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Monday, February 13, 2006

a note on anonymity

Since a commentor brought it up in one of the recent discussions, I thought I'd take a minute to highlight some advantages and disadvantages I see with using anonymity on the blog. This issue has special relevance to certain of our goals and visions at Cambridge Common, so I think I speak for all the contributing writers when I say that we would really appreciate your feedback on this topic, since it will help us to improve the overall project. (more in expanded post)

UPDATE: Someone helpfully pointed out to me that this post is far too long for people short on time. So for those of you who wish to be spared my anecdotes and pontifications (smile), here's the bullet-point version:

Advantages to anonymity:
* Protects privacy in case of sensitive content and/or special status within the University.
* Puts focus on what's said, rather than who's saying it.
* Freedom from fear of mean personal attacks (which, unfortunately, do happen).
* May aid in free expression.

Disadvantages to anonymity:
* Enables mean-spirited attacks and/or lying (only seriously problematic in certain cases like the UC race).
* Keeps others from getting a sense of how your views on different issues fit together (can be mitigated by adopting a pseudonym).
*** Hinders Cambridge Common's function as a catalyst for real live interaction and community, rather than a substitute for it. The blog, and New Media, are not enough--it's wonderful and vital to get to know in person the contributors we meet in online discussions!

Conclusion 1: Consider attaching your real, full name or a fake name to your comments. It makes it easier for the rest of us (1)to get to know you online, (2)to develop a more complete sense of your various opinions and perspectives, and (3)to get in touch with you if and when we want to (which is the best part!).

Conclusion 2: What are your thoughts on the function of anonymity, others of its advantages and disadvantages, and on how we can make Cambridge Common more effective at translating online community to real live community?

* * *

All right; now, for the brave or bored among you, here's the raw footage:

As some have noted, anonymity can be very useful in focusing attention solely on what's being said, rather than on who's saying it. Our own subtle prejudices and biases (based on the age, perceived gender, race and ethnicity, social position, etc. of the person writing, and/or our real-life interactions with them) can certainly affect the way we read and interpret people's words, affecting our ability to really understand what they're trying to say and consider it fairly.

The above-mentioned recent commentor's reason for maintaining anonymity is slightly different from being concerned that revealing one's identity will skew the way one's comments are received, though equally understandable: in their words, "I only remain anonymous because my position within the university somewhat necessitates it."

Also, some people may simply feel that they can express themselves better and more freely when they're not worried about the possibility of others criticizing them personally. This is an issue that has sometimes come up on open lists, when people simply abstain from voicing their opinions because they have no desire to be the target of caustic remarks. In more extreme cases, the unfortunate reality is that some contributors may feel they would be jeopardizing their own safety ('outing' themselves in any number of ways) by attaching their name to certain sensitive information or opinions.

Using a pseudonym provides many of the benefits of anonymity, and different people have various reasons for adopting them. Author bell hooks, for example, chooses to use a pen name, even though her identity is known, as a way of cultivating the emotional strength she needs in order to write about some deeply personal and highly charged issues. Some people, particularly on blogs, just use them to be goofy. And pseudonyms have advantages beyond regular anonymity: they help to distinguish the writer more easily from the many other anonymouses (so people don't have to refer to them as "anonymous 3" or "anonymous at 12:37"), and they also help to establish a continuity of thought for the person, so people who have read their comments in the past can better piece together their various opinions and perspectives.

Are there other advantages to anonymity and pseudonymity that I've overlooked? Let me know.

Okay, now for some disadvantages.

One of the major drawbacks to anonymity that we actually had to take action against in the past is the way it allows people to say hurtful, rude, and/or untrue things without having to suffer the social consequences of doing so. During the UC campaigns and election, anticipating the great damage that anonymous traducements could cause to candidates and their staff, we instituted a policy restricting anonymous UC-related contributions. Typically, though, the harm in the occasional petty insult is far outweighed by the benefits of maintaining the anonymity option, especially when people often call each other out on being out of line.

A second major downside to anonymity is that it prevents people from getting to know each other, both online and offline. As I said above, adopting a consistent pseudonym (or various permutations of one, like our friend guess who/why/where/what) helps gives the rest of us a better sense of how your ideas fit together. It also assists in creating the feeling of an online community, with many recognizable members.

But Cambridge Common is not only about creating an online community, which brings me to the disadvantage to anonymity that I most deplore. Remaining anonymous robs the rest of us of the chance to translate online community to real live community. To illustrate this point, I'll offer an example from my own experience. A while back, someone wrote a very kind, complimentary comment on one of my posts, signing it "E." Frazzled with life at the time and thinking I knew the person's identity anyway, I didn't respond with my thanks right away, thinking I'd catch up with them later. Well, the person I thought was E, wasn't E. So a few weeks down the road, I tucked a note to E in one of my posts, apologizing for not thanking them sooner and asking that they email me, if they wanted to, so that we could meet up and chat outside the blogosphere. Happily, E did email me, we met up for lunch one day, and our dining hall dates now average about two and a half hours. We both agree that we're just sorry we didn't meet sooner, since E will be graduating in the spring.

So the moral of that story is, as enjoyable, productive and exciting as blogging and New Media can be, they can't beat face-to-face interaction. Online communication undoubtedly has certain key advantages: it's wonderful for connecting people across large geographical distances, and it's fabulous at facilitating the speedy sharing of large amounts of information. But since most of us who read Cambridge common are right here on campus, we should take advantage of that fact and use the blog as a catalyst for real-life interactions, not as a substitute for them. And while in some cases you can have your cake and eat it too, remaining anonymous and still meeting up with other contributors offline, posting your name just makes it that much easier for the good people of the world to get in touch with you (I know I'm stoked about meeting up with another thoughtful contributor for the first time this week!).

Really, I can scarcely overemphasize this point: Cambridge Common is not a self-contained universe, nor should it be. With this in mind, I hope that you contributors who post anonymously, and you readers who have yet to comment, will consider attaching real or fake names to your writings. It will bring us that much closer to forming real live offline community.

What do you think of all this? How can we improve Cambridge Common so it's more effective at fostering offline community? As always, please share some wisdom.

ps: hi, E. :)


At 11:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I would like to remain anonymous but obtain a community identity by way of a pseudonym, how would I go about doing that?

At 11:44 PM, Blogger katie loncke said...

Just go here and take two minutes to set up an account. It's all free.

Or, under "Choose an identity" where it says "No Blogger account? Sign up here," click on that link. It takes you to the same place.

Thanks, soon-to-be non-anonymous (hopefully)!

At 1:03 AM, Blogger Pyrrhus said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 1:08 AM, Blogger Pyrrhus said...

I think the "anonymous" option is annoying if only for the fact that one has to identify a commenter by their timestamp in order to reply to them. I don't know if the option can be disabled, but I feel like the blog would not lose much if it were (people would still be able to post anonymously under "other," but if they had to choose their different versions of anonymity there would at least be distinct commenters instead of a flood of undifferentiable anonymouses).

But even beyond that, I think the costs of anonymous posters tend to outweigh their benefits. Anonymity tends to encourage people to indulge in moral outrage and heavy-handed rhetoric that they would not be comfortable using if they felt more accountable for their comments. Although it is interesting to know (through anonymous contributions) the range of privately-entertained opinions, I don't generally find this sort of outrage to be an intellectually worthwhile substitute for the more reasoned-out arguments that more exposed (less anonymous) commenters are inclined to make. Moreover, the ridiculous rhetoric of a few anonymouses often encourages other more reasonable readers to descend into the mud with them and sidetrack discussions.

Pseudonymity may not encourage as responsible commenting habits as the use of ones real name, but I think it can be a far cry better than anonymity. Pseudonymous commenters may not feel much of a need to protect their actual reputations, but those who post under consistent pseudonyms in a community with some degree of continuity may develop a desire to uphold their pseudonym's reputation as a reasonable and objective commenter (Full disclosure: I'm posting under a pseudonym!).

At 6:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Katie! One of the reasons I replied to Katie (even though I don't reply to other writers) is that she doesn't rip apart the people who disagree with her. Some writers on this list respond to criticisms by getting really abrasive/dismissive toward anyone with an opposing opinion. Even though I often agree with the original writers, I don't think it encourages dialogue to throw around labels and act like other opinions are completely absurd and/or completely outside the realm of reality (that doesn't always happen with other writers, but it does once in a while, and that is enough to scare me off). I replied to Katie because she comes across as kind/interested/intelligent/considerate/thoughtful (both academically and emotionally) in her posts, and that is the kind of person she really is.

At 10:22 PM, Blogger katie loncke said...

Stop it, E, you're making me blush (literally). :)

Seriously, though, this means a lot to me, particularly coming from you, so thanks.

See you Friday!


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