7 March, 2017
Harassment, bullying, abuse. Unfortunately, we didn’t escape these horrible things as we created online spaces. Some people simply aren’t very considerate of others. And because the internet is a communication medium, we see these vile behaviors more frequently since many messages are broadcast to a wide audience.
It makes sense that designers would look for answers to this problem. Since issues like harassment, bullying, and abuse seem to be less frequent in the offline world, people look for ways to make online more like offline One frequent proposal is to remove online anonymity, since this is a feature easily available online but much harder to do offline. The reasoning is that if people can’t hide behind anonymity, they would behave better.
I’m going to take the controversial perspective that anonymity, and it’s related cousin privacy, are too valuable to give up in the futile pursuit of eliminating bad behavior online. This is a series of blog posts that will look into anonymity and privacy in online spaces.
This the first post of a series of four. I poured a lot of time into researching and writing these posts, so I hope you’ll enjoy them and be provoked to thought!
An old topic come to life
This came up because of Chris’ Cybervirtues series of posts, where he talks about encouraging virtuous behavior the our modern age of “cyborgs”. As humans are tied to machines (such as smartphones) to enhance their capabilities, Chris has realized that we need new virtues given our enhancements. Part of this is understanding what is needed in online interaction enhanced by computers, smartphones, and the Internet. It’s great reading, and should be required for anyone wanting to do online game design!
In the discussion in the comments, Chris also says that online anonymity causes too much harm and should be eliminated. I threatened to write a blog post, and it turned into a whole series of my own!
What is anonymity?
One problem is that often online anonymity is ill-defined. We know that people can obscure their real identity in the online medium. But, using a pseudonym doesn’t necessarily obscure identity; I may post with the pseudonym “Psychochild”, but it’s rather easy to find information about me because that pseudonym makes me easier to find.
Let’s define a few terms for discussion. Anonymity is the ability to choose not be known or recognized by others. Privacy, a related concept, is about choosing what information you want to reveal to others. In both cases, it’s about obscuring part of your identity or yourself from others.
Related to this we have a “masked identity”, as Chris Bateman calls it. This is where you have a consistent identity that doesn’t necessarily reflect your offline identity. So, in game you might know this guy “Psychochild” without necessarily knowing the person “Brian” behind that strange name without me choosing to share that information.
I think one problem with the “online anonymity” argument is that we’re arguing the wrong thing. For most people, the more important thing is privacy, to hide things about yourself that you would rather not be exposed to others. For some people, this includes their entire identity, thus the desire for anonymity from some people.
How is anonymity/privacy used?
There are many arguments brought saying that online anonymity enables, if not encourages, certain bad behaviors in people. Yet, I doubt many of them would be willing to give up privacy, which I think is the more important issue. And, it’s hard to eliminate anonymity without also eliminating privacy/ So, really, it’s more an argument about how much privacy should we give up in order to accomplish the goals of reducing abusive behavior online.
But, there are legitimate reasons for people to want privacy. The prime example would be prior victims of abuse wishing to avoid their abusers. Some people have been the target of abuse and harassment, so they want to obscure their identity so that those abusers and harassers cannot easily track them. Requiring any sort of persistent identity would mean these victims would be unable to escape their abusers. But, really, everyone deserves a measure of privacy, to be allowed to keep some things to themselves.
I linked to this video before talking about the end of privacy. For most of us, particularly people who remember pre-internet times, this is a pretty frightening prospect. We don’t want to give up our privacy. Even as a somewhat public figure, I reserve parts of myself away from the public eye. The “Psychochild” you read on this blog is just one facet of the guy “Brian” who types these words.
Of course, this type of “hiding” can have a sinister purpose. I might be hiding a criminal record behind the pseudonym “Psychochild”. And, yes, some people who hide behind anonymity may be embolden to break the rules. So, yes, someone could claim to be a victim of abuse but use their anonymity to hurt others. But, to take away anonymity and privacy to expose wrongdoers and you also take away anonymity and privacy that protects victims and even just normal people who don’t want their whole life exposed to others.
But, take a look at that prior link. Notice the other element in that article that is important: people in groups are more likely to transgress. I think this is a very important issue to consider, because it is often the “mob mentality” which encourages bad behavior in online communities. People are emboldened to do selfish things when in a group. As I’ve said repeatedly in the past, community management is vital!
I think there are some areas where we should restrict privacy and anonymity online; these tend to be the same areas we would restrict such things offline. The best example is that those in positions of power should be held accountable for their actions; they should not be able to make decisions that affect others then hide behind a mask of anonymity. There are other exceptions to the rule as well, but I think going into all of them isn’t necessarily useful for this discussion. The main point is that the right to online anonymity and privacy isn’t absolute, but I lean in favor of giving it to more people than to less.
Questions about anonymity
I think this discussion brings up a lot of interesting questions that we should consider. I don’t think there are any good answers here, but thinking about these questions may help you to figure out your own biases and perspectives.
1. Are people inherently prone to bad behavior, or does one’s situation encourage bad behavior? I think this is an interesting question, particularly when considered in the context of the fundamental attribution error bias. A lot of people talk about online anonymity being used as a mask to shield one from the consequences of bad behavior; however, this strikes me as viewing some people as inherently bad and the situation having little to do with it.
2. Why are people disconnected from the consequences of their behavior? One reason people don’t go around acting like assholes in the offline world is because there are consequences. These may be mild, such as disappointing a friend or someone ignoring you, to more severe consequences like a slap in the face for something truly egregious. People say that online anonymity shields people from social consequences and online space doesn’t allow for physical consequences. I wonder if this is truly the case, as slapping isn’t all that common for rude behavior between strangers in the offline world.
3. How much of online behavior is truly unique, and how much is just more visible? People tend to think we live in violent times, even though crime statistics are at historic lows. One reason frequently blamed is the news; a violent crime that might have made the local newspaper now gets wider coverage in media with broader reach. The internet is perhaps the most amazing communication platform we’ve ever known; I can talk to someone on the other side of the globe in real-time with lots of other people participating. So, how much of online bad behavior is truly novel, and how much of our perception is certain examples getting more coverage and attention?
4. What is the minimum amount of privacy one should have? Different cultures have different thresholds for how much privacy one is allowed. Most cultures allow that people should have some privacy, but we tend to look at people who want too much warily. Someone who seems to be hiding something is someone who can’t be fully trusted. Of course, sometimes people just want to protect some private part of themselves. But, others are hiding something that would be a warning sign to others. So, how much privacy is reasonable to have in online spaces?
I don’t have any answers here. But, I think these are important questions to keep in mind as we discuss this more.
Next post I’ll talk a bit more about our (U.S.) cultural perspectives on anonymity and privacy. For now, post comments below with your thoughts.
This series took a lot of time to write, research, and edit. Consider supporting me on Patreon and give me the freedom to spend more time writing on topics like this. Thanks!