Too much, too easy anonymity is a bad thing

I just stumbled across this post from Kevin Kelly on the dangers of anonymity.

However in every system that I have seen where anonymity becomes common, the system fails. The recent taint in the honor of Wikipedia stems from the extreme ease which anonymous declarations can be put into a very visible public record. Communities infected with anonymity will either collapse, or shift the anonymous to pseudo-anonymous, as in eBay, where you have a traceable identity behind an invented nickname. Or voting, where you can authenticate an identity without tagging it to a vote.

Anonymity is like a rare earth metal. These elements are a necessary ingredient in keeping a cell alive, but the amount needed is a mere hard-to-measure trace. In larger does these heavy metals are some of the most toxic substances known to a life. They kill. Anonymity is the same. As a trace element in vanishingly small doses, it’s good for the system by enabling the occasional whistleblower, or persecuted fringe. But if anonymity is present in any significant quantity, it will poison the system.

There’s a dangerous idea circulating that the option of anonymity should always be at hand, and that it is a noble antidote to technologies of control. This is like pumping up the levels of heavy metals in your body into to make it stronger.

For the newspaper.com, it’s not enough just to confirm an e-mail address — identity is important. Even if you will not require (or try to) real identity, there should be a mechanism for enforcing some sort of identity, even if it’s persona-identity, but even then, it should be traceable to a real-world person.

Communities built around anonymity eventually lack cohesion.

I started down the Kevin Kelly path this morning because of this post on “Better than Free.”  Kelly’s point is that in a world where free copies are abundant, economic value is derived from other factors.  In context of this issue, a newspaper.com that makes trust/transparency, authenticity/authority part of its brand promise (which goes hand-in-hand with requiring identity from contributors), then it is building value — a competitive advantage into its online efforts.

More on Keven Kelly here. His personal site starts here.

Previously: Real identity helps foster healthy communities.

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  • http://www.thewayoftheweb.blogspot.com BadgerGravling

    I totally agree that a sense of identity is integral in communities to encourage cohesion, social responsibility etc.

    But it’s hard to envisage a system which allows for the acknowledged occasional good of anonymous posting, without making it available to everyone.

    The only way around this, as far as I can see, is to encourage people to invest in their identity, whether it’s with ratings and rankings, avatars and signatures, or some other mechanism.

    This then provides something tangible users can lose, without removing the occasionally valid anonymity…

    That’s my best guess at this stage anyway…I’d love to hear other takes on it.

  • http://www.patrickyen.com Patrick Yen
  • ano nymis

    this is ridiculous. the phone system, the postal system, the whole internet, city walls, toilet stalls, ….in short all of civilization has anonymity built into it. the whole world is a canvas for anyone to scrawl anything on, anonymously!

    has that stopped civilization, or even hindered it? no, it’s made it better. i love graffiti, for example, it can make you see things differently..etc.

    deal with it.

  • http://www.the-signal.com Jay Harn

    Howard, you are right. We disbanded our newspaper web forum after it got to the point that lies and accusations could not be controlled any more. Anonymity is the culprit and because we killed the forum, we have been called “anti-free speech” by the former users who to this day will not use their real names with their opinion anywhere. Our new web site, which will go live next week some time, will have places to comment, and blogs, and the ususal interactivity, but we will be working very hard to limit anonymity. Below is an editorial we ran both in print and online that states our case on web anonymity.

    Jay Harn
    Publisher, The Signal, Santa Clarita, CA.

    Twilight Time for Tell it to The Signal

    By The Signal Editorial Board

    Wednesday January 16, 2008

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

    — The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States

    We at The Signal are proud to be a First Amendment newspaper. We are aware that we have a weighty responsibility toward our reading public: responsibility to inform, responsibility to be a watchdog, responsibility to provide a forum for the public to debate the issues, to make requests of us and sometimes to reprimand us.

    One forum The Signal has provided off and on is Tell It to The Signal. This forum started as an answering machine on a telephone extension. People called in with gripes or compliments, we listened and transcribed, and we printed the best.

    Mostly we got gripes.

    Later, Tell It to The Signal morphed into an open online forum. One needed only to register an e-mail address to participate.

    In both cases, Tell It to The Signal was anonymous — callers and, later, online contributors didn’t have to reveal their names. In respect to anonymity, Tell It to The Signal always differed from Letters to the Editor and columns published on The Signal’s Opinion Page.

    Anonymity is a problem in journalism. As Garance Granke-Ruta, senior editor for The American Prospect magazine, noted on that magazine’s blog: “It’s one thing to quote someone whose identity you know, but who wishes to remain anonymous — and it is quite another to quote someone whose identity is unknown even to you, the reporter.”

    It’s standard journalism practice never to quote someone who hides his/her name. If we quote a source anonymously in a news story, be assured that we, the reporters and editors of the newspaper, know who the individual is and have agreed to protect his/her identity for a specific and agreed-upon reason.

    Yet with Tell It to The Signal, we have provided a forum for people who hide their identities.

    This has troubled us. However, if the forum had provided thoughtful discussion of issues, we would continue it.

    Instead, Tell It to The Signal online frequently degenerates into personal attacks, unsubstantiated accusations and other abuses of the responsibilities that go hand in hand with freedom of speech.

    Users who choose not to identify themselves seem to think anonymity allows them to jettison basic civility. Cloaked behind a nickname, these users find it easier to be nasty than to be nice, easier to express intolerance and hatred than respect for others’ opinions.

    This minority of users has created a toxic environment, one hardly conducive to the exchange of ideas and viewpoints in reasoned discourse, which is the purpose of media-sponsored forums.

    So as we prepare to launch the third iteration of The Signal’s Web site, we’ve decided pull the plug on Tell It to The Signal.

    Some “Tell It” writers, already warned that the forum will be going away, claim we at The Signal don’t understand that as our world becomes more Internet-centric, facelessness has become the hallmark.

    We refuse to embrace facelessness.

    We invite “Tell It” writers, and everyone else, to continue to voice their opinions in our Letters to the Editor forum. Send your comments by postal mail, fax or (our preference) e-mail. You’ll find easy how-to instructions elsewhere on this page.

    Anonymous letters are not accepted. And you must understand that we reserve the right to edit your letter — not to change your opinion or put words into your mouth, but to protect you from making, and us from publishing, unsubstantiated and/or libelous charges.

    By publishing your letter, we share responsibility. Responsibility that comes with the freedom of speech for which we have fought so hard, and which we continue to defend against those who would try to silence the free, public expression of ideas.

    As your community newspaper, we believe it is our responsibility, our duty, to provide a voice to all Santa Clarita Valley residents. We will not do so irresponsibly.

    Copyright: The Signal