In Defense of Anonymity*

*Not of “Anonymous”

Anonymity is getting a bad reputation on the internet.  Synonymous with trolling and cybervandalism, the obvious negatives have come to define the concept.  But allowing that to happen ignores the internet’s initial promise.  When combined with actual rational discourse (a stretch, I know), anonymity actually does allow us to engage in a public version of private discourse in ways that were never possible before.

Remember when we all lived in villages?  Anonymity was impossible.

It wasn’t even a word until the early 17th century.

Sure, those villages were able to raise children.  But everything about those kids’  futures were planned out for them before they were born.  Just ask John Butcher, William Baker, and Robert Candlestickmakerson.  Want to stretch your wings or think your own thoughts?  Try migration or exile.  Oh, but watch out for slavery and xenophobia while you are out on the road!  Want to branch out here at home?  I’ve picked out a nice jail cell for you.

The modern world? It finally promised us anonymity.  Sure, Debbie Downer Durkheim liked to point out the negatives, but it also allowed us to create new personas, be new people.  If we didn’t like country values, then we could try on city values.  Durkheim meet Draper.

The anonymity of the city did require us to regulate these new public personas – thank god – but it gave us some freedom for the private persona.  Sure, I have to pretend to respect you from M-F, 9-5, but when I get home I have my own little village.  Where my old provincial or new radical thoughts can run free.

Free but necessarily private, and therefore still a domain of tied up and unchallenged thoughts and ideals.

Now, here we are with the internet.  Finally, a world where one can maintain an acceptably professional public persona (that we are relatively able to choose), but where we can also open some of our private self.  Because we are able to do it through an anonymous persona.  A universe of the nom de plume!

And this is great!  Because we do all have our own progressive and regressive thoughts and concerns about controversial matters.  Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, politics, race, gender and religion.  Thoughts that we want to have challenged, but are afraid to talk about. (Yes, even you.)

For, arguably the first time, we have a way to express them and open them up for discourse, to have them challenged.  To freely develop our private personas.  Even to exaggerate them and try on new ideas that we might not have even been willing to try before.

So what do we do with this freedom?  (Aside from abuse it through irrational trolling.) First step, voluntarily eliminate it!  We tag our online discourse to our facebook profiles.  Which takes us right back to where we were.  Either living in the modern world, of regulated professional conduct and hidden unchallenged private personas.  Or the pre-modern world, where our entire life becomes one big village, merging our personal and private personas in one big oversharey mess.

Well, that, my friends, gets us nowhere.

So here is to defending anonymity.  Use it as a chance to engage in a public discourse without fear of public repercussion.  Say what you really think and see if it holds up to public scrutiny.

Because the world might learn something from your radical new plan for combining the legalization of marijuana and prostitution, but that doesn’t mean you should have to ruin your career as a Catholic pre-school teacher just to find out.

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