Thursday, July 17, 2008

Anonymity, Pseudonym, Identity, Individual

I’ve always wondered why so many people in liberal democracies choose to post and comment anonymously. I have nothing against consistently-used pseudonyms, even multiple ones, though I have chosen to adopt a single Internet identity under my own name. A pseudonym confers an identity on the user. The user must maintain the integrity of that persona; to the extent that its integrity is diminished, the user is proportionately diminished. An online pseudonym is analogous to a real-world! stage name adopted by entertainers. Public fickleness takes its toll on the very best; family and friends may love the individual as much as ever, but the public persona suffers, and the individual is diminished accordingly. The user suffers the consequences.

Anonymity has no such identity. There is no persona to connect the consequences—good or bad—of an expression to the individual. In principle, someone living in a liberal democracy usually does not have an ethically defensible reason to choose anonymity. If you have thoughts that you cannot share with general public, keep them to yourself, or among people that you feel safe sharing them with.

There are, of course, many cases, even in a liberal democracy, that the positive societal consequences of the disclosure of the information so outweigh the potential negative personal consequences of the disclosure of the identity that anonymity is justified. Sometimes, a comment is so inconsequential—like a catcall at a rock concert—that failing to adopt an identity for that specific occasion is trivial. In other cases, it may be nothing more than the kind of casual rudeness associated with the lack of preexisting social connections. But, so often, online anonymity breeds irresponsible, harmful, and even criminal expressions without any consequences to the persona of the originator. There is something supremely unethical about that—corrosive to the soul (if there is such thing). And with that thought I must satisfy myself.

I suppose I should be happy with any traffic, even some of it happens to be hostile, poorly-reasoned comments of the anonymous kind. However, I was prompted to gather my thoughts on this point by a particularly insidious form of anonymity that came my way, fairly recently. I began receiving on this blog a series of not-so-favorable comments anonymously and under a variety of pseudonyms, apparently from the same person. I would figure out where they were coming from—I have my ways—and indicated as much on counter-comments without exposing the originator. Eventually, while implicitly (though not outright) admitting to the fact, the originator sought to meet me and I agreed. The meeting turned out to be cordial, and we continued our correspondence. However, there were, if I remember correctly, a couple of anonymous comments on this blog later appeared, apparently from the same source. Accordingly, my correspondence became more brutal and direct, though not as potty-mouthed as that of the originator. Fortunately, a misunderstanding on the part of the originator ended the correspondence; I had referred to certain Congressional and parliamentary bodies as moral cowards with regard to certain acts and omissions of theirs and the originator took it as a personal accusation, a mistake no one who had actually been reading my blog instead of just scanning it to confirm preconceptions would have made. Which, I suppose, is the silver lining on a small if unfortunate cloud.

But why now, this moment, you may ask?

That is for me to know, and the curious to find out.


Janne Morén said...

Laziness. Never underestimate it.

In the real world, anonymity takes effort and resources. Just think of the cost and bother of getting glasses, a rubber nose and a fake Kaiser Wilhelm-moustache. It's just easier to be yourself.

Online it's the other way around. If you can, it's easier and faster to write an anonymous comment than going through the hoops of registering, or logging in if you are registered. If you require registration then that lazines manifests itself in fewer comments, as people find the effort to respond to be too much.

Laziness - where would humanity be without it.

Jun Okumura said...

You are right, Janne.

Actually, we are addressing different aspects of the phenomenon. You are explaining the measurable costs of anonymity and how they have changed with the advent of the Internet, while I am exploring the benefits and moral costs thereof.

Incidentally, a very poorly edited response to your take on the takoyaki of Dotonbori is sitting on my PC and backup hard disk. It will be an independent post on Takoyakiconomics.