Monday, May 14, 2007

Transparency, Anonymity, and the Internets

At The Washington Post Tom Grubisich, a former writer and editor for that newspaper who now writes about "grass roots journalism" for Online Journalism Review, tackles the vexing issue of anonymity on the internet:
These days we want "transparency" in all institutions, even private ones. There's one massive exception -- the Internet. It is, we are told, a giant town hall. Indeed, it has millions of people speaking out in millions of online forums. But most of them are wearing the equivalent of paper bags over their heads. We know them only by their Internet "handles" -- gotalife, runningwithscissors, stoptheplanet and myriad other inventive names.

Imagine going to a meeting about school overcrowding in your community. Everybody at the meeting is wearing nametags. You approach a cluster of people where one man is loudly complaining about waste in school spending. "Get rid of the bureaucrats, and then you'll have money to expand the school," he says, shaking his finger at the surrounding faces.

You notice his nametag -- "anticrat424." Between his sentences, you interject, "Excuse me, who are you?"

He gives you a narrowing look. "Taking names, huh? Going to sic the superintendent's police on me? Hah!"

In any community in America, if Mr. anticrat424 refused to identify himself, he would be ignored and frozen out of the civic problem-solving process. But on the Internet, Mr. anticrat424 is continually elevated to the podium, where he can have his angriest thoughts amplified through cyberspace as often as he wishes. He can call people the vilest names and that hate-mongering, too, will be amplified for all the world to see.

There is, of course, no easy solution to this issue. dcat's policy is fairly simple -- you can remain anonymous without hassle as long as you are civil. Once you broach lines, or even if you maintain basic levels of civility but seem like a jerk, your anonymity will become part of the equation. I do not want to discourage discussion or people using clever handles --"dcat" is not my real name, for example, but my real identity is not something I have kept hidden, and it should not take anyone more than a few seconds to find out that my name is Derek Catsam, and since I'm the ony one with that name, all of the salient facts -- and I do not really want to spend my time on asshole patrol. My standard has always been the same -- would you say it to someone at a bar? Sometimes I have crossed that line, but at least I have done so under my own name. But usually, I'd have said it at the bar. I may sometimes be a turd, but let it be known that I am not a gutless turd. So I have that going for me. Which is nice.

Hat Tip to Robert, my editor at the Foreign Policy Association.

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