The internet is becoming less anonymous. What was once a free-for-all space where you could create a social media profile pretending to be Kanye West, bash your ex’s new boyfriend on JuicyCampus or post that your professor only gives good grades to students willing to sleep with her, is now unmasking some of its harshest trolls and making it harder to be who you aren’t or say whatever you want.
Some of this is due to shifts in our legal code. The increasing prevalence of Google and Facebook background searches in the process of job applications or even college admissions has caused people to more closely guard their online reputation. British law firm Bain & Cohen, for example, has seen a rise in online defamation cases as victims in high profile incidents such as the “Skanks of NYC” case or the AutoAdmit suit involving Yale Law School students successfully subpoenaed forums to hand over the IP addresses of their cyberbullies.
However, some of this online unmasking could also be due to a cultural shift, possibly in reaction to the vulgarities and obscenities posted on unfiltered forums. The rise of Facebook, a site that began by requiring a valid .edu email address to sign up and still promotes a single identity transparency, over MySpace as the most popular social networking site, signaled our generation’s growing acceptance of using our real name on the internet.
Stories of anonymous sex offenders targeting teenage girls on MySpace or trolls pretending to be famous celebrities on Twitter further increased our desire for authenticity on the web. In reaction to the swarm of fake celebrity Twitter accounts, the site introduced verified accounts for select high profile individuals and companies, and a few years later Facebook followed with verified profiles. Amazon includes a “Real Name” badge next to your avatar if you’re willing to post reviews using your real identity (verified by your credit card account). More and more forums and comment feeds require a user to sign in before posting, and some even allow logging in through an account on another social networking site that uses your real name, such as Facebook or Google.
Of course, there’s still value in allowing pseudonymous and anonymous posts in forums. Not everyone wants to be google-able for the questions they posted in a firearms forum or for their detailed comments on the latest episode of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. In the case of reviews, some anonymity allows for more honest opinions of the product in question. Online anonymity can also allow a safe space for discussion of taboo topics and create a community for marginalized groups such as psychologically troubled teens, rape victims or individuals coming to terms with their sexuality.
With anonymity can come a lack of accountability, but as we move more and more towards integrating our real and online personas, we should remember the virtues of conditional anonymity. Whistleblowers, confidential surveys (imagine how different OCI teacher evaluations would look if they weren’t confidential) and those of the minority opinion all deserve a forum to speak, and the internet has proven useful as such. Yes, we do need a way to prevent slander and other forms of online defamation, but considering the most recent lawsuits it seems like we’re moving in a direction towards traceable anonymity, where your identity will only be revealed if you intentionally harm someone else. Whether having your comment downvoted, your video flagged or even being cyberSLAPPed, just as in the real world, anger enough people and you’ll be shunned.