Anonymity Breeds Contempt

March 28, 2008

There were two articles yesterday about anonymity online, and the potential good or bad that can result. Paul Stamatiou, a computational media senior at Georgia Tech, talked about the perils of anonymous users in social networks. He lists a couple of pros and cons:

Pros: No barriers to entry. If someone wants to get involved quickly, they don’t have to create an account. It’s just easier to be anonymous. Cons: Other users don’t know who just interacted and give that interaction less credit. For example, if anonymous gives me a blog post suggestion via Skribit I might think of it as just another suggestion and I’ll get around to it eventually if it holds merit and if other users like it. Then again, if John Smith, a frequent commenter, gave me the same suggestion I would be more inclined to write that post as I have the sense that Mr. Smith is a dedicated reader and thus I tend to give his suggestion more credit.

However, I think this only scratches the surface of a larger, more insidious, problem with anonymous users online - malicious or slanderous allegations and accusations.

Ars Technica provided coverage of the increased scrutiny and legal attention the college-aimed JuicyCampus website is garnering. In JuicyCampus champions free speech, AGs claim it’s a fraud, Ars Technia reports,

For those who have not yet had the pleasure of coming across JuicyCampus, the site serves as a public forum for college students to anonymously gossip about others. As you might imagine, this has bred an explosion in malicious, accusatory, and otherwise not-nice postings—often naming gossip victims by full name and school. JuicyCampus has simultaneously become popular and the bane of many students' existence, as they continue to flock to the site to see what new drama is being stirred up.

The legal issue the Attorney General in New Jersey is pursuing isn’t a free speech issue but rather one of

[...] violating the New Jersey Consumer Fraud act through unconscionable commercial practices and misrepresentations to users [...].

The problem with JuicyCampus isn’t free speech, it is anonymity giving people carte blanche to say anything about anyone. It’s the classic, “Is it true that you’ve stopped beating your wife?” conundrum made worse by its occurrence in a medium which allows the entire world to voyeuristically participate.

Anonymity breeds an environment which allows people to be bullies with no consequence. School-yard bullies are careful to not terrorize others when the teacher is nearby; anonymity online allows people to say things they wouldn’t repeat in front of authority, or even their peers.

As with any form of bullying, education is perhaps the key to unlocking the problem and eliminating it from our society. Not education in terms of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but education in terms of recognizing other people, their boundaries, emotions, culture, and norms. American society and culture seems to delight in protecting abusive or malicious behavior saying that it is protected by free speech. While I certainly don’t want my ability to read, write, say, or listen to the thoughts of others curtailed, I do feel that we aren’t approaching the problem correctly.

An enlightend, educated society, which practiced tolerance and acceptance, probably wouldn’t participate in lowest common denominator behavior like JuicyCampus, making the need to defend it moot. Unfortunately, for those of us who live in the United States, lowest common denominator behavior and expectations seem to be the rule of the day, rather than the exception.

Mahatma Gandhi was asked once, what he thought of Western Civilization. He answered that it, “would be a good idea.” His words are truer every day.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.