Saturday, February 05, 2011

On being Anonymous

I've noticed a trend of late that people in cars with blacked out windows, where you can't really make out the person behind the wheel, tend to be some of the more aggressive drivers around me on the road. They cut you off, change lanes without signaling and, in general are more selfish and less concerned about people around them. I have to think that those blacked out windows, giving those drivers a degree of anonymity, have something to do with the behavior.

If we're not known, somehow, we become a bit less accountable and a little less careful about others around us.

If you know you can do something without anyone knowing it was you, would you do the same thing as you would if everyone knew it was you?

Think about that. I'm pretty sure most humans know exactly what I'm talking about.

I've seen similar behaviors in the online worlds where people can be whoever they want to be. You can see it in sties like 4Chan where everyone is anonymous and some of the things that go on there are undoubtedly entertaining, even hilarious, but also downright evil.

I worked for a large computer company some time ago that had a large companywide intranet that many of the engeineering staff would use to try things out on. One engineer wrote a program that had two fields in it. One field was a scrolling window of text posted, real time, as people typed it into the second field: A small 200 character text field at the bottom. It was totally anonymous (the people entering text were not tracked in any way). Some of the things that came across that program were priceless and it lent itself to endless entertainment, right up until someone posted the married VP of HR was screwing his admin.

There were thousands of people using this program so there was literally no way to figure out who put up this particular post, but you can bet that this Cupertino based company (known for being highly innovative) shut it down and actively went after the engineer who wrote it (and, his manager, who happened to be me at the time).

Was this the right thing to do? I don't really know. I guess you could say: Is Twitter 'right'. It's essentially the same thing but on a global scale.

I'm not saying anonymity is bad. It can be very useful in doing good. The group Anonymous actively went after the Church of Scientology and exposed much of their more questionable practices. They made a point of bringing attention to the financial institutions that said they wouldn't allow monies to be sent to Wikileaks (but had no problem handling finances for the Klu Klux Klan).

I know of a group of people that, by necessity, anonymously ran an underground pirate radio station because they couldn't get a license, wanted to create a locally focused community media resource and were effectively hunted down by a federal agency (the FCC) to stop putting out signal equal in power to a 100watt light bulb. The only thing that protected them was being anonymous.

And there are many larger examples such as the people behind the organization of the uprising in Egypt, or the people that give information to wistleblowers like Wikileaks and news organizations.

But I wonder if it doesn't make for a less civil and a little more chaotic world.

Actually, I think I do know the answer to that: Yes. It does.

It's not really a good thing, and, it's not really a bad thing.

It's a little like a gun. It can be used for good like protection, deterrence or survival in a post-apocalyptic zombie filled world. Or,it can be used to attempt the assassination of a congresswomen.

It depends on who's hands it's in and what inclination those hands have.

Hopefully, it's more often for doing good than doing evil.