Online anonymity (or pseudonymity, which is similar but not quite the same) comes under fire regularly from those who believe that it encourages bad behavior such as bullying and racism, whether in blog comments or on Twitter, or in popular apps like Secret and Whisper. If only we could force everyone to use their real names, these critics argue, then discourse on the internet would become a virtual paradise of civility and camaraderie.
In a recent blog post, entrepreneur and Y Combinator partner Sam Altman wrote about Secret, and how the app had degenerated quickly into a “Mean Girls-style burn book,” and argued that this was just another example of how online anonymity inevitably turns nasty. As he put it:
“Anonymity breeds meanness — the Internet has proven this time and time again. People are willing to say nice or neutral things with their name attached — they need anonymity for mean things and things they are embarrassed about. In fact, the closer to real identity internet forums get, the less they seem to decay.”
Anonymity also helps foster creativity
Altman’s post sparked a response from none other than Chris Poole, also known as “Moot”: the founder of 4chan, one of the most notorious online communities and the birthplace of memes such as LOLcats. As someone who has run 4chan since he started it at age 15, Poole knows more about the virtues and dangers of anonymity than anyone alive — and despite that, he still comes down on the side of anonymity.
In his own blog post, Poole said that in his experience, anonymity does the exact opposite of what Altman suggests. While it can involve meanness, Poole said it can also be responsible for a lot of good things: “Anonymity facilitates honest discourse, creates a level playing field for ideas to be heard, and enables creativity like none other.” The growth of 4chan, he said, was a testament to what people can do when they can interact without what he has called “the burden of identity.”
“Few communities have grown in size and come to influence mainstream culture as 4chan has, for as long as it has, and it is without a doubt the result of allowing people to… share and explore new ideas together. It’s incredible what people can make when they’re able to fail publicly without fear, since not only will those failures not be attributed to them, but they’ll be washed away by a waterfall of new content.”
The discussions at 4chan are raw, Poole admits, but at least they are honest — unlike some of the dialogue that occurs on platforms that require some form of verified identity, where users are constantly aware that their opinions will follow them around the internet forever. Even the sometimes offensive language and manners of 4chan users, he said, are essentially code that restricts certain parts of the site to those who can handle it.
Free speech has value even if it is unpleasant
Poole compares 4chan to a virtual “Speakers’ Corner,” the famous spot in London’s Hyde Park, where everyone can express an opinion, however disturbed, and the best content eventually rises to the top. No matter who writes a post, “no amount of karma or social capital can save it from the depths of irrelevance,” Poole says. “It’s ideas, not reputations, that shine here.” And for all of its grimy parts, the 4chan founder says the result is worth it:
“4chan isn’t without its problems and is by no means a utopia, but in many ways provides an accurate representation of who we are: flawed, imperfect. I see beauty in that, and something worthy of continued exploration.”
Altman and other critics are right about the potential downsides of apps and services like Secret, or Formspring before that, or even tools like IRC and instant messaging — they can be used for bullying and for spouting racist or homophobic or otherwise offensive opinions, just as Twitter can be used for the same kinds of purposes. But ultimately I would argue that trying to extinguish that kind of behavior causes more problems than allowing it.
How do we choose which kinds of speech are appropriate and which aren’t, and who makes those decisions? Should it be Facebook, which routinely deletes content about breastfeeding and the war in Syria? Should “real” identities be required by law? We might lose a lot of trolling and spam, but we would also lose a lot of potentially useful and powerful commentary from those who don’t want to reveal their real identities, because they fear retaliation.
Embedded below is a TED talk that Poole did in 2010 about the virtues of anonymity:
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Andrea Michele Piacquadio