Online and anonymous: A key facet of Web culture is a double-edged sword

Anonymity is great!

Except when it’s not.

(John Adkisson/Reuters) - One Internet user’s embrace of anonymity might be another’s idea of boorish behavior.

It shields the whistleblower from blowback and the deep-background source from getting deep-sixed. It helped women publish novels way back when . . . when that was a pretty novel idea. But it can also embolden the kook to get kookier and the racist to get . . . well, you get the picture.

This whole matter of anonymity — its merits and demerits — flares up from time to time, and this is one of those times. Twin sparks — one from the West and one from the East — are nudging America to consider anonymity as a thing well worth considering.

Out West, it’s Tina Fey jumping on anonymous Internet commenters hating on her. Back here in the East, it’s our very own dearly departing Washington Post ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, decrying nasty, offensive behavior in the comments section of articles on the newspaper’s Web site, including, most recently, some unsavory remarks about a story regarding persistent ranting over first lady Michelle Obama’s derriere. Pexton is suggesting that readers who want to say a thing or two on www.washingtonpost.com should be required to identify themselves first.

Fey and Pexton, whose thoughts have gotten the viral launch that only a lengthy discussion on NBC’s “Today” show can provide, veer toward an age-old question. Does anonymity make us good? Or does it make us bad? And now that we’ve had a good long while to get used to splashing around online, there’s another question to ponder: Does the Internet make it easier for us to be anonymously bad or anonymously better?

The answer isn’t so simple. Consider 4Chan, a hugely popular and emphatically anonymous Internet board that began as a place to discuss Japanese anime and has swelled into dozens of boards focused on everything from “science & math” to “Sexy Beautiful Women.”

The site can get raunchy. The posters can get rough with each other. Anonymity has the effect of making the users less inhibited, said Michael S. Bernstein, who studied the site’s “/b/ - random” board with colleagues at MIT and the University of Southampton in Britain. That lack of inhibition has led to plenty of “gore, pornography and racism,” Bernstein, now a computer science professor at Stanford University, said in an interview.

But amid all the offensive behavior, Bernstein and his fellow researchers also found that anonymity had a lot of positive effects. One of the most notable was the creation of a culture that fostered experimentation and new ideas. Since no names were being used, the users felt more comfortable taking risks. They’ve ended up contributing to the creation of an Internet culture and to a proliferation of memes.

The site is often credited as starting the lolcats craze, those ubiquitous photos of cats with commentary superimposed over the images, Bernstein said. It’s also the source of the Internet phenomenon of rickrolling. You haven’t been rickrolled? That’s when someone sends you a link promising to be one thing, but in reality you’re directed to a video of the awesomely awful Rick Astley song, “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

There was a time long, long ago — in Internet terms that would be the mid-to-late 1990s — when there was actually a fair amount of fretting that anonymity might not be possible on the Web. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), publisher of the respected journal Science, was concerned enough to commission a study that concluded anonymity was something worth striving to preserve. “There was talk at the time about making anonymity difficult or impossible,” said Albert H. Teich, a professor at George Washington University who was director of science and policy programs at AAAS when the study was released.

The scientists wanted the Internet to be a place where political opinions could be expressed freely without fear of repercussions; where, say, a teen struggling to come to grips with his sexuality could discreetly seek advice.

But that was then.

Teich isn’t as worried anymore, and he’s even come around to the idea that limiting anonymity might not be such a bad idea sometimes. Still, he’s torn. Terrorism gives him an argument against anonymity. Protecting contacts who were helping AAAS combat human rights violations in Central America gives him a reason to protect anonymity.

In other words, it’s complicated.

“It’s extremely difficult to apply a single standard across the board; it’s a very circumstantial thing,” he said.

And those circumstances have no clear definition. One Internet user’s embrace of anonymity might be another’s idea of boorish behavior. Enter “doxing.” Doxing is the act of outing someone who is trying to be anonymous.

There seems to be a lot of doxing lately, but nothing like the uber-dox that Adrian Chen, an enterprising Gawker reporter, pulled off last fall. Chen nabbed a kind of white whale of the Internet anonymous commenting world, a user who went by the name “Violentacrez.” The publication dubbed him the “biggest troll on the Web,” asserting, among other things, that he created a section on Reddit, the popular aggregating site, called “Jailbait.” The section was dedicated to sexual images of underage girls. Chen discovered that Violentacrez is a military veteran who lives with his wife in suburban Dallas and . . . loves cats.

With all this doxing going on, what’s an anonymous Internet poster, troll or not, to do? Bernstein, the Stanford professor, said some have turned to services, such as TOR, that are designed to protect anonymity by masking where you access the Internet.

It’s all enough to make one wistful for simpler times. Once, without any high-tech gymnastics, anonymity might help you sell a book — remember “Primary Colors,” the Bill Clinton-inspired tome later revealed to be written by journalist Joe Klein? Or, maybe, it could just help you take some rhetorical shots at the Soviet Union, like the anonymous author identified simply as Z . He caused a stir and worldwide speculation with an article in 1990 in the journal Daedalus that expressed skepticism about the reforms under Mikhail Gorbachev. Z turned out to be a University of California-Berkeley professor named Martin E. Malia, although it didn’t take a forensic computer investigator to out him — he eventually conceded authorship, essentially outing himself.

Which is exactly what some of the folks who get savaged by anonymous commenters would love to see happen now. Asked on “Today” about whether online commenters should be required to reveal their identities, Fey didn’t hesitate.

“I think you should have to put your real name, your address and a current photo,” Fey said with a grin.

She was clearly joking.

Or was she?

 
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