More Anon

I’ll defend the right for people to protect their privacy online – and in no medium is that more important in than blog comments.

Yes. The blog comments section – that much maligned 21st century equivalent of the salon. Or is that saloon? Either way, I truly believe that commenting is where we find some of the best debate on the web. Also, some of the worst. Anonymity has, for some, the six-cans-of-Special-Brew effect. Shielded from the fear of repercussions, the more explosive among us feel  free to abandon all the usual proprieties of conversation.

However, it’s this dark, basement dwelling side of the medium that always gets the spotlight, like when Engadget shut down comments.

Few people highlight the  advantages of anonymous commentary, perhaps fearing it. After all, anonymity – like blogging itself – is a great equaliser.

In print journalism it’s normal to adopt an authoritative, top-down position, offering readers a very meagre right to reply. People reading the work may or may not agree with it, but few will bother to express their own opinion. Even when readers do choose to write, the magazine or newspaper is in control of the process of response.  There is, in this, an assumption on behalf of the journalist and editor that their opinion is superior and expert.  In fact, that assumption of authority is how many magazines are sold.

Blogging’s a very different thing. You’re starting a conversation about your opinion. Your voice is now one among many.  You’re no longer superior and your expertise can and will be held under scrutiny. Sometimes people will disagree with you. Some politely, others less so.

Just ask Lily Allen.

So –  should people have the right to do all that anonymously? I think so.

As I’ve noted, some post anonymously just so they can be rude. So they can vent. But not all do that and it would be wrong-headed, not to mention a misrepresentation, to say that anyone who disagrees with you must fall into that category (however tempting).

Some post anonymously on blogs because the free expression of their opinion would get them into trouble elsewhere if their name were known. Perhaps it would even stop them from getting work in future. The Internet lays a breadcrumb trail of our past interactions for others to Google.

For some, anonymity is a facilitator. It enables people who lack power (using the term in the Marxist sense here) to engage with those who don’t.  In fact, let’s go a bit further than that. That’s one of the ways blogs shine.

And then there’s a more academic way of looking at anonymity – which is to say that we are not anonymous online, we are just “other”. We choose a name, we project a virtual personality.  In the terms of UI pioneer Douglas Engelbart, who you are when you interact with a computer  is an an extension of the self – but not the self. It’s a refinement, chosen and honed for the interaction you’re participating in.

For journalists, who write for a living, and are defined in some way by that activity, that last bit is pretty hard to grasp. “Whaddya mean it’s not me! Of course it is!”. But journalists are a special case (in more ways than one).

The Internet – to paraphrase William Gibson’s description of cyberspace – is now here and nowhere. It is immediate and without location. It enables an instant reaction without filters because it is virtual, because it is free of the environmental rules that govern conversation in more old fashioned forums. There are new rules in place instead and one of them is; you can be who you choose to be.

And yes, that means you get the mad and the bad as well as the good making comments. You get trolls and spammers and spleen-venters (all of whom are easily deleted and blocked). But you also get debate between interested parties at a level and intensity that you don’t get in any other space.  Without anonymity – or more accurately without virtual personality – you would not have that. You would just have the letter’s page and the phone in, mediated from the top down. And who wants to go back to that?

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