There’s something about anonymity

No one cared who I was until I put on the mask.

— Bane, The Dark Knight Rises

Anonymity is an odd thing. Defined by Wikipedia as “namelessness” or “[a state] where an acting person’s name is unknown,” anonymity has, of late, become something of greater cultural significance and, naturally, Internet debate. If you’ve ever had the distinct privilege of hearing me opine on the topic at length, you understand that I have something of a developed opinion on the matter.

The ability to be anonymous, to say what is on your mind without fear of punishment, reprehension, or scorn, is, in my mind, a fundamental need in human society. It is also, worryingly, an ability which has been hamstrung in recent years by an ever-present Internet which records and remembers everything you say, and a growing culture of outrage in the West.

The age of computing has brought with it levels of surveillance, record-keeping, and cataloguing never seen before in human history. The benefits of this are innumerable; analytical data, demography, et. al. have been the driving force behind breakthroughs in medicine, law enforcement, humanitarian aid, and (of course) the monolithic twenty-first century market of consumer electronics, social networking, and communication. All of these personal and societal benefits come at a cost, however. That cost is privacy. Just about every application, service, social network, and website you use or access tracks, catalogues, and analyses data about you in one way or another. The subjects of surveillance, datamining, and e-privacy are very broad, and each deserve a discussion beyond the scope of this little anonymity speech. Long story short: you should care that you are being tracked online. This segment from HBO’s Last Week Tonight is a good starting point. But, I digress.

To me, anonymity is liberating. In this age of internet responsibility, where anything and everything you say (type) comes right back to you, with real life consequences, it can be intimidating to open up about anything online. Ever use a four-letter word in a post/Tweet about a football game? Remember that Facebook post from 2009 you made right after your first break-up? Pepperidge Farm remembers. Even worse, have you shared political opinions online? This happened to me, in a very real sense; I use one of those services to keep track of changes in Facebook friends and Twitter followers; I lost 20-odd followers on Twitter, many of them personal, real-life friends of mine, in the month that Gamergate broke last year. I shared my viewpoints, and I paid the price. And with what seems like the entire Western world constantly on film (semi-related), one might say that the real world itself is no longer safe. God knows I haven’t opened my mouth in a single debate in my social sciences classes — a modern culture of outrage has seemingly eliminated all discourse and reasoned debate. It’s easier to call someone a “bigot” or a “hippie” and disregard everything they say than it is to, y’know, participate in a debate to develop and widen your opinions and understanding of the world. Read this article on the subject. ((I know I tend to cram a lot of links into these posts, but that one right there is pure gold. Read it, please.)) Only in an environment of total anonymity, of total freedom from the social and practical consequences of my opinions, do I feel safe sharing how I really feel about some things. It’s why you’ll never see a blog post here on anything remotely controversial.

In a sense, anonymity is magical. Long before the days of the Internet et. al., Billy Joel composed a song that really captures what I’m getting at. A place, in the real world or otherwise, where one can bare it all and make the best of friends with the greatest of strangers is, for many, the only respite from a world which might otherwise drive them insane. In my mind, this alone explains the popularity of anonymous services like Yik Yak, 4chan, Omegle, and many others. Just like  political attitudes and opinions, I’ve learned better than to expose themselves emotionally to the Internet at large. But, in some cases, I’ve felt like I’ve had nowhere else to turn. Sans names and addresses, I’ve been able to spit out my life story to my IRC buddies or to nameless walls of text on imageboards, to sort out my thoughts, to wrangle in my emotions, to keep me from making mistakes that would have consequences.

For all these reasons and more, anonymity is absolutely crucial. While the benefits of a unified online identity, and of ubiquitous tracking and surveillance are lucrative, we ought to, as a society, exercise great care not to eliminate entirely the anonymity we so thoroughly need.

Richard Stallman, Christopher Poole, and Edward Snowden are notable public advocates for privacy and anonymity, particularly online. I encourage you to look into them if my incoherent, 4AM ramblings don’t make a ton of sense to you.