I do write about work, I do so thinking that what I write online isn't anything I wouldn't tell a boss or co-worker, so there's no real surprises.

Especially the surprise of finding people read what I write. I won't end up like Sutter's star:

She doesn't like the idea of being in the public eye. She describes herself as shy and said part of the reason she wanted to remain anonymous was so she wouldn't draw attention to herself. She also feels like her larger-than-life persona has been somewhat deflated now that readers know who she is.

She doesn't want to draw attention to herself, yet she's got a very popular blog where she's milking her anonymous fame? Well, you can't have one without the other, even on the Internet.

I like the idea of people knowing who I am, for good and bad. If I write stomething stupid, people can and have called me on the carpet for it. I didn't go through ten years of journalism to carry on with my writing anonymously. If I write something good, I want credit for it. So there we are.

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