what and who

Returning to an earlier theme, and having read the comments on this follow-up post by Joe Carter, I’d like to note a couple of points many people fail to understand about online anonymity:

1) There’s an enormous difference between anonymity and pseudonymity: the person who posts or comments under a consistent pseudonym is assuming a level of responsibility for his or her words that the anonymous poster does not. Consider Yoni Appelbaum, who commented widely, but especially at The Atlantic, for a long time under the moniker “Cynic” — and thereby got himself a job blogging for The Atlantic. Everybody who read that site knew who Cynic was, could respond to him directly either in agreement or disagreement, could point out what what he said in one comment contradicted what he said in another, and so on. Any conversation with a completely anonymous poster is comparatively impoverished. Indeed, if you have ten anonymous comments you can’t know whether you’re dealing with one person or ten different people. Thus sock puppetry and the like are born.

2) People like to say that what matters is the quality of the ideas, not the person who utters them. But suppose the topic is something you don’t know much about — a subject requiring certain technical expertise — and you’re not sure how to assess the varying positions. In such a case it helps to know who is making the arguments. Consider the debate on James Fallows’s blog a few months back about the likely effects on human health of the radiation emitted by the TSA’s backscatter-radiation machines. Fallows can affirm that the writer he’s quoting is “a physics professor from a college in the East,” and while I’d like to know who he is and what college he’s employed by, even that much gives me reason to take the argument seriously. If the same argument had been presented anonymously in a comment thread, why should anyone take it seriously? why should anyone even read it? If I made the argument why should anyone pay attention?

Now, the fact that an unnamed physics professor made a set of claims did not settle the question — but knowing even a little bit about the physicist, and the qualifications of the person disagreeing with him, helps us to think more clearly about the issues raised. One of the really interesting questions raised is: What sort of scientist would be a reliable source about backscatter-radiation machines? Unless you think that on every conceivable subject one person’s opinion is as good as any other’s, or that eloquence alone counts, you need to think not just about what’s being said but also who’s saying it.

It’s not the only factor — in many cases it won’t be the most important factor — but it helps, because knowledge is good, and the more of it we have the better off we are. Even when we’re arguing online. Remember that it doesn’t count for much when Woody Allen himself (or his stand-in Alvy Singer) tells the obnoxious blowhard in the movie line that he doesn’t understand Marshall McLuhan; but when McLuhan himself shows up and weighs in. . . .

anonymity revisited

One of the most common defenses of anonymity on the internet is the one offered by Daniel Solove here:

For all its vices, anonymity has many virtues. With anonymity, people can be free to express unpopular ideas and be critical of people in power without risking retaliation or opprobrium. The anonymity in everyday life enables people to be free to do many worthwhile things without feeling inhibited.

I have no idea what that second sentence means — what “worthwhile things” are people “inhibited” from doing when their names are known? — but the previous sentence I get. And it’s true. But only in certain narrow circumstances. The problem is that over the years I have heard from many people who insist on anonymity in order to protect themselves from “reprisals” when in fact all they’re going to suffer is disagreement. And grownups ought to be able to deal with being disagreed with.

Moreover, every protest against injustice is far more meaningful when the person making it is willing to sign his or her name to it. As the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin pointed out long ago, in his early work Art and Answerability, to undersign a statement with one’s own name is a powerful act — an act of commitment, responsibility: one becomes “answerable” for it. This is a strong witness to others. Anonymous dissent, by contrast, is often empty to others because no one is answerable to it. Anonymous dissent requires numbers to have an effect. When many protest anonymously their position gains weight additively; the single anonymous protester comes off as a crank or a troll.

Anonymity on the internet may be desirable often but it is necessary only rarely, and surely in 98% of the cases in which it is invoked the conversation would be better when conducted by answerable individuals. Therefore anonymity ought to be hard to achieve. If “undersigning” is the online norm, then people whose hatreds and resentments are just casual will be less likely to trash conversational spaces. The people who genuinely need anonymity can create subterfuges when they need to; even when the use of real names is mandated, that demand is relatively easy to circumvent. On the internet, nobody has to know you’re a dog.