Lev Grossman's The Price of Anonymity in this week's Time Magazine is interesting partly because of his unforgettable portrait of John Mackey as Marie Antoinette. But it veers to a draconian conclusion:
As far back as the 1980s, the Internet has been an electronic masked ball, a place where people can play with new identities and get off on the frisson of being somebody else. MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle has argued that this kind of identity-play even has therapeutic value. You certainly can't ascribe a plausible financial motive to Mackey–rahodeb's postings weren't moving stock prices around. This was about just being naughty: picture Mackey chortling as he played the regular rube, like Marie Antoinette dressing up as a peasant and milking cows on the fake farm she built near Versailles. (Mackey was even in drag, sort of–rahodeb is an anagram of his wife's name, Deborah.)
But it's all fun and games till somebody loses his head. As anybody who has even looked sideways at the Internet knows, anonymity has a disastrously disinhibiting effect on human behavior. Freed of any possibility that their words will be connected to their actual identities, anonymous Internet posters have charted historic new depths of verbal offensiveness. Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture, has called for posters to own up to their Internet alter egos, arguing that “if we are to save the Internet, we need to confront the curse of anonymity.”
Then again, anonymity can protect the innocent as well as the guilty. As privacy advocates will be ecstatically eager to remind you, Common Sense and The Federalist were both first published anonymously. In countries where governments don't respect free speech, anonymity is a priceless resource. Right now the Chinese city of Xiamen is trying to ban anonymous Web postings after citizens used the Internet to organize a protest against a new chemical plant.
There are forums in which the need to exchange information anonymously is compelling. But there aren't many, and in most cases it's just a temptation. Look at Amazon, which since 2004 has urged anonymous reviewers to fess up to their real names, lest authors be tempted to review their own books. Viewed as a social experiment in good faith among anonymous equals, the Internet is not succeeding. The masked ball is in danger of becoming a hooded mob.
The Internet is not succeeding? Where did the hooded mob emerge from all of a sudden? There have been more hooded mobs in the physical world, where everyone is supposedly recognizable, than on the internet – some of them carrying identity cards.
I can see we're going to need to turn a lot more attention to explaining that anonymity and pseudonymity are legitimate parts of identity.