Back in the more innocent age of 2007, a blogger called Annalee Newitz wrote that pundits praised the web as the place ‘anyone can post on it anonymously’. That was both the strength and the weakness of the web, as perceived then.
Andre Keen’s book The Cult of the Amateur (2007) had highlighted horrors of anonymity online and the dark side of Web 2.0, saying that honourable people should claim what they had written if it was honest. And so began a debate about anonymity in publishing in all and any form.
Basement Bloggers in Pajamas
They were actually separate arguments; the point was that in 2007 it was widely accepted that ‘anonymous web writer’, stereotypically a man blogging ‘in his basement in his pajamas’ would and could remain just that – anonymous. That was how it was, right or wrong.
Disreputable, lying, misrepresenting, besmirching the good names of others or whatever, he (almost always a man) was just an anonymous writer, spreader of rumour, fact, fiction or a mix of all. Wikipedia became the focus of some hostility because all its entries were anonymous, and while there was (and still is) a mechanism for correcting, the fact is that ‘untruth’ could be out there.
Soon the Wikiscanner software tool arrived, (initially to enable its creator Virgil Grifffith to ‘create minor PR disasters for companies’ he disliked) enabling anybody to check on who had edited Wikipedia entries anonymously. The IP addresses of all are kept, and so are traceable back to source. That might be a home or workplace, but still, they will find the writer out, to the very computer he/she used.
This scanner showed, as Newitz pointed out, that the content editing and deleting was not coming from anonymous basement bloggers in pajamas at all, but from branches of government, the quality newspapers and media organisations and the major corporations who wanted to keep certain products, litigation and personnel out of the public web. Papers would even edit stuff on each other’s entries.
It turned out that the CIA was a lead user of Wikiscanner. Not individuals within, but the organisation as a whole, cleaning up the records, tidying up the facts. Anonymously.
Newitz’s thesis was that it was not a basement blogger with a grudge bringing ‘online cultural anarchy’, but ‘corporations and governments who refuse to take responsibility for what they’re doing’.
Sea Change in the Debate
By the middle of 2011, Brian Stelter was writing in the New York Times: ‘not too long ago, theorists fretted that the internet was a place where anonymity thrived. Now, it seems, it is the place where anonymity dies’.
The debate had moved on because the very idea of anonymity had become laughable. Now people as individuals or platforms like Facebook ‘tag acquaintances’ so they are quickly exposed.
People filming vocal critics/protestors on their mobiles before posting images online to YouTube, means that strangers can be identified in seconds. Then they can be ridiculed or praised (like the man who threw a young drunk without a valid ticket off a train in Scotland).
Many of the people who took part in the looting of shops during the August 2011 rioting in some major cities in England, were identified and brought to court because their images had been posted to the internet.
Stelter wrote that the internet’s 2 billion users provided a collective intelligence that would combine with the digital fingerprints that users leave behind to make it likely that every ‘embarrassing video, every intimate photo and every indelicate email’ is attributed to source, whether the source wants it or not.
He described the erosion of anonymity as a product of ‘pervasive social media, cheap cellphone cameras, free video and web hosts and a change in people’s views about what ought to be public and what ought to be private’. The consequence is that ‘we are more known than ever before’.
More ‘publicness’ has consequences for business, for political and free speech and for the man in the street’s personal privacy. There is a real conflict between the law and order/anti-terrorist/taxation/regulatory powers to identify people quickly and accurately, against the natural instinct and right to keep some things personal and unavailable to others, especially if they do not harm or threaten others.
We may not feel comfortable when somebody expresses dislike of the habits, orientations or customs of other peoples. We can legislate against them saying and acting on hateful things. But when it becomes a crime to even think ‘unacceptable’ things, then haven’t we crossed a line?
When anonymity is a term consigned to the history bin, then we are lost as individuals, man’s need for other humans notwithstanding.
Dave Morgan, chief executive of Simulmedia, wrote on MediaPost blogs in June 2011: ‘what happens in public stays in public. Facial recognition is about publicity not privacy’. He added that the kind of publicity that used to be associated with celebrities is ‘no longer scarce’.
Once anything and everything is available on the net, it will never vanish. Not ever. Any readers want to express a view even though we’ll know who you are?
Annalee Newitz, The Trouble With Anonymity on the Web, August 2007.
Brian Stelter, New York Times, June 2011.
Dave Morgan, MediaPost blogs.
Photo: Callum Black