Names & Identity: Teaser for upcoming talk

This post appeared first on the Center for Global Communication Studies blog as a teaser for my talk Public Platforms and Anonymity: Real Name Policies and Freedom of Speech. The talk will be on Wednesday November 19 between 12:15AM – 01:30PM, more info here.

Life is a series of roles. We behave differently when we are talking to our underage children at home, when we play a game of poker with friends, or when we are having dinner with our parents. For each of these social situations, and for many others, we adopt different roles, mannerisms, speech, and even dress. Social networks struggle to deal with the complexity of human behavior, preferring instead to simplify our existence. When the halting definitions of friends and contacts and the obscurity of privacy settings is coupled with a less than user-friendly design, conflicts unsurprisingly arise. As the largest social network by population, Facebook provides an array of examples where social messages have been transmitted to the “wrong” person.

Among the classic miscommunicated messages are those of employees engaging in criticism of co-workers or of the company itself, teenagers sharing party photos that are later seen by adults, and medical staff posting patient information. The practice of providing different information to different groups is undermined in situations where contacts are binary, and social media technology creates simple “friend/not-friend” binaries where complexities should exist.

In the book The Facebook Effect (2010), Kirkpatrick argues that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, is implementing what is sometimes referred to as “radical transparency,” a form of social engineering that holds that individuals will benefit themselves and society by being more transparent.

In an infamous quote that exemplifies this stance, Zuckerberg goes beyond transparency, arguing that attempting to maintain different identities is disingenuous:

“You have one identity…The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly…Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”[1]

It is not a coincidence that Facebook’s radical transparency is the foundation of its business model. The users of Facebook, though they have accounts, are not the company’s customers. Facebook’s business model is to collect as much user information as possible in order to market their expertise to their real customers—advertisers.

Radical transparency becomes a social problem when social networks become primary means of mass communication. While those who are at the top of a social hierarchy may indeed believe two identities indicate a lack of integrity, for those who may face social ostracism or physical punishment if certain identities are revealed, multiple identities are necessary. Facebook has caused young gay adults to be outed to, and ostracized by, their families, Ashley Payne was asked to leave her teaching position after posting a picture of herself holding a beer while on holiday, and in the UK, there are several cases of people facing prison sentences for insensitive comments posted on Facebook.

The purpose of the talk “Public Platforms and Anonymity” is to look at questions of identity and anonymity in order to further explore the impact of radical transparency on marginalized groups, to place the minority opinion in relation to freedom of speech and democratic development, and, finally, to put forward an argument in support of a democratic right to anonymity and pseudonymity on social networks and other online platforms.


[1] Kirkpatrick, D. (2011). The Facebook effect: The inside story of the company that is connecting the world. Simon and Schuster.

The importance of anonymity

Last night some Norwegian friends and I had a long protracted discussion on the “right” or importance of online anonymity.

Since the mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik was active in forums online and was inspired in part by other anonymous racists (such as Fjordman) there has been a question as to whether anonymity online should be curtailed.

Now it’s difficult to argue in light of what the murderer Breivik did. But removing online anonymity would not have prevented his acts. Removing online anonymity after Utöya will only damage the ability of a broad democratic discussion.

At this stage some argue that if you have an opinion you should (as in must – state it openly, not anonymously). The most commonly used cliché is that you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide.

The problem is that the people who say: Nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide are safe. They live in reasonable comfort, security and normality. They may truly have nothing to hide. But the importance of the right is not to protect those who have nothing to hide – but to protect those who might be hurt for taking part in a democratic debate.

The right of anonymity – as with most rights – is there to protect those who are at risk. If you are not at risk then you may not see the need for rights.

A simple example is the rights of women. Why did it take so long for women to be given the vote? This basic right to participate in the democracy. Well, in part, those in power were men. These men could not see anything wrong with the system – or see any need for women to have rights.

Or why not the right to free speech? You do not need protection (which the right guarantees) to say nice things, you need the protection to say unpleasant things, to say things that people may not want to hear – but that need to be said.

Pointing out my good points requires no courage or protection – but also pointing out my good points, while making me happy, does not enable me to grow. Pointing out my flaws may make me less happy, and is more courageous (potentially dangerous and requires protection) but it gives me an indication of what needs to be done. It is more important for a society to hear about its flaws than its benefits.

Society needs to help and support those individuals who are about to be courageous. We need to have the arguments, discussions and wacky ideas brought to the surface. Anonymity is not the problem – the problem is when people are afraid of discussion because they may be sanctioned or harmed: socially, economically or psychologically.

Banksy unmasked

It was only a matter of time before his growing fame led to his unmasking. The Mail on Sunday reveals the evidence they present to his identity. But… Banksy’s publicist would neither confirm nor deny whether the artist was Robin Gunningham.

Gender & Technology

Most of us (should) know that the net is not a particularly nice place. It is a neutral tool that allows all users to go out there and be themselves. Unfortunately the technology also offers people pseudo-anonymity or the illusion of real anonymity. I say unfortunately because this really brings the weirdos out of the woodwork. One of the most casual forms is the misogynist – but racism may be more common.

In an article on Women on the Web, Caitlin Fitzsimmons writes about the way in which men use technology to spread fear against women and approaches ways in which to deal with the issue. Many tend to think that the best approach is to ignore those who behave badly. This approach can be justified in different ways:

1. The simplest reason many ignore the problem is by claiming to be too tired/busy to react. This is usually connected to arguments that there are simply too many things to react to. So in general I agree with this argument except for the problem that too many people use this as an excuse all the time and react to nothing. If you cannot fight against everything then at least pick one injustice and fight against that!

2. Social shunning as punishment. In real life when someone behaves badly we often do not tell them or make a big fuss. Often it is enough to ignore what has happened, in particular if we ignore it visibly. We can, for example, create an embarrassing silence. This is the social equivalent of banishment and the socially aware individual recognizes that boundaries have been crossed and will adjust his/her behavior in the future. The problem with attempting this online is that the offender must feel the need to belong to the group for this to work. Also embarrassing silences only work when the whole social group falls unnaturally silent. This does not work online.

3. The third approach is the concept of the marketplace of ideas. This basically means that it is actually good for the weirdo’s to get out in the open and test their ideas since this will only encourage the opposition to develop better arguments and convince the weirdo’s that they are wrong. In an offline world this may work in theory in an open debate but it is hardly likely to work in practice.  In an online environment this approach is misguided. It also gives the weirdo’s way too much leeway and opportunity to cause pain to others.

Fitzsimmons writes:

The question is then how to tackle the problem. The panellists agreed that while there was no point in engaging directly with hateful comments, ignoring them was not really a viable option.’s Valenti said online misogyny was different to offline abuse in two key respects. “Unlike someone coming up to you on the street, it can be really hard to assess what kind of danger you’re in,” she added. “You don’t know if it’s a 15 year-old in Idaho spouting off or a really scary guy who really is likely to come around and rape you.”

The online/offline worlds are different and attempting to apply theoretical approaches to handling uncomfortable/threatening/harmful situations in the online world may only cause more harm. No I do not have a solution but I really like the way in which blogs like Feministing are using  technology to reach new readers – or actually viewers since Feministing uses YouTube videos (check out their channel here).

Suspicious travel patterns

The MI5 wants access to the Oyster travel card database to be able to trawl it for possible suspects. Today they may demand the data to track specific individuals under investigation but the change will allow them to search for unknown suspects based on “suspicious” travel patterns.

Systems such as these will make sure that people with strange travel patterns around the metropolis will be seen as being suspicious in general. If you are an oddball (in your movements around the city) you will now be able to be classed as a potential threat to national security.

Another step in the loss of anonymity, not to mention the fact that taking the scenic route to work in the morning suddenly becomes more ominous…

More at the Guardian.

The Future of Reputation

Daniel J. Solove has written what seems to be an interesting book The Future of Reputation: Gossip, rumor, and privacy on the Internet. The topic of Internet reputation is fascinating and was one of the earliest discussions. The basic premise is that our reputation is our greatest asset but as an asset it is not our own – it is in the hands of everyone else. So what happens when someone messes up that reputation?

A nice touch is that the book is available online for download and licensed under Creative Commons (BY-NC). Check out the table of contents:

Chapter 1. Introduction: When Poop Goes Primetime

Part I: Rumor and Reputation in a digital world

Chapter 2. How the Free Flow of Information Liberates and Constrains Us

Chapter 3. Gossip and the Virtues of Knowing Less

Chapter 4. Shaming and the Digital Scarlet Letter

Part II: Privacy, Free Speech, and the Law

Chapter 5. The Role of Law

Chapter 6. Free Speech, Anonymity, and Accountability

Chapter 7. Privacy in an Overexposed World

Chapter 8. Conclusion: The Future of Reputation

Bad Internet, Good Internet

Andres over at Technollama is reading “The Cult of the Amateur”, by Andrew Keen, the Internet critic. I have been avoiding commenting on this book and on the author. Lots of other have been there already. Actually I will probably eventually get around to reading the book. Anyway, Andres notes that Keen has a bone to pick with the web and provides this Keen quotation which I could help but comment upon:

“When I look at today’s Internet, I mostly see cultural and ethical chaos. I see the eruption of rampant intellectual property theft, extreme pornography, sexual promiscuity, plagiarism, gambling, contempt for order, intellectual inanity, crime, a culture of anonymity, hatred toward authority, incessant spam, and a trash heap of user-generated-content. I see a chaotic humans arrangement with few, if any, formal social pacts.”

Well of course. I agree totally with Keen. Thats the beauty of the Internet – you get what you look for. Keen went looking for garbage and appears shocked when he found it. Big deal. I can do the same in any city in the world from Bombay to Boston from Seoul to Stockholm. What he then does is attempts to explain the world from the empirical garbage he picks up. This is not a reflection of the Internet but only an expression of Keen’s Internet related interests.

Death Threats Against Blogger

Techie and editor Kathy Sierra has been intimidated into canceling her appearance at the ETech conference where she was going to present a keynote and hold a workshop. In her blog Creating Passionate Users she explains why. She has received threats of violence and death threats in comments on her blog and other blogs.

Read Kathy Sierra’s story on her blog (entry here). Hope that they catch the little shit (hiding behind anonymity) who writes anonymous threats and that Kathy will be back soon.

Anonymous Online

Most people have heard of the Zen koan “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” The purpose of the koan is not to have an answer but rather to be a point of departure for deeper reflection. Unfortunately for most of us with a western education we tend to attempt to answer the question with a yes or no – therefore defeating the purpose. My question of the day is a variation of the koan: If a protest is not heard – does it make a sound?

The ability to communicate in particular mass communicate is becoming easier. With all due respect to the numerous digital divides (age, knowledge, access, infrastructure etc) the ability to communicate via the internet is still growing. The question is whether this technology will serve the purpose of those attempting to conduct resistance or protest actions. The drawback with mass communication is that the communicator is all too easily identified and can be punished by those she is protesting or communicating against.

So there is a need to both be able to conduct mass communication via the internet and to remain anonymous. There is (thankfully) a growing number of relatively user friendly methods, in addition to tips and tricks, which the anonymous protester can use.

Many of these are to be found in the following guides:

Blogging in the private/public divide

Part of blogging is attempting to figure out why we blog? Not all blogs pose this question but it appears often enough* to be recognised as being a common question. This question becomes even more relevant when the blogger takes active risks by blogging.

In an earlier post (blogging revisited 21/1105) I reported about an article concerned with the risks being taken by job-seeking academics who blog. The author of the article wrote that their blogs prevented the potential employer from hiring since they revealed a different side to the applicant than that presented at the formal interview.

A temporary prosecutor in San Francisco blogged about a case he was prosecuting:
Karnow didn’t find the postings prejudicial enough to throw out the entire case, as the defense wanted. But in turning down that motion to dismiss this week, the judge still came down hard on ex-prosecutor Jay Kuo, calling his conduct “juvenile, obnoxious and unprofessional.” … (via Lunda Wright)

Other bloggers take greater risks as whistleblowers or reporting on corrupt and/or repressive governments. While some bloggers and blogs are well protected using different means many are open and tracing the authors is a (relatively) easy task.

Organisations such as the EFF have created documents to help those who need to blog anonymously â??How to Blog Safely (About Work or Anything Else)â?? but these are either not widely known or widely used.
There seems to be something special about the blog and its place in the private/public divide. The blog is a private diary and yet it is open to the world.  The privacy promotes the sharing of secrets while the public the desire to communicate.

Why take the risks? Are they really risks or is blogging perceived to be a private act? Even though most bloggers are aware of their publicâ?¦

*Some examples from Google on the search â??why I blogâ??
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