Thursday, May 19, 2011

We Can Be Both Transparent and Anonymous at the Same Time

There’s a big debate going on about transparency on the web. For those that don’t know, “transparency” basically translates into “using your real name for stuff online.” This is something very few of us did before Facebook, save for professional scholars and business people.

In fact, back in the days of ICQ, Friendster, and then Myspace, if someone used their real name, it was just their real first name. No one thought to sign up for a free email address that used their real name, so most of us ended up with something random, a hobby or nickname followed by numbers.

Then Facebook came along, and suddenly everyone was using their real first and last names. This appeared to be very useful for contacting or being contacted by old friends, and the results were astounding; suddenly Facebook became the place to “reconnect with friends.”

It first struck me as odd that people would suddenly become so transparent online. Years before ICQ I used IRC, or Internet Relay Chat (and I still do) where nicknames, at least on Efnet, are limited to nine characters—hardly enough room to use your real full name. In those times, if someone found out your real name, you lost. IRC was full of highly intelligent hackers who could then discover a multitude of information about you, harassing you in creative ways ranging from charging $350 conference calls to your phone line to signing you up for 20 Columbia House subscriptions.

Even before the Internet when the BBS was the computer’s only real social gathering place, no one used their real name. We all picked a handle, terrified of what might happen if a bunch of tech-savvy people we didn’t know knew our personal information.

Back then, we also didn’t share photos, music, or any other content besides text on a message board and crude text-based graphics, so there was no chance that someone would be able to find out what you looked like anyway. Those times are gone.

When I opened my Facebook account, I realized that those days of pure anonymity are gone. My instinct wanted me to use a nickname, but social integration convinced me to use my real first and last name together for the first time on the Internet. However, my offensive hacker days behind me, I decided to own up to everything I do. I leave all my privacy settings on Facebook wide open, because I have nothing to hide. But there’s another good reason to do this.

When your privacy settings are high, people can’t see your photos without requesting you as a friend; because I know people want to cyber-stalk me, and I’m perfectly okay with that, I’d rather not even have that little bit of interaction with certain people. If they want to see my photos, read my interests, and see where I live, it’s all out in the open, and I don’t ever have to know that they were snooping around my profile. My ultra-transparency allows them a little bit of anonymity.

Transparency vs. Anonymity

The current debate is over transparency vs. anonymity, as if the two are mutually exclusive. The idea is that you are in one camp or the other: Either you use your real name and own up to everything you do, or you value your privacy and use a nickname. I see these people on Facebook with names like “Real Spiritual Healing” and “Frito Blazed,” and I respect their right to do that. Facebook doesn’t like it, but if I truly know these people, then I don’t need to be constantly reminded of what their real name is. Besides, even if they value anonymity so highly, shouldn’t they be given the same right to interact with all the transparent accounts as well?

One of the main arguments for anonymity in 2011 is that it allows people to make comments they wouldn’t want to be linked to their name. Therefore, you can spew your controversial opinion without fear that a future employer or family member might find this quote attributed to you when googling your name. However, there are two solutions to this problem.

The first solution is one that you can’t choose; your parents decided it for you when you were born. I call it ultra-anonymity. The idea is that your name is so overwhelmingly common that nothing can possibly stick to you unless someone throws in other keywords like the school you went to and gets lucky. However, these people also suffer from this same concept when trying to rekindle old connections. Imagine you had a good friend in high school named Michael Baker—good luck finding him! I have a friend whose name was so common that he changed it to Henry Daggs to make himself more visible in the folk music scene.

The second solution is the term I referred to earlier: Ultra-transparency. If you produce a lot of content online, and very little of it is questionable, it’ll be nearly impossible for it to stick to your name. There will be so much other content that it’ll drown out the highly opinionated stuff. The unfortunate part is that people tend to isolate the one bad seed in a pile of thousands, and you’ll need to be prepared to own up to this. If you can point to all your other content as an example of how you’re just an average joe, then you should be safe to declare your honest opinion. The exception, of course, is in the case of highly controversial and offensive opinions, like extreme racism or misogyny.

Why Transparency and Anonymity are Not Mutually Exclusive

Look at that last sentence. Do you think that everyone you meet day after day is pure? That there’s no one walking around out there with unpopular opinions that they hide? How many racists or misogynists do you think you encounter in one day? The number is likely higher than you’d expect.

More importantly, what about people with controversial political outlooks? The firestarters, the progressives? Those lone dissenting voices in a sea of similarity have an outlet on the Internet, and sometimes those ideas evolve into the best political moves in world history.

In the past, a person had to risk everything, including their life, to state their honest dissenting opinion when speaking to a large crowd, but anonymous writings could still be made. Just before the American Revolutionary War Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense and signed it “Written by an Englishman.” The pamphlet proved to be one of the most important documents in American history, being reprinted more than 100,000 times and inciting a revolution against Britain. Without anonymity, Paine may not have taken such a bold leap, but he still maintained a transparent public persona.

There really isn’t much difference between the way Paine acted both anonymously and transparently and the same concept today. We act transparently daily, owning up to our actions for the most part and just “being ourselves,” but at the same time, nothing is stopping us from acting anonymously as well. It’s not an either-or situation. We can be both transparent and anonymous simultaneously.

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