When I was a teenager I predicted the importance of identity and anonymity to the internet. The Internet were a dark brooding guitar band from a small village in the middle of nowhere. Identity was a new wave solo artist that was influenced by David Bowie and 17th century Parisian fashion. Anonymity was a hip-hop duo that mixed voodoo beats with disconnected samples. They were imaginary bands that I created in the days P.I. (Pre-Internet) for my parallel Top 40 that I would dream up when I was bored (which as anyone from P.I. days will remember was a condition that happened quite a lot).
The point I am trying to make is that I always had a flexible approach to identity. In English classes I wrote essays in a voice that did not sound like me at all. An authentic voice was something that creative artists constructed if they wanted to win the Nobel prize for literature. Dropping and mixing identity was something that I enjoyed doing. It was a form of play for me and I still use it as a lens to view the world, even if it is only in the naming of a blog as Information Agent. It gives me a freedom to say things that I might never explore. Some of us just prefer that sort of communication to the more instant face-to-face method.
This ability to create identity and set different levels of anonymity is part of what makes the internet such an interesting space. Few principles cause as much polarisation as privacy. If there will ever be a Cyber civil war, you can be sure that the flags of privacy and anonymity will be flapping about there in the middle of the conflict. How people interpret and define the level of online anonymity that they are comfortable with seems to mark them out in much the same way as Nationalism did at the turn of the 20th century. Like Nationalism, people use it for setting boundaries and limits and it can be used in a variety of ways.
Like myself, I know plenty of students who came out of second level education without great social skills. Online collaboration allowed us to blossom. Before I took to Twitter seriously I chanced my arm as an online neolithic stone mason in the Boyne Valley. This was a collaborative project with another archaeology student. At one level we wanted to explore what it was like to put ourselves in the shoes of a person from the past, but I think a lot of it was just messing around with online characters. I also had a Tumblr account that was curated by an Edwardian Gentleman Explorer. Nor is it all about fun and games. I use anonymous forums when I need information that gets too close to my own personal boundaries. They allow me to explore my own uncomfortability in a safe way. In parts of the world where it can be hazardous to speak freely, online anonymity allows people to fight censorship and spread word of human rights violations. Real life undercover agents (whether they are military or anti-criminal) are able to protect their anonymity to ensure that they cannot be tracked. All good stuff.
However, whenever there is a way of expressing yourself without impunity, there can be trouble. Online anonymity is perfect for attacking others. You can say what you want and not have to take responsibility for it. Just look at the comments section of online newspapers. There is something about this freedom which turns the guy next door into a troll who thrives on rising arguments to nuclear level. Researchers have found that online anonymity definitely effects how people comment online. Just last night my daughter received a scary message from an anonymous profile called “Chucky” on one of her game website profiles which was warning her not to go to sleep at night. Luckily we knew that this was her cousin trying to wind her up and she will receive a lecture in return when I get home from work.
People want their online privacy, for all kinds of reasons. I have friends who refuse to have anything to do with social media. Growing up in small towns makes you highly sensitive to other people knowing your business. It can feel like a sort of control. Some people don’t like the idea of commercial companies using their personal information. Some just want their privacy, not because they have anything to hide, but because they feel it is their right. All it takes is for one group to figure out how to use your information against you and you are in trouble. This is what happened to the Dutch jews when the Germans arrived and found a perfectly good archive system in place which identified each person by religious persuasion. That was the end of their freedom.
When money is involved, there is just as much at stake. I trade my own personal information in return for access to Google’s index. I am willing to do that, but not everybody is. My online behaviour is measured and scrutinised as if I were a lab mouse. Apparently, companies can learn a lot by running a few mice through mazes a couple of million times a day in return for an information hit. All I know is that this somehow allows Ryanair to put up the price of a flight after I have researched it. In this case, my personal information is tracked and connected to personal identifiers and I lose out because of it.
Some people have a healthy dislike of that sort of carry-on. When Janet Vertasi learned that she was pregnant, she did not want marketers targetting her with their products. This behaviour was considered so unusual that the NSA were alerted about her attempts to evade tracking. When I was studying Information in university, one of my fellow students felt so strongly about his personal privacy that he used TOR, the same channel that Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden used to leak classified information. This is a Virtual Private Network which was created by the military to help undercover agents and whistleblowers avoid capture. Although it is now funded by the EFF and it uses voluntary servers to encrypt identity instead of information, even this may not allow real anonymity. The NSA have already hacked TOR once and many of the sites on the dark web that it accesses are supposed to be honeypots for catching criminal and malicious activity.
On the whole I give privacy and anonymity a bit of thought. I try to be conscious of what I share online. I grew up P.I. but my kids have a different experience. They have their own Youtube channels. I try to teach them that it is unusual to be permanently in front of an audience and that this can effect how they behave. It is a highly filtered (created, edited and amplified) experience and can be as unreal as an imaginary rock band. As someone once said on Twitter, anonymity is no longer a way to hide who you are, it is now a way to be who you are.
University of Houston. “Researcher finds anonymity makes a difference with online comments.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 January 2014. .