The Case for Anonymity Online

A couple months ago, and in succession, two public intellectuals, Jonathan Haidt and Charles Murray, put out uncharacteristically poorly thought out comments. They denounced online anonymity, specifically, with respect to their preferred social platform, Twitter, although their comments were meant to be generalizable to the Internet.

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This is an example of what one could call “Public Figure Bias”. You can just hear it:

I am a public figure, and I attach my name to all of my views and positions. I have risked cost to reputation, and it has worked out for me. Why can’t others do the same?” The simple answer is that not everyone has made a career out of being a public intellectual.

It is often remarked that if the anonymous had to communicate their statements in-person, rather than behind a screen, they would be more reluctant to make the comments they do. In some cases, this may be correct.

However, in other cases, that notion is a misunderstanding borne of a lack of empathy. Take mine of many situations, where the truth is the very opposite of that notion.

I am more than eager to communicate all of my views with others on a one-to-one basis. It is only the conditions of mass communication, whereby my views are put up to the scrutiny of strangers, which entice me to put some distance between my real and online persona. I’m worried about the difference between public and private, not of between real and anonymous.

Fewer than four weeks after Murray’s comments, Haidt made the following statements (edited for grammar) on Sam Harris’ podcast:

I don’t ever want to be on an unregulated neighborhood on the Internet ever again. By unregulated, what I mean is, people can go there who nobody knows – if they make a death threat, nobody can even tell who they are – There’s no reason I would ever want to be in such a neighborhood. There’s nothing good that comes of it.

Twitter would be much better if every single person’s identity could be verified.

Haidt denounces platforms that allow anonymity, what he calls “unregulated neighborhoods”, in the podcast where just a few minutes before he bemoans Twitter outrage mobs. Does he not notice that outrage mobs are precisely what anonymity protects against?

Twitter mobs aren’t bad just because they overwhelm you with meanness. They’re bad because they can cause undue damage to reputation and even destroy careers. Haidt raises awareness for this problem of outrage mobs, but not only does he not present an real solution, he is eager to advocate for removing the most effective tool for inoculating against them: anonymity.

Haidt has committed time from his career to fighting what have been branded “social justice warriors”, which is why it is ironic that what he is advocating here is the definition of social justice. He is advocating the threat of reputation damage as a means of regulating behavior. In other words, the threat of justice (retribution) imposed socially.

Social shaming is a shiv. It filters by way of deterrence what society finds objectionable. The problem is that society is not always right about what it objects to. True, the enforcement of social norms can get rid of some vitriol, but it also gets rid of anything outside of the Overton window, the realm of socially accepted discourse.

You may be inclined to disagree, to argue that if someone is suffering a blow to their reputation, they must have done something to deserve it. If that is true, there is nothing new to be discovered the realm of moral philosophy that governs social acceptability. In other words, “we are at the end of history”, a sentiment I simply cannot endorse. Every successive generation has seen some sort of positive expansion of the Overton window. The spark of every great moral upheaval was once an “offensive” comment.

As a means to separate real identity from social shaming, anonymity is merely a tool. It can be used to get a pass on unwarranted incivility, but it can also be used to challenge consensus and speak truth to the unthinking mob.

Whether you appreciate its function, social rules are inherently exclusionary. The degree to which you want social rules from real-life dialogue to be incorporated into online dialogue speaks to two things: how much you value the exclusion of what you regard as bad speech, and how much you undervalue the good speech that may be unfairly targeted. With such importance placed on curation, many value this exclusion. Fortunately for these people, there are many sites that cater to their preferences. Others, though, find that anonymous content tends to push boundaries by saying what hasn’t already been said ad nauseam. It’s hence why sane people can and do dig through mountains of vitriol to find one gem of insight.

This takes us to a larger question: should platforms encourage or discourage anonymity? It’s an empirical question: how do open platforms that tend towards a focus on personal identity (Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr), compare to those on the opposite side of the coin (Reddit, 4chan, and the like)?

The ladder are often accused of platforming “toxicity”, a euphemistic catchall term for hyper-masculine, disagreeable banter and sardonic shock humor. Putting aside that half of this may be chalked up to personal taste, (what to one person is toxic is to another astute sarcasm); I will concede that, for the sake of argument, toxicity is higher on “unregulated neighborhoods”.

That view, even if true, crops out the other half to he picture: platforms that make identity important have their own problems stemming from that very aspect. Instagram is as artificial as it is superficial. Places of Tumblr obsess over identity with the rationally you would expect of an insane asylum, with its encyclopedia of genders, pronouns, and identifications. Facebook, in addition to the same issues as Instagram, is non-conducive to analytical content because of its propensity for drama. You may decide that these problems are more tolerable than “toxicity”, but that comes back to personal taste.

I am not contesting that many find great value in the likes of Facebook and Instagram, only that their antitheses be given the same fair shake, considering the fact that what people can tolerate varies both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Consider this: what you consider toxicity is informed by comparison to how people treat you in real life. Qualities such as attractiveness and social stratum subtly influence how people interact with you, regulating how hostile the Internet will appear in comparison. This explains, for example, why according to Pew, males actually experience more total online harassment, and despite that, women are more affected by it: banter is more common in male circles, and something to which women are less accustomed. I bring up this example to shed light on anonymity’s equalizing effect on people’s treatment.

Consider if you will, a spectrum of online platforms. On one side of the spectrum, platforms place an emphasis on personal identity and the relationships that spring up around that. On the other side, platforms place emphasis the logic of what users have to say.

As per the principles of philosophy, truth should be sought only through sound logic, not based on whoever happens to be making the argument. If this is correct, the identify-based platforms may actually hinder honest analysis. In a respect, anonymous platforms are the most meritocratic environments on Earth. Nobody knows your race, sex, orientation, or even age. The only thing that matters is what you write. The only character judgments that can be made are those revealed in the content of one’s speech.

What matters more, the speaker or the speech? The Internet is a technology that brings us, like no other, a unique and powerful form of open platform: ones where identity is omitted. It is foolish to give that up because of trolls. 

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