Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

7 March, 2017

Series on online anonymity and privacy, part 1
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 7:56 AM

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 topic has come back to the surface thanks to my friend Bart Stewart. He commented over on Chris Bateman’s blog about the long-standing discussion we’ve had on and off over the years.

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!







6 Comments »

  1. Reminds me vaguely of my own very old and very long winded post: http://www.unwesen.de/2007/07/13/ive_got_nothing_to_hide/

    Comment by unwesen — 7 March, 2017 @ 8:10 AM

  2. This is a fine start to discussing something worth talking about.

    Most of my time today is booked, but I’ll probably have some comments later. For now, I’d just like to note that we actual have multiple areas of common ground on this general subject — we really aren’t at opposite and mutually exclusive poles. I also consider personal privacy, in general, to be a worthy goal that absolutely should be considered when designing public electronic spaces.

    My position is that it’s not the only worthy goal that should be factored into the design of multi-person spaces. I also don’t fully share some of the assumptions on which your arguments appear to rest — a belief that most people are mostly bad, for example, is not an accurate representation of what I believe to be true of human nature, so knocking that belief doesn’t actually undermine my conclusion that designing anonymity into most multi-person spaces is usually counterproductive to cooperative behavior.

    I’ll get more into these points later. For now, all I’d like to say is that I’m glad you’re writing these specifically because I see real value in your position, even if I share it only partially. Looking forward to the next entries!

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 7 March, 2017 @ 10:03 AM

  3. I know we’ve talked about online anonymity before, with reference to the name policy on social networks, for example. I think it’s a very interesting situation, definitely a double-edged sword, and worth dissecting in detail.

    I think anonymity has 2 key uses in terms of behaviour. Firstly, of preventing an adversary from being able to direct an attack in your direction. Secondly, of being able to partition one’s reputation along lines of one’s own choosing.

    The second use is fascinating, because it fixes a problem that the internet itself causes. It used to be the case that, after making some societal mistake, you may pay a temporary penalty (whether to your reputation, your finances, or even your liberty) but eventually it would be forgotten if you didn’t repeat the offence. But now everything gets recorded online, search engines index it, and every minor disagreement, misdemeanour, or controversy you participate in is potentially known to the whole world for years to come. In the EU, and some other jurisdictions, there are laws to try and help with this (e.g. the ‘right to be forgotten’), but being easily able to change your name is helpful.

    But the first use is the really tricky one. We know there are people who legitimately need privacy for protection from bad actors, and there are also people who need privacy in order to be those bad actors without fear of reprisal. As you say, community management is important, but when you add anonymity into the mix several of the common tools for that cease to be useful. You can’t exile people from a community if you have no clear way to identify who ‘them’ is, or force a punishment upon them if you can’t ensure that the punishment applies to the user/player rather than a disposable character/avatar. People get hounded off Twitter because their enemies create fresh accounts that can harass their victims, just like angry banned players used to come back onto MUDs with a different name. But back then we could issue an IP address ban; now, we rarely even have that way of linking the new account to the old one.

    Similarly, I get many junk phone calls each day from a company that is only able to do this because they are permitted to withhold their phone number from me. The only reason I can’t get their company shut down immediately for abusing the phone network is because I have no practical way of knowing who is doing this. Same goes for spammers. Privacy protects them, at our expense.

    And although it might be outside the remit of this blog post, some communities simply do not want to be ‘managed’, or at least have strongly different ideas about what form that should take (terrorists, contraband sellers, child abusers). Many of these people are not easily deterred or reasoned with, but strong anonymity gives them ways to harm the rest of us.

    It’s hard for me to see that the benefits of online anonymity outweigh the negatives, at least at the stage we’re currently at. Persistent pseudonyms, the “masked identities”, are perhaps a good compromise. Can we enforce or encourage such a thing?

    Comment by Kylotan — 7 March, 2017 @ 10:28 AM

  4. When it comes to online anonymity or privacy two quotes rapidly come to mind.

    “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” – Benjamin Franklin.

    “It is better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer.” – Sir William Blackstone

    Having your real name/identity tied to all your activities online ties them together. Online gaming, social media, and lifestyle forums (from television discussion, to fitness, to social activism of many types, to less savoury areas) are linked. This makes it easier for someone, for as little reason as momentary boredom, to research your proclivities, find something they don’t like, and use that in a smear campaign. Sadly, just about anything you find good or are proud of doing, some social set finds reprehensible and anathema.

    Forcing this public identity to ‘protect’ people from bullying or other negative social interaction would, as noted, make at least some number more susceptible to (ongoing) attack. Better to allow victims the same freedom as the bullies – the ability to ditch the persona/profile/etc and create a new one.

    Online providers (from ISP to game company to forum owner to whatever), however, have the right to request/require this information to “come in the front door”. It shouldn’t be shared with others (barring righteous application by law enforcement), but it certainly can and should be used under the same auspice that any real world property owner can evict or ban an individual. The community management aspect. If someone yells racial/sexual/religious slurs in your shop-o-mart, and you don’t happen to be a matching bigot, you’ll ask them to shut up and leave – potentially forcibly evicting them. If someone uses slurs in an online situation, the ‘owner’ has every right (and, arguably, moral requirement) to act in the same fashion – removing the cause.

    Comment by Sutekh — 8 March, 2017 @ 5:53 AM

  5. Bart Stewart wrote:
    I’d just like to note that we actual have multiple areas of common ground on this general subject

    Oh, I never thought we were on diametrically opposed sides here. We’re both savvy and experienced with online. I think we quibble over relatively minor bits, but I think this is an interesting topic.

    I also don’t fully share some of the assumptions on which your arguments appear to rest — a belief that most people are mostly bad, for example, is not an accurate representation of what I believe to be true of human nature…

    Note that the questions are meant to provoke thought on the topic, not be absolute policy position statements. I don’t think people are mostly bad, either, but I think it’s very useful to examine one’s own biases about why people behave poorly. Understanding the fundamental attribution error is important.

    Anyway, hope you get time to comment on the rest of the posts this week!

    Kylotan wrote:
    But now everything gets recorded online, search engines index it, and every minor disagreement, misdemeanour, or controversy you participate in is potentially known to the whole world for years to come.

    This is an exceptional point. We’ve already seen people come to regret the stupid stuff they posted on social media when they were “young and dumb”. Those of us who are a bit older can appreciate that the world has forgotten some of the stupid stuff we did when we were like that.

    It’s hard for me to see that the benefits of online anonymity outweigh the negatives, at least at the stage we’re currently at.

    Well, read on. I make some more detailed arguments later, so we’ll see what you think.

    Anyway, thanks to everyone for the insightful comments so far! I hope the next three posts provoke even more thought and commentary!

    Comment by Psychochild — 8 March, 2017 @ 8:03 AM

  6. Hi Psycho! I rarely, rarely ever post on these blog things, so I’m really shy about it.

    >>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.

    I think there are some people who are prone to bad behavior – some people get a rush just from riling things up and watching the tower fall down. While some people like to demolish physical things, I wouldn’t doubt that there are good feelings for some when they demolish emotional structures. Others, I think – use it as an outlet for their own shortcomings. In this environment of throwaway identities, when you’ve had a bad day at work/school/etc, it’s much easier to lash out without consequences. I’ve been in a situation in an MMO where someone was really nasty during a trial to both the healers. When I approached them to compliment their guildmate on actually giving useful advice, they were very, very nice — Followed by a “who are you again? And when did we run with you?” When I told them, there was this awkward silence, followed by apology/had a bad day/was drunk on that run/didn’t mean to lash out, etc. I’d say that’s the majority of people.

    I do believe there is a social anonymity advantage. If I walked into work and said “git good nuub” with someone who was struggling, I’d be shunned (and probably written up). There is something about face-to-face behavior and a community with set structures and rules, and a known penalty/enforcement that means something. Being excluded from a social group, access to a venue, those all have consequences and swift enforcement (often) of such. Online, that’s somewhat less of a case. There are no teachers/police/bosses, etc.

    It’s also strange that these same vitriolic people can be a very nice group at times. The same people on reddit who are going “u suck, etc” can gather around someone who is perceived as at a disadvantage. For example, you get the 70-something gaming grandma… the blind gamer… the gamer who has a few months to live before they die of cancer. You see the best in these same people when it comes to extremes…

    I think some of it also has to do with the audience you reach. Part of the problem with the “shout” system in FF14. Imagine if you really did have to go through the effort to SHOUT everything that you were saying. I think the conversation would be a lot more subdued… or people would have a lot of sore throats!

    Not arguing for or against anonymous situations. Just thinking about your questions. I personally like a little online anonymity…I’m a shy gamer… don’t like the whole world knowing that I game for a hobby. :)

    Comment by Syn_the_Shy — 17 March, 2017 @ 9:51 AM

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