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An AnonymousIdentity is a special subclass of an OnlineIdentity. An OnlineIdentity still has some sort of reputation behind it because you can track that identity's history online. An AnonymousIdentity, on the other hand, doesn't really care about its reputation in the long term. It's more of a temporary (even one-off) identity used to say something without the need to take responsibility.

For instance, on Wikis like this one, the simplest AnonymousIdentity is just to write something without signing it. No one will know you wrote it (unless they've memorized your IP from RecentChanges).

Another example would be AnonymousCoward? on SlashDot. There, anyone can post as AnonymousCoward? without having it traced back to them.

This is good because it allows people to say things without fear of retribution. Generally useful for Microsoft supporters on Slashdot. Or political activists in oppressive regimes. Indeed, if you believe greatly in freedom of speech (as I do), you have to permit a certain amount of anonymous testimony because sometimes retribution is inevitable.

However, anonymous identities are also bad because it allows people to say things that are libelous, slanderous, misinformation, disinformation or just plain flamage. In general, we'd like to keep the quality of our information high, even in the face of a PhonyFlood.

This is where PeerReview can help. The journalistic ethic of "never reveal your source" can also help. However, that ethic has allowed journalists to make outlandish claims without any real proof--and sometimes without any proof.

The idea of anonymous tip lines has also arisen fairly recently. By lying to the police, you can seriously violate your victim's rights and harm them greatly. At least in the legal system in the country I live in, witness testimonial without corroborating evidence is inadequate to convict. However, that doesn't work in the court of public opinion. -- SunirShah

See also FreeNet, which takes the concept of anonymity to an extreme.

CypherPunk terminology makes an important distinction of AnonymityVsPseudonymity.

We had a long debate about the ImportanceOfIdentityInOnlineCommunities.


Teich, A., Frankel, M. S., Kling, R., and Lee, Y-C. (1999). Anonymous communication policies for the Internet: Results and recommendations of the AAAS Conference. The Information Society, 15, 71-77.

Those of you who read WikiWiki, what do you think of the addition of anonymous identities to the mix via UserName?

Recently I suggested on Wiki:UserName to emit the domain/IP of the poster after the UserName. This would help, I think.

I am coming to believe that anonymity is not conducive to building a community. If you feel fearful, there is something deeply wrong that needs to be fixed. If you are merely shy, you will have trouble fitting into the community. I can't think of too many cases where an AnonymousIdentity is useful in a healthy society. Since most societies aren't healthy, anonymity is useful journalistically, but even then the information should come through a source with a reputation to project (e.g. a newspaper). Someone must vouch for what is said. Anyway, real names (or at least pseudonyms) are better for tying a community together. After all, we'd like to get to know you and become friends. Hard to do that with a shadow. -- SunirShah

Groups that insist on identities often do so for bad (or hidden) reasons, however. I'm generally against a "community" demanding anything it does not clearly need from individuals. Full anonymity does have some place in "pure idea" discussions. At the very least, I think that clearly marked anonymity should be tolerated as long as the anonymous persons act in a civil fashion. (Uncivil acts don't need to be tolerated regardless of identity.)

On the other hand, nobody should feel obligated to trust anonymous statements, especially if they are arguments from personal experience. A statement "C has serious problems with large-scale projects" might not be worth replying to if it is from an anonymous source. (It might be from someone who has no personal experience, and just doesn't like the language.) If someone like Sunir was to write that, however, one could evaluate the source and decide if Sunir is an expert on the subject matter. When Dennis Ritchie says "C is quirky, flawed, and an enormous success" [1], it demands much more attention.

I often think people should take more responsibility for evaluating statements and their sources, rather than insisting that the world of ideas should be made safe for them. Requiring that certain statements be attributed to people is dangerously close to outlawing such statements. One thing I find highly ironic is that the classic US FirstAmendment exception for "clear and present danger" (the "shouting fire" rule) was originally applied to the distribution of leaflets. (The leaflets compared the WWI draft to slavery.) The convictions were upheld by the US Supreme Court which held the leaflets were unlawfully dangerous. Obviously the recipients couldn't be trusted to read and discard the socially-rejected ideas in those leaflets. Sometimes I think a label like "Dangerous Ideas: Read the following only if you are capable of reasonably evaluating and discarding bad ideas" should be a near-absolute defense. I'll stop now, before I really get into a full-scale rant... --CliffordAdams

I greatly dislike anonymity. I also greatly dislike pseudonymity. Using my real name is important to me; not because I want to build fame, but because I exist in a, as a context. I think it leads to higher quality work on average too, because I know if I could hide behind a foil I would abuse the privilege. -- SunirShah

Pah. Pish-posh. Poppycock and rubbish and all those other outdated british expressions. I don't know SunirShah from Adam. A name alone is meaningless. If I posted as Bob Jones, how would that make any difference? What matters in a name is the history you know about. I know Signal 11's real name, and where he lives, and quite a lot about his life and history. I also have a large amount of received data from talking to him and reading his comments and stories. But in my mind, all that meta-knowlege is tagged onto the descriptor "Signal 11". If I read his real name in the newspaper, I very much doubt it would even occur to me to link the two (well, that's not totally true-- he has a pretty unusual name, but the point stands despite that). A "real" name is no more real here than a pseudonym, and frequently it's quite a lot less real. You're seriously mistaking the descriptor for the meaning, IMO. Matter of fact, you all know me as "rusty", but that's not my real name at all, according to the government. "Rusty" itself is a pseudonym, but its one that I choose to live under, and is accepted by everyone as my "real" name. --BobJones

I tend not to like anonymity. Pseudonymity is actually a given of the system. "kmself@ix.netcom.com" is a pseudonym, as is "kmself" at K5, "kmself" at Slashdot, "karsten" at a number of other sites, and other identities in other contexts. Some of these pseudonyms are tied into a web of other cyberspace and real-space identities, some are not. This is a feature of the system, not a bug.

LawrenceLessig makes the point that the real issue is "SerialPseudonymity?" -- the ability to create, over time, fresh identities with no history. In physical life, this is a reality -- for much of the world, I'm merely a guy on the street or some car passing on the highway. I consider both persistent, authenticated identities, and temporarily adopted novel identities to be essential for various functions online. There are times I want to be "me", there are times I want to be nobody. -- KarstenSelf

There is a myth that AnonymousIdentity is morally neutral; e.g. (Teich, Frankel, Kling, and Lee, 1999). After all, it can be used either for good--such as whistleblowing, allowing the disadvantaged (e.g. queers) to find each other and speak freely, exploring PostHuman identity, and so on--and for bad--such as OrganizedCrime?, terrorism, stalking, and so on. However, while it can be used for good or bad, that doesn't mean the morality is neutral since there is not an equal probability it will be used for good or used for bad. The psychological reality of the Invisible Man is affirmed; people fall out of line if they are not held accountable. Accountability was created to protect societies, so on the whole, anonymity is morally negative. However, that is still not justification enough to disallow anonymity, since the good it affords is not insignificant and it would not be possible without anonymity. Thus, it is only a necessary yet complicated aspect of society, not "neutral". -- SunirShah

If you use AnonymousIdentity you have the sum total reputation of all anonymous people the other person has ever spoken too. That can be moderately good, but it can also be hideously bad, so chances are good that you'll forfeit the PrincipleOfFirstTrust. --MartinHarper



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