Anonymity and the Internet

Image Source: invenioblog.com
Image Source: invenioblog.com

Is it possible in this technological day and age to truly have anonymity on the internet?

There’s been a forum thread over at ASN for a while now about how/if people share their RL information with anyone in SL.

As expected, it runs the gamut – some protesting that they never give out any RL information, some saying they share, but carefully, and some who don’t care who knows what.

In the latest post, someone commented that true anonymity on the internet is an illusion anyway.

So many of us have so many different accounts – LinkedIn, Facebook, emails, Google+, Flickr, Tumblr, Reddit, Plurk, Ello, ASN, SL – the list is seemingly endless.

Everything done on the internet leaves a trail, even if you think it’s private, or has been deleted.

If you are part of the ‘digital native’ demographic (those who have grown up with the internet – yes, Virginia, there was a time when the internet didn’t exist!), you think nothing of living your life on social media and posting about anything and everything.

Children these days have a social presence on the internet when they are born – thanks to Skype, Facebook, and other social media, because proud parents are posting for them until they are old enough to do so themselves.

I sometimes wonder if these children will be resentful of that later in life.

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People want anonymity for different reasons.

Particularly in SL, a lot of users want to explore things they couldn’t in RL – whether that’s because of an injury, a disability, or just social stigmas/mores that make certain things impossible in their RL.

There’s a lot of chatter about people wanting to be anonymous to hide who they really are.

In the case of internet ‘trolls,’ many of them know their behavior would be unacceptable in RL face-to-face interactions, and trolling on the internet allows them that screen of anonymity.

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if people crave anonymity, not to hide who they truly are, but in order to be who they truly are.

What if you are (or think you may be) homosexual and you live in a homophobic community?

What if you are pro-life and live in a very pro-choice community?

What if you are a successful businessperson in your mostly Christian community, but you have an interest in paganism or other alternative religions?

Though we like to kid ourselves that we are free to be whomever we want in RL, it’s not true.

Where I live, for example, the community is Christian, very conservative, and homophobic.

That’s not to say that the people are not nice – they are.

But if someone in the community were to be very vocal about their ‘pro-choice’ stance, for example, that person would quickly find themselves ostracized.

Most of it wouldn’t be overt – it would be hushed whispers, rumors about town, etc.

If that person worked in the same small town, it would have a negative effect on their employment.

That wouldn’t be the reason given, of course.

But it would still happen.

So that bit of anonymity the internet offers allows people the freedom to express (or explore) their beliefs/ideas without fear of RL reprisals.

What about internet ‘trolls’?

My argument still stands – it allows those people to be who they really are.

They don’t share their true beliefs or values in RL, because they know there would be negative consequences.

The anonymity offered by the internet makes them feel safe enough to express their true thoughts.

Perhaps the anonymity is an illusion, but unless/until there are RL consequences for what they do on the internet, that illusion will remain.

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9 thoughts on “Anonymity and the Internet

  1. So, how do we impose consequences on the trolls (and worse) out there without compromising the anonymity of those who are legitimately trying to express something that they can’t in RL?
    To what extent are the RL social restraints preventing someone from being themselves just as bad as the virtual world’s trolls?

    1. Good questions. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is a good answer. Laws and social mores are attempts to impose consequences, but in reality, people still break those, and may face no consequences at all. I think RL social restraints are more effective (atm) because they could have RL consequences. In VR, what consequences exist? Having your account shut down? Easy enough to create a new one. It’s not as easy to pick up and start again in RL.
      And also unfortunately, those trolls make having restraints necessary, which then impacts those who are legitimately trying to express something they can’t in RL.

  2. Kat usually my responses here are short and silly (after all – silly is a form of anonymity mask). As you know I use SL as a means of interacting with other people while trying to accomplish things I haven’t done in RL, and also to re-accomplish some things I did do in real life that are no longer viable in my current Real Life situation.

    This isn’t silly, and might not be very short. In 2006 I moved to Utah because my employer offered a good position there. Before I left I got all these jokes about Polygamy. I always responded with, “Well that’s in the old days. Even the major religion in that area frowns on Polygamy these days.”

    Three years later I moved away from Utah much better informed and more educated. The easiest explanation is to quote from memory something I heard on the radio on the way to work one morning during my last year living the Salt Lake City/Ogden area: The State Attorney General Said “. . . if I tried to prosecute every instance of polygamy it would bankrupt this state.”

    I learned a lot living in Utah – one of many things was that Polygamy was alive and well. I learned how to recognize from the street probable Polygamist homes – along with some which were overtly Polygamist. (No I won’t give any details.)

    I also learned enough about it to come to the conclusion that it wasn’t a “bad” thing necessarily; certainly the judgement of whether it is “Moral” or not rests with a much higher pay grade than anyone walking around on this Planet. What I observed mainly was that one did need to have dump trucks full of money to participate.

    Since I moved back home to Oklahoma, well I’ve never had even one dump truck full of money, so there is no chance I’ll ever be a polygamist in real life. (there are other very important reasons also 🙂 The anonymity of Second Life has allowed me to explore that “life style.” And to participate in other activities which would be frowned on in my local community. So the real Path in SL is not exactly the “Doug” that I am in real life. Very close. 🙂 But no cigar.

    I only have one question. Could you define Troll?

    1. A very real example of what I was trying to say, thank you, Path. 🙂 As for ‘troll,’ I suppose my definition of an internet troll (or someone I would consider a troll in RL) is someone who is either a) racist, bigoted, or some other form of hater, and/or b) someone who likes to cause drama for its own sake.
      I didn’t touch on the area of sexual experimentation in SL, just because it’s sooo broad, but it is an area that brings many. SL provides an easy way to explore without RL consequences – like STD’s and other diseases, pregnancy, etc.

  3. Troll is such a nice word, compared with the terms, which I learned both in Philosophy studies and the U.S. Navy, that I use to describe those people. 😀

  4. What an awesome comment Kat! My husband makes fun of my love of SL…his favorite quote is “it’s all fake anyway”. Of course, he hasn’t had 8 surgeries in 5 years for cancer so he doesn’t really understand how weird it is to go running while not having your boobs bounce because you know have more in common with Pamela Anderson than “normal” peeps. I have always been open about my cancer history in SL because I was so young when I was diagnosed with locally advanced cancer. I figure if my little pixels can help someone with that diagnosis or someone who’s afraid to go get their mammo…well, in that way, I’m the same in SL as I am in RL.

    I tend to be vague about where I live….New England is about as good as it gets for most unless I’ve known you for a very long time. There are no RL pics of me in SL, but my horse and dogs have made it in. I don’t skype with my SL friends, but I do have a Winnie email, so if they want to communicate offline, we can.

    And lets face it, it is fun to dress up in all sorts of fabulous outfits that I could never get near in RL….since I’m not independently wealthy or 7.4ft tall. If I wore the shoes I love in SL, there would be some very happy orthopedic surgeons. I did figure skate in my youth. I didn’t suck. I lived away from home in the summer to train and I know what it’s like to perform under lights. I was a choreographer when I was done competing, so the music and costumes and choreography are things that I have loved my whole life, and SL gives me a chance to perform again, which frankly is how I became addicted to SL.

    I’m not sure I’ll ever be comfortable enough to Skype with my SL friends or to meet them in RL. My RL is really rather great. I have a good job, great pets and a wonderful husband and I just feel better keeping the two worlds separate. I love my SL friends and the illusions that I have, that we are all tall, beautiful, talented….dogs can talk, dragons can dance, zombies can be halfway attractive….it’s the fantasy that I love and I don’t want to ruin those illusions….I like you all for who you are to me in that special place that is SL and I love that I can take that with me to RL when RL becomes complicated and difficult….you all make me smile in my RL and that frankly means more to me than anything!

    1. Wow, Winnie – what a heartfelt and wonderful comment. ❤ I, too, use SL to do things I couldn't or can no longer do in RL. And while I don't think it's possible to keep everything completely separate, I do try as well. I actually met my husband in SL, so clearly I'm not that great at keeping it separate! That said, SL is my place to relax and have fun. He watches car races or watches Hulu while I run around in SL. 🙂 I only own about 3 pairs of shoes in RL and the last time I wore heels was my wedding! I think everyone gets something different out of SL, and that's great. I just don't think people should kid themselves that they are 'anonymous' if they are doing things like handing out a phone #. 😀

    2. Winnie I have long thought you were and are a very special person. I am so very blessed to know the wonderful people I’ve gotten to know in SL – people I would not have met otherwise. I have pics of my real life Harley on my profile. 🙂 Kat you made a great contribution to Blogdom with this one!!!! 🙂

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