The Technium

On the option of being anonymous

Fancy algorithms and cool technology make true anonymity in mediated environments more possible today than ever before. At the same time this combo makes true anonymity in physical life much harder. We have caller ID, but also caller ID Block, and then caller ID-only filters. Coming up: biometric monitoring and little place to hide. A world where everything about a person can be found and archived is a world with no privacy, and therefore many technologists are eager to maintain the option of easy anonymity as a refuge for the private.

However in every system that I have seen where anonymity becomes common, the system fails. Communities infected with anonymity will either collapse, or shift the anonymous to pseudo-anonymous, as in eBay, where you have a traceable identity behind an invented nickname. Or voting, where you can authenticate an identity without tagging it to a vote.

Anonymity is like a rare earth metal. These rare elements are an absolutely necessary ingredient in keeping a cell alive, but the amount needed is a mere hard-to-measure trace. In larger does these heavy metals are some of the most toxic substances known to a life. They kill. Take cadmium. Essential for life in very minute amounts; toxic in any significant amount.

Anonymity is the same. As a trace element in vanishing small doses, it’s good for the system by enabling the occasional whistleblower, confessional, or persecuted dissent in a tyrannical regime. But if anonymity is present in any significant quantity, it will poison the system, even a half-rotten system.

I believe anonymity is essential. It is vital to a healthy society and market. Without the option of anonymity I believe a society would be less than optimal. Indeed I would fight vigorously to keep the option of being anonymous as an essential part of any society. It is both humane and wise.

At the same time I think there can be too much anonymity at work. When it becomes a default option it poisons the community — like a rare-earth metal. My argument is not against anonymity but against too much of it.

What do I mean by anonymity? An untraceable, unaccountable, undistinguishable agent. Someone who engages in an activity cloaked in the identity of the tag “anonymous.” I do not mean a vegetable vendor in a market whose name you do not know, because that person is both distinguishable and potentially traceable.  I mean people who post using anonymous as a habit.

Posting anonymously is fine as long as the overall incidents of it remain small in the larger system. But each incident of anonymity depletes commons. Everyone should have the right to being anon, but if everyone exercises that right the commons is diminished.

There’s a dangerous idea circulating that the option of anonymity should exercised liberally, and that it is an ordinary means to privacy. This is like pumping up the levels of heavy metals in your body into to make it stronger.

Privacy can only be won by trust, and trust requires persistent identity, if only pseudo-anonymously. In the end, the more trust, the better.

Regulation – that is banning anonymous actions – won’t work for many reasons. I think a better remedy for a balance between too much anonymity and not enough options for it, is a cultural ethic that declares that anonymity should be kept to a minimum because it is a claim against the commons. We all have a right to the commons, but we all have an obligation to minimize the exercise of those rights.

I believe a healthy society keeps anonymity as close to zero as possible. We should encourage people to stand up for their words and reserve anonymity for the rare times when it is essential.

  • Eric Hughes made the point that privacy isn’t keeping everything secret, it’s having control over what you conceal and what you reveal. The ability to be anonymous is important even though it’s not necessary all the time.

    In many ways everyday walking-down-the-street anonymity is evaporating. I would like to say the evaporation is much faster than the introduction of dangerous new kinds of anonymity, but I don’t know how to measure either one.
    Nor are the dangers either way easy to measure.

    Rather than try to control the “concentration” of anonymity to a critical level, it would be healthier to make the issue less critical from all directions: limit any dangerous powers being given out to anonymous loggers-in, limit what piles of skeletons we have vulnerable to whistleblowers, and reduce the need for anonymity by reducing the dangers excentrics or whistleblowers face.

  • cs

    I’m unsure whether the point that anonymity in large doses poisons participatory systems is well made: Kevin, as an innovator of The Well, and (presumably) as a later participant in the evolution of Usenet and the larger internet as a public commons, did you find that people choose to participate anonymously, or rather that they choose to take place publicly as identifiable individuals? Personally, I’ve found that most “small puddle” systems on-line are perfectly civilized and populated by well-known pseudo-anonymous personalities who “take responsibility” for their actions within the relevant context (“the commons”). However, there is definitely a tipping point in the sheer quantity of participants after which anonymity becomes increasingly problematic and eventually renders the system unusable. But this seems fine – discussion groups fragment and become more specialized and more usable, commerce sites become smaller and more efficient, etc.
    But, to address the issue on a slightly larger scale:
    The internet has evolved from an essentially private space to a radically public one, and it has done so while retaining a near perfect record of every interaction between users. Further, as it has grown in size, power and scope, it has expanded in material importance in the lives of users: the near perfect memory of the internet now holds both my bank records and my usenet posts from adolescence. I can’t (don’t find it convenient to) stop adding to this memory, nor can I remove anything from it.
    So, what was once a known and governed resource held in common amongst a definite group of people and used for a definite purpose (a true “commons,” in the sense you use it in your post) has become essentially “uncommon:” an interconnected group of related resources used for divergent purposes by a constantly changing group of participants. The PTP network, the darknet, social networking sites, public commerce sites and governmental sites do not belong to any definable “commons,” except insofar as they employ (to a greater or lesser extent, more or less publicly, etc.) one or another aspect of a common infrastructure (owned, crucially, by none of the participants).
    As a result of this evolution from private to public space and the current diversity of uses of the internet, the problems with eliminating or curtailing anonymity on-line are evident and increasingly problematic. Once anonymity is pierced, all on-line interactions become essentially public and transparent. Depending on the skill of a given user this means potentially publicizing every online interaction, ever: from forum comments to reading lists, financial data to phone numbers to home addresses.
    Abstract arguments about the desirability of anonymity in public systems aside, the internet must retain what trappings it has of anonymity – not just because I’d rather not “take responsibility” for words a decade old, but because without anonymity (or pervasive pseudo-anonymity) the internet becomes threateningly panoptic.

    On the other hand, the problems with eliminating or curtailing anonymity on-line are evident and increasingly problematic: once anonymity is pierced, all interactions become essentially public and transparent. Depending on the skill of a given user this means potentially publicizing every online interaction, ever: from forum comments to reading lists, financial data to home addresses.

  • Berend Schotanus

    There are tons of things I would like to do without revealing my identity, like: buying a bread, taking a bus, reading a newspaper, watching a movie. In fact in social life we have very delicate rules about when and how and in how far we reveal our identity. These rules have evolved over the centuries and often they are not very well documented or understood, we just follow convention without realizing there are very good reasons for doing so. We don’t mind there are no textbooks or scientific calculations behind it, just by intuition we decide to call our name or proceed without doing so and it works, that’s what matters.
    The point with internet (and other new technologies) is there hasn’t been time for the rules to settle. Too much anonymity clearly doesn’t work, too much privacy doesn’t either, there is a balance, a delicate balance between them that can only be found by trial and error.

    (P.S. I think your policy of asking a name without verifying it and asking an email address without showing is a good one)

  • Mr. Kelly, I’m curious to know the source of your information on cadmium: being essential for life in very minute amounts, I mean. Is this a recent discovery?