Thursday, July 13, 2006

Against non-anonymity in cyberspace

Today I shall argue against an influential school of thought regarding the issue of 'anonymity in cyberspace'. I believe that the proponents of this school of thought are wrong not only because of the kind of claims that they're making, but also in the way they have made them. Some even go as far as expressing a strong sense of 'disgust' and 'distaste' for bloggers who do not reveal their real identity.

Expressions such as 'closet of anonymity', 'coming out of the internet', 'hiding behind the internet', 'using pseudonyms to disguise themselves' are unflattering and also disturbing to the ears. They are disturbing because not only are they mistaken to assume that anonymity and pseudonymity are driven mainly (although not exclusively) by fear and guilt alone, but also because such an assumption then becomes an implicit attack on the moral character of the anonymous/pseudonymous bloggers. Such an implicit attack is uncalled for when the latter have done nothing wrong at all simply by doing what the available technology and the laws of the land allow them to do.

I think everybody has a right to decide for himself whether he wants to 'let the whole world know who he is' or not. For those who have good reasons to want to be known by the people with whom he communicates, I'm happy for them because they have found a reason to step forward and say 'look, this is who I am', and presumably a range of practical, psychic, and social benefits (both real and imagined ones) would follow from their declaration. But this does not mean, conversely, that people who do not follow suit are somehow morally inferior for not doing so.

First, one cannot assume that other blog readers really WANT to know who you are. Are we so important that our views must necessarily be accompanied with our photos, full name, occupation, and other details? How far shall this revelation of personal details go, and who is to decide for bloggers? Why should these people decide in a society of equals (ideally-speaking)?

Second, like what blogger Design Translator says, he does not go around flaming people and so he should have nothing to hide. I agree but this argument can swing the other way too: if a blogger using a pseudonym ALSO doesn't go around flaming others, why should he be treated as though he is 'morally lacking' in some ways? What 'wrong' has he done other than to deprive others the knowledge of who he really is and how he looks? Some may argue further that bloggers who use pseudonyms tend to flame others, 'take pot shots' at others, and say irresponsible things, but would this not mean, then, that the REAL issues concern the latter three actions or practices, rather than the mere adoption of an online pseudonym per se?

Another important point I'd raise is that even the majority of the pseudonymous bloggers themselves (and anonymous readers) would agree wholeheartedly that defamatory, seditious, and blasphemous comments are unethical and unlawful, and should not be made. So why should they be blamed, given that they also condemn such actions? Finally, if something that has been said is serious enough to warrant legal action, I am sure the parties concerned or the police force would do so, without concerned citizens having to worry about whether the policemen would shirk their responsibilities or not.

May I go on and present a set of reasons for wanting to remain anonymous or pseudonymous in cyberspace. I hope readers will agree that these are perfectly honourable reasons for using pseudonyms when presenting one's views for the rest of Singapore (and indeed the world) to read, or for remaining anonymous:

First, I believe that it should always be strength of the arguments and the frequency of well-argued essays that determine one's overall 'credibility'. Who you are--and thus your gender, age, race, occupation, employer, educational profile, and so on--should not be used to support your arguments in anyway. The mere fact that someone reveals his identity, credentials and affiliation does not make his arguments any better. In fact, at times one's affiliation may well affect the credibility since people might think 'ah you're writing that because your identity is public and you simply have to appear politically correct!' Similarly people in positions of authority may want to write anonymously because of the desire to let people decide rationally on the basis of sound arguments alone rather than on the basis of power relationships. Another situation could be that one may not want his own pessimism about certain phenomena to be associated with his organization, which is in fact a hallmark of a sensibly responsible (albeit pessimistic) person. I would urge critics to remember that the blogging audience is only one among several groups of stakeholders to this activity of blogging, so the 'stakes' of other groups are not any less than the 'stakes' of curious bloggers who are obsessed with real identities. Note, too, that unless one is a parrot and/or a person who does not think, being a supporter or even member of organization (say X) does not mean that one AGREES with every single policy of organization X all the time. Yet, having said that, just because one does not agree with every single policy also does not mean that he cannot simultaneously accept the necessity to be politically correct at least on certain occasions. And one of the ways to be politically correct is precisely NOT to use one's real identity which can always be traced--with the help of the Internet search engines of course--to the organizations with which one is affiliated.

Secondly, I would urge the proponents of this 'anonymity-is-atrocious' (AIA) school of thought to consider the fact that things are really not all that different in the real world in which we live--where feedback forms of numerous organizations are often anonymous by default, or at least allows anonymity as an option. Thirdly, not everybody likes the whole world or whole nation to know so much about them. Even in a big conference, members of the audience who have views may not want to step out, for the simple reason that they do not want 500 pairs of eyes staring at them even for those few minutes. If this is part of the 'shy' personality of real people, should they not be granted the basic rights to be shy?

Fourthly, the 'game' of cyber-interactions is precisely designed like that--critics should therefore blame the game and not the players of the game. Can you imagine a game of hide-and-seek where passers-by condemn the individual players for hiding? In addition, given the way this game has proceeded, it is currently only the minority who are NOT anonymous, and so at this stage the following argument can be made: people remain anonymous because they don't want to be the minority! And as a blog reader or forum participant, one also has the option to remaining anonymous, so I consider this to be a very fair game since people who do not agree with certain points can always argue back and if they do so skilfully, they may be able to make the other party's argument look much weaker than it originally appeared to be.

Thus, with the above criticisms of the AIA (Anonymity-Is-Atrocious) school of thought regarding cyber-anonymity/pseudonymity, as well as the set of reasons I've presented for wanting to participate in cyber-civil society without being a public figure, I hope I have managed to convince not only the undecided, but also the skeptical, particularly the proponents of the AIA school of thought themselves.

11 Comments:

Blogger Kevin said...

Heavenly Sword: You've talked about the various structures, cultural and technical, surrounding the use of anonimity on the Internet. One thing I might add is the historical aspect of the virtues of anonimity which was nicely encapsulated in Wikipedia's take on Anonimity:

"The history of anonymous expression in political dissent is both long and honourable, as in the Letters of Junius or Voltaire's Candide, or scurrilous as in pasquinades. In the tradition of anonymous British political criticism, the Federalist Papers were anonymously authored. Without the public discourse on the controversial contents of the U.S. Constitution, ratification would likely have taken much longer as individuals worked through the issues. The Declaration of Independence, however, was not anonymous. If it had been unsigned, it might well have been less effective. In The Infrastructure of Democracy, John Perry Barlow, Joichi Ito, and other US bloggers express a very strong support for anonymous editing as one of the basic requirements of open politics as conducted on the Internet."

From a cultural perspective, I once interviewed a notable anonymous political blogger in the States who help founded FluWiki and he shared an interesting point of view which stemmed from how he blogs anonymously so as not to let his position (e.g. Doctor, Senator, etc) influence other's perceptions on issues he raises. In other words, anonimity encourages a level playing field for equal discussion.

How's that for adding strength to your "it's ok to be anonymous" argument!

Thu Jul 13, 04:37:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Anthony said...

Another point - anonymous communications are a constitutional right under the First Amendment.

The idea is that people would more freely share their views if they are anonymous.

Thu Jul 13, 11:06:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi Kevin, thanks for your interesting comment, which certainly adds strength to the anti-AIA position! :)

Hi Anthony, that is wonderful for pseudonymous bloggers! :)

Looks like History and Law are both on the side of the anti-AIA camp!

Thu Jul 13, 04:51:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Sleepless in Singapore said...

Heavenly Sword; I agree with your arguments. In fact, not long ago, our newspapers permit use of pseudonyms (write word?) for letters to the forum.

Thu Jul 13, 11:23:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous gecko said...

Heavenly Sword: Very detailed writeup and reasons espoused.

Anonymity levels the 'playing field' just as the Internet does. The proponents of non-anonymity tend to think in-silo: it is an either/or belief that seeks to place people into distinct camps - either your identity is known or not.

The corollary is a deeper desire to understand the origins for the views expressed by the anonymous person.

Fri Jul 14, 10:14:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Hi Sleepless-in-SG, thanks for your comment. Strangely, I'm somewhat 'not used to' pseudonyms in the newspapers - for no good reason...i just find it abit strange. Maybe i need some time to get used to it. :]

Hi Gecko, welcome to HS Manor! Thanks for the endorsement :)

Actually you're right. There's always this nagging feeling of curiosity ('hmm who's that blogger huh? how come he writes so well/badly/angrily/funnily etc').

Even when it comes to reading a book, it does help in one's understanding if one knows more about the author's life, background, gender, age, etc, since it'll help the reader to see 'where s/he's coming from'....

Sat Jul 15, 12:14:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Marcus said...

Very well structured post. By the way, it is true that annoymity allows people to speak more freely and offer sharper views than if their identity is known, esp. in Singapore's context.

Sun Jul 16, 01:45:00 AM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hihi, am still alive and busy. thanks for dropping by shanqing.com =)

unfortunately i wish i could blog more often, but been busy with www.confluence-sg.org

take care
sq

Mon Jul 17, 04:18:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Design Translator said...

Great article HS. I would say its more of a comfort level. Are you comfortable telling people your real name.

For me I ask what is in a name? Even if i called my self George Chong, unless you have met me, it would sound like a name, but its still not my real name. So really to me it does not matter.

Perhaps it issue here is the ease in crossing the line. Some people are concern that if I am anonymous, its too easy to say somthing without a second thought. Thats just human nature. Right now, i always am extra careful to phrase my words correctly just in case. In the past I would just type responses in forums without even re-reading them.

Either way no-one is truly anonymous in the internet anyway. So to me it does not matter if you are anonymous or real.

Mon Jul 17, 04:25:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Heavenly Sword said...

Thank u, Marcus :)

Thanks, Master SQ, for dropping by! Glad to know that you're involved in such an exciting event. :] Alas, time flies. I am now an ageing old man and I miss all these fun events of my undergrad days.

Hi DT, thanks :] For me, I think I will be too pressured by the requirement to appear 'politically correct'. This is especially so after the Mr Brown incident.

Mon Jul 17, 05:02:00 PM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enjoyed a lot!
» »

Wed Aug 09, 04:34:00 AM 2006  

Post a Comment

<< Home