The Trouble with Anonymity

I had just spent all of my savings on a modem, and I had come straight home, installed it and dialed up one of the numbers on the back of the MicroCenter sale paper. I heard the soon to become familiar modem tones and I was connected. The screen filled with ASCII characters and it asked me to login in, or to register. I chose to register and had to answer a series of questions, the first of which was my name.

I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with the concept of being online. I had seen some movies and TV shows that had depicted connecting to these bulletin board services. And I had a couple friends who had gone into this world before me. This was an important moment. I was entering a world where I could be anyone I wanted to be. I simply had to decide.

I picked a name that day that I would use for nearly two decades. It wasn’t my name, nor was it the only one I would use, but it was the one I would use the longest. I finally abandoned it when I shrugged off the last vestiges of the life I created for it. The identity had been mostly dead for some time by then, and very unceremoniously I closed the last account I had for it.

In the early days, I fought very hard for that name. I kept it separate from myself in as many ways as I could, but it was still me, and much like if I found someone publishing things under my real name, I worked to defend it. It was MY identity.

And I wasn’t alone. Those days of the BBS and the early Internet were filled with people pretending to be someone else, but usually the same someone else most of the time. Sure, someone might create another persona for a specific thing – a MUD, or a fetish group, or piracy – but most people I knew maintained one main online identity.

Coming from that world, it confounds me when I run into things like *chan culture. The idea of a board with no identities, where everyone is anonymous, where every post is attached to no one, isn’t something I’ve ever wanted. I understand the idea, that ideas posted without the baggage of the person who posts it can allow the “best” ideas to bubble to the top. But I’ve rarely seen it work that way. Usually, unfettered by consequences, people are willing to say and support the shittiest ideas, the ones that hurt the most people. Some people might even be posting those ideas “for lulz” (for laughs), but quickly it becomes hard to tell if someone is joking or being serious, because you have no context.

Context matters.

Not too long ago, I was asked if a particular joke was “racist”. I won’t repeat the joke, because it is racist. However, the person who asked maintained that the joke itself couldn’t be racist, only if a racist person said it could it be taken that way. Simply telling the joke didn’t make the person racist. I agreed with the last part, but disagreed with the earlier bit. See, it was a Holocaust joke, and the joke itself, just the words, provided without context – without knowing who was telling it, and to what audience, and in what tone, and surrounded by what other words – the joke was simply about Nazis killing Jews, which was done for racist reasons, and thus the joke is racist. However, if I were standing outside a synagogue with a group of Jewish people, and one of them told that joke in the context of terrible jokes racists tell, I might laugh, because it’s a dumb racist joke being told to show how dumb and racist it is.

So on an Internet forum, one that doesn’t have full anonymity, I can see ForumDenizen287 post something that might be offensive. However, having read hundreds or thousands of other posts by ForumDenizen287 over the years, I know that they are not being serious. But over on a *chan site with full anonymity, the same post is without context. I cannot see the history of the poster, because everyone is anonymous. So a terrible offensive post defaults to being a serious terrible offensive post.

A member of those *chan sites might maintain “but we are ALWAYS joking!” And it might be true, for that person or even for many people. But if a forum is filled with hateful, racist posts, it will inevitably attract actual hateful, racist posters who aren’t joking. And you can’t tell them from anyone else, because all the posts are anonymous. You can’t see someone’s history and place posts in context.

To make things worse, the people who maintain that it isn’t serious become a shield for the ones who are serious. And ultimately, if you have a group of people, whose identities you cannot separate, some of whom are racists and some of whom are only pretending to be racists for comedic effect, it is safer for an outsider to treat them all as racists. Sure, you could just as easily treat them all as being people pretending to be racists for comedic effect, but then when one of the real racists is spurred to action, emboldened by all the support of his racist friends online, some of whom were only pretending to be racist but were encouraging him just the same, who is responsible? I can tell you from seeing it happen again and again that the people who think it’s just joking around will say that they can’t be responsible for “third party” individuals who do things on their own, and by the way you can’t prove they encouraged the guy anyway…

Ultimately, it makes me sad to see so many people fighting to shirk responsibility. Anonymity has it’s uses for sure. For whistle blowers, or other situations where truth needs to be told and the teller needs to be protected. And I’m sure there are other reasons. But I just can’t get behind anonymity protecting assholes being assholes for asshole reasons.

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