Privacy and Anonymity often go hand in hand when talking about internet privacy. Most of the time these discussions occur when bills like SOPA appear and try to remove the anonymity of users online. In the past I’ve been completely against removing this essential safeguard to our privacy. However, I’ve recently started to think that removing the ability to be anonymous might not be so terrible, especially for our online culture.
If you’ve ever taken the time to glance through comments of a YouTube video, Reddit post, Tweet, or anywhere that allows people to post their opinions, you’ll know that it’s very back and forth about the type of responses people will write. You’ll see the occasional thoughtful comment that truly tries to further a discussion, either by contributing new information or giving constructive feedback on what they felt could be improved. There are also the comments that thank the author of the material for entertaining or informing them, which are always great to see. However, just like reviews, the people most likely to respond are those who are either dissatisfied or very pleased. More often than not its people who aren’t happy with something that will be motivated enough to voice their displeasure. Even though they may be a minority, they are a very vocal minority, and can often appear to be the majority because many of those who enjoyed a video or article don’t feel the need to write something as simple as Thank You.
So what does any of that have to do with anonymity? Well, by being able to post behind a username that doesn’t link back to you in the “real world” people will often forgo with social etiquette and say things they wouldn’t if the person was in front of them. Now imagine that instead of a username people were required to post with their full name. I think you would see a huge change in the types of comments left. You would still get comments from people who are unhappy with the content but they wouldn’t be to the extremes they are now. For example, Call of Duty is an incredibly popular video game that recently changed the timing on a few of its weapons for balancing reasons by tenths of a second. This change resulted in death threats made to members of the development team responsible for these tweaks. It’s this kind of disgusting behavior is only aided by anonymity. I don’t think that requiring people to post with their name would eliminate this, but I do think that it would drastically reduce such instances.
I would also argue that the very anonymity that we fight to protect doesn’t really exist anymore. Whenever you create a new account to post on a forum or whatever, you are prompted for two key pieces of information that can be more identifying than you think. These are a username and an email. Both of these are often publically visible, although sometimes you can hide the email address. After years and years of accounts you probably have used the same username and email over and over again. Now if someone wants to figure out who the person is behind a username, a quick google search for either the email or username can yield other accounts you’ve made, which might have more information associated with them, or can lead to your social media profiles. With the amount of information we willingly put on these social accounts, once someone has found it, you suddenly aren’t very anonymous anymore.
For me, I still go back and forth about the pros and cons of having usernames. On one hand, I want to keep the privacy that is offered by them. On the other hand, I don’t like how that anonymity is being abused by people because there is no ramification for their actions. I’d like to see some kind of accountability for online actions, but finding a compromise that also protects people’s privacy is not easy.