A recent discussion on the Ubuntu Forums (the link will work only if you are logged in) has got me thinking about the role of anonymity in online discussions. Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing?
Well, the answer, of course, is that it’s both good and bad. And I think I would rather take the cons of anonymity for the sake of privacy than take the pros of full disclosure for the sake of civility.
Basically, the idea is that if (on discussion forums, for example) people gave their actual names, genders, pictures, geographic locations, and other personal details, then online discussions would be more civil and online communities would be better bonded. I think to a certain extent that would be true. If you’re Gertrude Chang from Cherry Hill, NJ with a picture to match, you’re far more likely to post something civil in response to a post you disagree with than if you’re lozahsux3583 with an Elvis Presley avatar. There are few people who would say Keep complaining. I’m sure the internet will listen to me in person, but someone felt it was perfectly okay to post that as an anonymous comment on my blog.
Of course, increasing likelihood is all you can do. After all, some people, even in person can be rude to you, no matter if they know what you look like, no matter how many personal details they know about you or how many personal details you know about them. Also, as anyone who has seen the post-it episode of Sex and the City knows, it’s far easier for someone to write something nasty to you than to say it to your face, so even if people have to disclose personal details, they may still feel freer to let loose their meanie inhibitions if they can type to you instead of talk to you in person.
This all is also on the assumption that you can force people to be honest about who they are. After all, I could say I’m Gertrude Chang from Cherry Hill, NJ and actually be Gemma Maguire from New Castle or Sanjay Gupta from Queensland. I could also post up a photo of my niece instead of posting up a photo of myself. There really isn’t a lot of gained trust you get from forcing people to reveal personal details.
And then there’s the issue of privacy. With identity theft rampant and many online discussions being open ones (Google searchable, browseable by anyone or any bot), there is a real danger in saying who you are and in giving out too many personal details.
In the end, I have found that ultimately anonymity isn’t such a terrible thing. Sometimes it brings out the worst in people, and they’d say things they wouldn’t ordinarily say in real life. Other times, it brings out the best in people and allows people the freedom to speak their minds thoughtfully about things they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to talk about in real life (for fear of losing their jobs or offending family members, etc.). I’ve recently been reading Yao Ming’s autobiography, and he said he likes to hang out on the internet to see what people are saying about him, because he knows the anonymous folks on the internet are likelier to be honest about whether he’s doing a good job or not.
At least on the Ubuntu Forums and on my blog, I’ve found most discussions and comments to be quite civil, despite the relative anonymity people are afforded. The exceptions are a few spambots and trolls that are quickly taken care of.