Known unknowns

Tools like Facebook are gradually bringing real identities onto the Internet. Should we mourn or praise our fading online anonymity?

Trying to persuade my older and wiser co-worker – already a potent Twitter user – to join Facebook, the usual arguments didn’t work. “You’ll be able to keep up with your children,” we said. “You’ll reconnect with old acquaintances. You’ll even get the occasional scoop out of it.”

None of it made much of a difference. But one argument did go over well with this experienced reporter – on Facebook, unlike much of the Internet, everybody uses real names.

He liked that. And I do too.

As reporters, we’re relatively public figures. We produce written work every day, distributed to the public for little to no money (depending on your medium), with our name on it. When we goof up – which inevitably happens – everybody knows it was us. And by and large, when we interview people for our stories, we ask the same of them: anonymous sources are a rare thing indeed in Rapid City, South Dakota.

But venture on to our website, and it’s different story. On almost every story and blog post there, people can log in, pick any name they want for themselves, and write what they want. There’s no way to verify that what someone says is true. So when someone says that, say, they have a particular insight into the story as a Native American, it could be a non-native pretending in order to bolster his or her argument.

Technically speaking, my paper has a pseudonymous commenting system for major stories. Everyone has to create an account with a username. That username can be anything they want, but they do – theoretically – post under the same account every time. This is an intermediary step between pure anonymity – where posts have no identity attached to them – and the use of verified real names.

On Facebook, it’s different. Though people can and do use fake names on Facebook, the general rule is real names, with real photos and real personal information.

For some people, that’s disturbing. Information that used to be private – like reports of what one did at last weekend’s party – are broadcast to the world. Writers have noted that the chain of identity from things like Facebook make it harder to start a new life, and of course every few months someone makes big national news by losing a job or a spouse over something they did on Facebook or Twitter. Many college classmates of mine gave their Facebook profiles thorough scrubbings as they began to apply for jobs, taking down hundreds of photos and off-color Wall posts to avoid anything that might offend a potential employer.

But an end – or decline – to anonymity online has its upsides, too. When someone is anonymous, they evade most of the regular consequences for their actions – because what they do doesn’t get tied back to them. People will write and do things in anonymous online forums they would never do face to face. Just reading online comments posted to news stories you’re treated to an amazing stream of vitriol and invective – things someone would never say if you shoved a microphone in front of their face and asked them questions on the record.

Online communities with real names, in other words, have higher-minded debates without the slander, insults and flat-out falsehoods that people feel free to toss out when no one knows who they are. As Internet pioneer Stewart Brand said, “The whole idea was that anonymity freed people to say important stuff and all I could see was that anonymity freed people to insult each other without retribution and they did so with abandon. Very responsible corporate people and scientists, when they had the opportunity to speak anonymously they did so with such viciousness and ferocity, it took my breath away.”

There is an other other hand, though – sometimes people have good things to say that they don’t feel comfortable doing with their name attached for good reasons. Maybe they want to criticize their employer. Maybe they want to show off a creative work that might be a little bit adventurous or risqué. Perhaps they’ve got a good point and don’t want people’s knowledge of who they are to color how they perceive their point.

Chris “moot” Poole, founder of the massive – and anonymous – 4chan message board community, doesn’t want anonymity to go away. He wants an environment where ”strangers can come together and share stuff,” freed by anonymity to be more “flexible and creative.”

“Mark Zuckerberg has kind of equated anonymity with a lack of authenticity, almost a cowardice, and I would say that’s fully wrong,” Poole said recently. “I think anonymity is authenticity, it allows you to share in a completely unvarnished, unfiltered, raw way and I think that’s something that’s extremely valuable.”

This isn’t just an academic question. Facebook is moving to let sites all around the Web use Facebook profiles as a login tool for commenting – so one’s Facebook profile becomes, in essence, one’s online identification and signature. The big factor here is that since so many people have Facebook profiles already, using one’s Facebook account as a login tool removes a lot of the barriers to real-name identification online. It turns what used to be a cumbersome process, often requiring credit cards, into a click of a button.

A lot’s been written about what this means in terms of Facebook becoming ever more omnipresent online, which is a fascinating issue, but I’m more interested in what it means for the culture of the Internet, which has been pseudonymous from the beginning.

As someone who’s a semi-public figure by virtue of his job, I’m biased in favor of other people assuming the same status. But there is something to be said about the virtues of anonymity, too – particularly, I might point out, in the case of children using the Internet. I wouldn’t want to see a world where anonymity disappeared online. But I do think it’s a good thing if web communities that want to pursue the higher-minded conversation that comes with real names have easy tools to do so – and if that’s Facebook, so be it.