There’s been a lot of debate lately about anonymity on the Internet and the use of real names, particularly from Facebook. The argument is that people who are anonymous are more likely to harass others, bully, post hateful speech, and so on, because they’re able to hide behind a pseudonym or fake identity.
Although this is true in many cases, I think there are some points to be made on why anonymity is good, and actually why real names are hindering the open nature of the Internet.
In particular, I think there are at least two groups who suffer from the lack of anonymity in the world of the Internet today: women, and minorities. I’m not a woman, and arguably (at least in the technology world in California!) my background is not a minority. However, having grown up as an Asian American in a very white, mono-theistic world (namely, Salt Lake City, Utah), I experienced firsthand the issues you run across when people judge you first by your name, ethnicity, how you look, etc. rather than who you really are and your beliefs and actions. I discovered–and I see this all the time on Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. nowadays–that there is a serious pre-judgement and bias when people see what you look like, figure out your ethnicity, or see if you are a man or woman–and nowadays, sees how old you are, what your political leanings are, and who you “fan” as a company/movement/etc. The tendency of human beings to categorize and pre-judge people based entirely on how they look or their name can’t be underestimated — that’s part of human nature.
However, I discovered as I was growing up on bulletin board systems (BBS systems), chat boards, that people did not judge you on your name or photo (you picked your name, and there were no photos), but on the quality of your debate and your thought and intelligence. Whereas, in real life, I’d be ignored or downplayed because I wasn’t in the right church, was the wrong ethnicity, or had a funny name, the world of bulletin boards allowed me (and plenty others) to be judged by their merit and intelligence. It was quite a stark contrast to my adolescent experiences in middle and high school. I found — and this continued into the Internet, even in the beginnings of this site — that it was the information and thought — not how you looked — which drove the acceptance and openness of the Internet. Anonymity allowed the young, the old, women, black, brown, yellow, gay, fat, short, tall, disabled — anyone — to participate on at the same level, on an intellectual level. I’d often be surprised when, on the very rare occasions, those in the BBS world met up, that the really intelligent person I highly respected was hugely overweight and not-very-well groomed, and perhaps had missed a few showers — someone I wouldn’t have normally considered someone worth conversing with. Or, they ended up being 9 years old, not 45 like I thought.
I don’t think that’s the case anymore. At least, not as much as it used to be.
Suddenly, I see — instead of judging merits of an intellectual argument — people are again pre-judging people by their ethnicity or gender, how attractive they are, or other similar factors. We’ve lost that anonymity which provided for a more open world in the Internet. We’ve moved from a world where merit and intelligence ruled, and to one where you’ve got to be an attractive celebrity to be heard. Just look at one of the most popular social networking services — Twitter — and look who has the most followers. The thinkers, or the celebrities? The actors, or the intellectuals?
Yes, it’s good to reduce the hate, bullying, and harassment coming from anonymous trolls; but, I think we’ve lost something in the quest for “real names” (not to mention profile photos) on the Internet. There’s a quality that anonymous and open speech provides, which was lost somewhere on the way to the social web…