Though there is misuse and manipulation of online anonymity, the ability to speak up under a different identity — and reach a wide audience, in some cases — allows countless others the freedom to experiment without fear of retribution.
Say, for a moment, MacMaster’s and Graber’s only crime had been to pose as women writing fictional blogs. Pseudonyms have been a powerful cloak under which women have posed as men for generations. “Middlemarch,”
“Jane Eyre” and even the Harry Potter books were published under masculine-sounding names (yes, even J.K. Rowling was urged by her publisher to be “J.K.,” not Joanne).
Writers — and everyone else — should be able to explore identities and beliefs online, without it being tied to our Google history forever.
“I don’t believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time,” Eric Schmidt, Google’s former chief executive, told the Wall Street Journal in an interview last year. He suggested that the only way future generations will be able to escape their digital past will be by changing their names in adulthood. That future would be one in which every youthful indiscretion, or every opinion voiced, would be permanently recorded. No one could try, fail, learn and try again with a clean slate.
Anonymous comments, which can be a miasma of profane, inaccurate and controversial rants, are often used as the prime example of why we need more authenticity online. As bloggers for The Washington Post, we are greeted with the joys of anonymous comments every day. “Take your ignorance back to India,” “learn to read you jerk” and “what dribble” are just some of the more printable sweet nothings that anonymous commenters whisper under our posts.
Yet, at the same time, federal employees who read our work have told us that they would be unable to contribute to the intelligent debates that often take place in the comments section with their real names out of fear of losing their jobs.
Beyond the hand-wringing over this past week’s deceptions, the Web itself already imperils anonymity. While the Internet offers plenty of ways to mask identity, it also makes it easy to trace people. For instance, though MacMaster carefully covered his footprints, The Post was able to find him — on a Yahoo message board, through his I.P. address, via a dating profile and from a photograph he took from his wife’s online album.
In other cases, digital evidence has led repressive governments to clamp down on writers. A founder of the blogging movement in Iran, Hossein Derakhshan wrote extensively about his country. At his trial last year, those posts helped convict him of creating propaganda against the Islamic regime. He was sentenced to nearly 20 years in the notorious Evin prison.
Anonymity has allowed bloggers in the Middle East to safely tell the world what is happening in their countries during the Arab Spring. Anonymity allows everyone online a freedom of expression, a creativity and a breadth of discussion that might not occur if a name had to be attached.
The dangers of anonymity do not outweigh the benefits. We need to allow space for the real Gay Girls in Damascus and the genuine Lez Get Real bloggers, whoever they might be.
Melissa Bell and Elizabeth Flock, who covered the Gay Girl in Damascus blog story, write BlogPost for The Washington Post. They will be online on Monday, June 20, at 2 p.m. to chat. Submit your questions and comments now.