10 March, 2017
Last time on this blog, I talked about why it’s futile to try to remove online privacy and anonymity, and why enforcement is nigh impossible in reality. This time, let’s take a look at what we designers can do to address some of the issues that are caused by privacy and anonymity since they are generally worth keeping.
I strongly recommend you go read the previous posts before this one to get the necessary background. Although, it may not be strictly necessary if you’re already a fan of anonymity and privacy.
Dealing with anonymity and privacy offline
Let’s take another look at the offline world and how anonymity and privacy work in the offline world. Identity is much more fixed as it takes work to disguise oneself, yet we still have people who take advantage of others in the offline world. A relative lack of anonymity doesn’t eliminate harassment, abuse, and other such behaviors. And even that identity can be hard to pin down; feel free to search for “Brian Green” without the word “Psychochild” and you’ll have a hard time finding me.
And in the offline world we don’t show all of ourselves to everyone. It’s common for people to have different facets of themselves they share to certain groups. You will act differently to your significant other than to your boss. You will act differently in front of children than you do in front of adults. We choose what elements of ourselves we expose to others, and for the most part people are more complex than we might first think from observing them.
And identity changes depending on context. The classic example here is a small town vs. a large city. In the large city, surrounded by the teeming masses of humanity, you feel less individual. You blend into the crowd more, and you feel like a face in that crowd. In a smaller town, by contracts, you feel more like an individual. With fewer people you are more recognizable. But, again, abuse and harassment still happen in smaller towns. If anything, it tends to be more insidious because it’s more personal. People in power can still abuse that power, and without anonymity it can be hard to strike back against such abuses.
How we can address bad behavior online
So, I don’t want this series to be a giant rant without at least some attempt to address the problem. I think, just like in the offline world, bad behavior like harassment is something we just have to learn to deal with the best we can. We can’t blanket eliminate harassment offline, so it’s folly to think we can somehow do it online. But, we can likely do better than we have done so far. Perhaps this is another part of the moral obligations of game designers we need to pay attention to.
The first step is that designers need to understand and accept some responsibility. Of course, this is the hard part, as modern utilitarian thought says that it’s better to eschew responsibility in order to avoid legal obligations later. Accepting that we can do something about harassment opens us up to lawsuits later when someone inevitably becomes a victim of harassment or other bad behavior while using our service. But, I think we should face this reality and take some responsibility as a first step, even as we reduce legal complications and recognize we can’t stop every bad thing from happening.
We also need to have a frank discussion about the actual dangers of bad behavior online. We need to understand that harassment is more visible in broadcast type media and therefore appears more frequent than it is. I think we also have to agree that an online threat doesn’t always carry the same weight the same threat does offline. While death threats are never a happy thing, most threats made online do not result in any specific physical harm to others. I’ve had plenty of death threats aimed at me and my loved ones, unfortunately, but I’m still here. Further, we need to establish where the boundary between free speech and harassment is. Some people take criticism of themselves or their work as harassment, which is crying wolf and only hurts others in cases when people are legitimately harassed.
We also need to educate people on how to protect themselves. Again, I’ll advocate anonymity and privacy here as a good way to protect yourself. Not exposing your full identity online helps you to protect you against people who truly want to do you harm. Being able to get away from harassers is an important survival skill online, and anonymity which lets you slip from one place to another easily helps a lot. If people can get away and feel safe, they will feel better about an online space even when the inevitable bad behavior shows up.
Finally, we can try to anticipate abuse and design tools to help address it properly. We have a small toolbox of tools that we use: blocking, reporting, avoidance. But, we can do so much more in anticipating and dealing with problems. Understanding the role that mob mentality plays can help us deal with some abuse, for example, by working to only allow people to chat in public if they can demonstrate enough maturity to do so. Then we can rely on our usual tools to handle the cases that still get through that layer. The counter-abuse of tools needs to be looked at as well; blocking is a useful thing to get away from a persistent harasser, but a harasser can also use blocking to harass someone then avoid the consequences for that harassment. Reporting tools are often used by harassers to levy punishment against a target, especially in automated systems. Start to look at how tools can be abused by people instead of helping.
The last bit of advice for game designers is to take a look at reputation systems. My friend Randy Farmer helped write a book, a website, and a series of podcasts on reputation systems and how they can be used to deal with community issues. The obvious example here comes from Twitter, where people with empty profiles (“eggs”) should not have the same ability to participate in discussions as people with more complete profiles and posting histories. Limiting new members will help restrict some bad behavior, although it can make it harder to get new people into the social fabric of the system (and thus harder to make money from them, natch).
Long term changes
Now let me talk about things a little more abstractly. I think one problem with online communication is that we’re simply not used to it yet. Our culture and reactions have been built up over centuries without online communication, and the easy-access broadcast nature of online communication means that a lot of our cultural assumptions and behaviors do are not useful. In fact, they could be downright harmful if the reactions simply trigger other bad behavior.
One of the most important things we can do is try to encourage empathy, to do things to remind everyone that there are actual people behind the screen names and avatars we interact with. Some people may feel disconnected from others looking at text or a bunch of pixels, but reminders that there are actual people behind the screen is helpful. It’s harder for a normal person to abuse another person if they can see the person and feel for them. I think it’s possible to establish this empathy, but it takes work.
We also need to take a look at a lot of our moral assumptions and how they interact with technology such as the internet. Chris’ Cybervirtues series is a great start toward trying to understand how the online medium changes how we interact with each other. I may not agree with him in everything, but he’s one of the few people taking a real philosopher’s perspective on the issue!
Finally, I think we need to look at cultural changes, too. How we interact with others changes over time. For those of us old enough to remember a time before mobile phones were ubiquitous, we remember that at one point it used to be considered extremely rude to use a phone while talking to another person. Pulling a phone out during a meal was a sure sign that the other person didn’t really care about you. This was an assumption from the time before mobile phones, where paying attention to something else while talking to someone was considered rude. Now, it’s common to have phones out constantly, even while talking to another person. This was a rapid cultural shift once mobile phones became more common.
Likewise, we need to look for cultural changes in how we interact online. We need to re-calibrate our perspective on what it means to interact online, and how to read cues beyond the direct text to understand the other person. But, these changes don’t come overnight.
Online anonymity is worth preserving
Again, I think that online anonymity and privacy are worth preserving. They are tools people can use to protect themselves, even if other people can use them to obscure their identity to perpetrate bad behavior. Eliminating anonymity and privacy simply excludes people from our communities who want to use these tools to protect themselves. Yet, people still do bad things even when identity isn’t so hidden. Finally, I think game designers and designers of online communities can and should do more to shape how we interact online, and try to make interacts better, both in the near term and the long term.
Thank you for reading this series. It turned out a long longer than I expected, but I hope this was informative and insightful. I’m interested in hearing what you think! Do you agree anonymity and privacy are useful? Or do you still think we should eliminate them for the perceived good? Did this series change your mind? Write a comment below!
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