Are You Anonymous?

by updated 2012/01/11

Anonymous logoWhen the internet got its start I guess if was fashionable for people to use “handles” to protect their identity.  When this wide web thing was in its infancy and people were unsure of where things were headed, that was an understandable concern.  Now, years later, the internet has become just an extension of our everyday lives and hiding who you are does not help the discourse at all.  I know many people disagree with me; I see their comments in forums all the time.  I have never been persuaded by any of their arguments however.

I believed 6 years ago when I first jumped onto the internet as a writer that people who used a fake identity online were doing it in order to misbehave in ways they could not in their flesh and blood lives.  This was because most of the trolls, flamers, and just plain idiots I saw in the forums were the ones using obvious made up identities.  I have expanded this understanding over the years to include people who are genuinely afraid to let people know who they are and to people who are selling something they do not want their real identities associated with.  I am not alone in this thinking by any means but people who think the opposite are still the loudest voices in the debate.

This is interesting because of a trend I have noticed among spammers and forum trolls over the past couple of years.  Rather than use an obviously created identity, they will pretend to be someone very boring, just not themselves.  In other words, often “Stephanie” is not really Stephanie at all but rather Randy, Richard, or Judy, assuming the character of Stephanie.  Usually they want to behave controversially, fraudulently, or just anonymously, in order to feel protected from the consequences of their behavior.

I think the fact that Google with their Google+ product and Facebook’s earlier effort to make their users transparent is the future of the internet.  I think this is a very good thing.  Not everyone agrees, of course, as this post titled Google Plus’s “Real Name” policy is abusive clearly shows.  I really don’t agree with much of that post, but there are others, like this article by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic that make me stop and wonder if I am just being old fashioned or naive in my thinking.

What do you think?  Maybe it boils down to those of us that use our real names online will think as I do.  And those that use a false identity will think like the author of that first link.  Maybe running this website and seeing all the spam that comes in with obviously fake names has jaded me a bit?  Or maybe, as that Atlantic article hints, there are real risks involved with letting people know who you are?  Maybe though, those risks are mainly present if your intent is to misbehave or abuse?

Will Sig
1 Binky

There’s always two sides to every story, but I’m not sure I’d trust someone who doesn’t use their real name.
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2 Lyka Ricks

If you are bringing a brand or Image conscious, you will do your Best not be tainted. Some used dummies to protect image but if your intentions are pure then why hide under the mask?

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3 Robin Henderson

I’ll have to disagree with you on this one, Will. There are a hundred good reasons for a person to use an alias online. Ever read “Dear Abby”? Or see a Roman Catholic confessional? A forced real-name policy is going to prevent thousands from seeking help, exploring options, or, for that matter, catching wrong-doers. (How else to you enter a chat room to witness your wife chatting up other guys?)

I’m afraid human interactions are just too complex for sledge-hammer solutions. Having said that, a single feature (a stand-alone chat, a bulletin board, etc.) should have the right to demand real names. But an umbrella service that covers a whole spectrum of uses, shouldn’t.

Thanks for the post!

Robin

Rusty Ring: Reflections of an Old-Timey Hermit
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4 Will

All good points Robin. I guess for certain types of sites, the anonymity is what enables people to feel comfortable getting the information they need. There is probably no real easy solution. I know here I have a combination of programs that kill comment spam pretty well. I have had 0 spam to sort through in the past week. In addition to looking for things like excess advertising and sales pitches on links people use, things like the person’s name are scrutinized. So comments with names like “Best Miami Dentists” get spammed automatically. I also see on forums I frequent that the people who flame, troll, etc. are all not being honest about who they are. So I probably have a somewhat jaded vision of what happens when people try to hide their identity in order to misbehave.

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5 Tony McGurk

A well thought out article Will. I must say I agree. I initially used a nick name (Tasmaniac) when I 1st started blogging but for a long time now I have used my real name. Maybe people wouldn’t be so rude, arrogant & obnoxious online like so many do if they were known by their real name. However I can understand how others may feel about concern over privacy, identity theft etc if they were to use their real names. Personally I would much rather know a person’s proper name when communicating with them as for me anyway it makes it much more personal. Maybe I’m old fashioned too….

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6 Will

Yes, Tony, I agree. The first thing a rude, arrogant & obnoxious person does online is set up a false identity so they can misbehave with impunity. But as Robin pointed out there are legitimate places online where, if I was using the sites, even I might not want my real identity known. Like almost everything in life, no real easy solutions.

For example, even the solution attempts I use here to control spam can backfire. I recently was emailed that a persons legitimate comments were not showing up on this site and because I had been automatically having spam deleted, I was not seeing them. When I got more information, yes the comments were legitimate, but the site they linked to was not. It was an online gambling site. So the person used a real name, made a decent comment, but then linked to a gambling website. Regardless of the worth of the comment, doing that or linking to a site that is nothing but an affiliate landing page, or a site that is nothing but posts trying to sell products is still within the definition of spam. Still, even though it is more work for me, I guess I will start sending those to the spam que instead of automatically deleting them. That way if I think the persons comment is valuable I can delete the link to the spammy site and then post the comment.

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7 Arjee

Hi Will, I think there’s no reason to be an anonymous, if you are telling or writing about the truth. The only thing is, if the issue you are tackling is sensitive enough, that you have also to protect your personality.
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