In Defense of Anonymity

March 1st, 2010  |  Published in Everyday life

Photo by Tony Pierce.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's odd declaration that "there are no second acts in American lives" is, as has been said, among the most inaccurate statements ever made about the country. America is defined by its second lives, and almost nothing--not terrorism, not treason, not even urinating on an underage girl on video--can prevent the eternal recurrence of our public figures.

So I was not surprised by the return of Jaron Lanier. I first encountered this asshat in Thomas Frank's One Market Under God, where he appeared as an example of the bankrupt culture of the dot-com bubble: a guy who was celebrated (by bell hooks, even!) for his dreadlocks and his general counter-cultural persona, but whose contribution to public debate consisted of defending the neoliberal conventional wisdom and sticking up for the Microsoft monopoly.

Now Lanier is back to inform us that the Internet is ruining everything. His schtick is mashup of three old chestnuts: that post-modern, sample-based forms of creation are inferior to "real" creativity, that rampant piracy is making it impossible for creative workers to make a decent living, and that online anonymity trashes civil discourse.

The first argument is so stupid--and so redolent of 1950's parents complaining about rock and roll, or baby boomers trashing rap--that I think it's basically self-refuting for anyone under 40. The second strikes me as a potential but not a real problem, since the Internet has notably failed to make a significant dent in the volume of artistic production. To the extent that online "free culture" destabilizes the careers of people I actually respect--Charles Stross, for example--I'm sympathetic, but still not inclined to join the hand-loom weaver defense committee. We need to find other ways of supporting artistic work, rather than clinging to a repressive and inefficient regime of artificial scarcity.

The denunciation of anonymity is the most compelling, however, and you hear it repeated all the time, by people of all ages and political temperaments. It is undoubtedly the case that anonymous trolls have a remarkable ability to disrupt rational discourse; anyone who has ever had their forum invaded by birthers or accidentally looked at the comments on a YouTube video can attest to this.

However, I do not think we should be so quick to give up the power and freedom that comes from anonymity. Opponents of anonymity will emphasize that when your statements are attached to your real name, you are forced to take responsibility for them. This is true, but it has some ominous implications. What makes the question of identity on the Internet so fraught is that when you reveal your identity you reveal it not just to your immediate interlocutors, but to friends, family, potential employers, the state, and anyone who cares to google your name. This point is often lost, I think, on critics of anonymity who are already public figures (often with secure academic or journalistic sinecures of one kind of another) and therefore have little to fear (and much to gain) from associating their comments with their identity.

Moreover, a lack of anonymity is no guarantee of civility. For a case study, see this thread, in which the pundit Jim Sleeper behaves like a colossal ass while denouncing the anonymity of some acerbic but basically civil critics in one of his comment threads.

Critics of anonymity can, of course, propose the alternative of privacy. That is, even if your interventions in public discourse are associated with your name, employers or governments or schools or credit card companies  can be prohibited from using those words against you. Yet I doubt that this is really the right place to make our stand. There is, first of all, the practical difficulty of preventing state and private entities--which now gather almost unfathomable amounts of data on the population--from making use of information in ways that benefit them. But even more than this, what does the concept of privacy even mean today? We still deploy the concept of a "private sphere" as though it denotes some clearly defined part of our lives that is distinct from the "public" part, that is accessible to everyone. But this division depends for its meaning on a particular social structure, in which we have one set of "public" relations--in politics, and the labor market--and another set of "private" social relationships centered on the family. I'll quote what I said in an exchange with Rob Horning, who invoked Herbert Marcuse as a critic avant la lettre of social networking, consumerism, and the concomitant attenuation of privacy:

What does it mean for the individual to be “thrown back on himself alone”, to be able to “think and question and find”? The full explication is too long to draw out here, but I’ve concluded that the sort of non-capitalist individuality that Marcuse is defending only makes sense within a society that still makes a strong distinction between “public” and “private” spheres. It’s important to note that the private, here, is based on the bourgeois nuclear family, not the individual—Marcuse’s debt to Freud and left-Freudians like Wilhelm Reich is really important.

This kind public-private distinction is itself rooted in a contrast between mid-20th century mass consumer capitalism and an earlier form of capitalism in which the public-private distinction still had more salience (at least for the privileged classes). Such a distinction is historically specific to Marcuse’s time—for people my age (and I think I’m about the same age as you, Rob), our frame of reference is just a previous stage of mass culture. These days that’s basically true for anyone under 65. Thus my suspicion that rejecting social networking, the Internet, etc. is really just a nostalgia for an earlier kind of consumer culture.

So the recourse to individuality as an alternative ends up sounding like a kind of absurd narcissism when you counsel us to “sit quietly in a room, as Pascal prescribed”. In a society that is already totally atomized, rejecting mass culture means being totally anti-social, which is not what Marcuse was recommending.

I’m not sure anymore that defending “privacy” as such is a useful place to make our stand. Privacy from whom, and for whom? Again, without the bourgeois notion of the “private sphere” it seems arbitrary to make this distinction. Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about having every aspect of the self be an open book for Capital. But I wonder if in the 21st century surveillance society, the relevant issue isn’t the right to *anonymity* rather than the right to privacy.

What does it mean to invoke anonymity as an alternative to privacy? One advantage of this move is that it allows us to leave behind the premise that each of us has a single, authentic self. The whole critique of anonymity rests upon the assumption that we can choose one of two ways of presenting ourselves: as our one "true" self, associated with our legal name, consistent and continuing over time, or as an anonymous and irresponsible avatar of the moment, who can drive-by troll a comment thread and then disappear into the night. Neither of these poles represent the way most people actually live, however. Even those of us who never post anonymously online have multiple selves: work self, school self, family self, bar self, fantasy baseball self, or whatever.

The Internet-age culture of pseudonymous handles only codifies this, and in some ways actually makes it more accountable. In the bizarre Jim Sleeper exchange I linked above, a couple of Sleeper's antagonists make an important point: just because their comment-thread handles aren't their real names doesn't mean they don't care about the reputations of those handles. Anonymity isn't a way of avoiding accountability so much as a way of dividing it, acknowledging the reality that we are legion, we contain multitudes.

To the extent that truly one-off, unaccountable, drive-by anonymity is a problem, I think the solution is not to demand that people "take off their masks" but to devise new ways of managing anonymous and pseudonymous communities. That might mean a benevolent monarchy under a blogger like Ta-Nehisi Coates, who presides over the finest commenter community on the political internet. Or it might mean technical innovations like Slashdot Moderation, a breakthrough that I wish was much more widely applied on non-geek sites. But anonymity, I think, is here to stay. And that's as it should be.

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