Anonymity is a trap

When I was back at Uni studying for my Comp Sci degree, I came across the tatty printout of a cartoon blu-tacked to the door of the computer club. It’s now become somewhat famous, with the immortal line: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

That’s one of the great things about interacting with people online: that if you want, you can ensure people aren’t going to judge you by your race, religion, nationality, gender, or even species. The anonymity of the Internet provides a level of freedom to communicate that is hard to achieve elsewhere. And, if you would otherwise be at risk of retribution based on what you say, it can provide a measure of protection.

However, if you don’t need the protection, then anonymity can be a trap.

Another thing I picked up while doing my Comp Sci degree is that some program languages provide more flexibility than is usually needed, and it can get you into trouble. For example, in the C language, you can check whether a variable ‘x’ has a particular value (say 1) by writing if(x == 1), you can assign a value to a particular variable by writing x = 1, and you can also treat the assignment as a check (if you’re being clever) by writing if(x = 1). But if you didn’t mean to do that – and it was easy to overlook that you’d done it when you meant to write if(x == 1) – then your program will probably malfunction.

So, what I started to do was to write both my checks and assignments differently. By adopting a new habit, I avoided this problem resulting from the freedom that the programming language provided. I would simply swap the left and right hand sides of the check, so I would write x = 1 for assignment and if(1 == x) for checks, and if I accidentally wrote if(1 = x) then the compiler would generate an error and I could fix it before there was a chance for the program to malfunction.

The general learning here was that sometimes when you don’t need all the freedom offered, you can get yourself into trouble, but by adopting an appropriate habit, you can prevent yourself getting into as much trouble. This is also applicable to anonymity.

The sense of anonymity and freedom to behave badly without repercussions is one aspect of why otherwise polite people demonstrate rude behaviour when driving a car. Being anonymous allows them to “get away with it”. In research from 2006, it was found that participants drove more aggressively when they were anonymous.

The same effect applies online. In a study by Microsoft Research into bad behaviour by online users, it was concluded that

Anonymity granted in online environments and a lack of accountability (fear of punishment) have been identified as two of the primary causes of bad behavior.

Anonymous social/gossip sites such as, JuicyCampus (now deceased) and 4Chan are the sort of places where death threats, bullying behaviour and slanderous accusations have been known to pop up. This is clearly an extreme section of the Internet, and these sites’ reputations attract similar-minded contributors. The practice of writing anonymously is not restricted to such sites, however, and so the risk of bad behaviour exists more broadly.

Research from 2007 into anonymity in blogging found that over a third of bloggers were anonymous or used a pseudonym to hide their real identity. Many such bloggers surveyed were concerned that negative comments made about other people online could come back to bite them.

All of which suggests to me that a useful habit in this space is to identify yourself whenever you can, and reserve anonymity for those times when it is really needed. I know that when those who I write about or interact with online can see my real name and find my home page, I am much more likely to consider what I write before I hit “send”. Anonymity, by its nature, prevents another party from coming back at me, creating a social barrier that allows me to opt out of complying with social etiquette.

Now, I’m not in the camp of “those who don’t do anything wrong have nothing to fear”, and I acknowledge that there are many valid times when posting and commenting is best done anonymously. It’s just that being anonymous should not be the default mode of interacting online, and I think the Internet community would be better behaved if there was less of it. Anonymity is a powerful tool that should be always available but used sparingly.

Just like when I changed my habit of how to program in C in order to prevent myself doing something stupid, I’ll now be adopting the habit of identifying myself online in order to prevent myself saying something stupid.