The value of anonymity: a message to Randi Zuckerberg

At a recent panel hosted by the esteemed IT journal Marie Claire, Facebook marketing director Randi Zuckerberg said, “I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away. … People behave a lot better when they have their real names down. … I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.” Well, isn’t that kind of the point? Using reputational impact as a means of behavior control sets up an implicit hierarchy of expression: there are things that people will say to your face, and there are things that they won’t. Randi Zuckerberg’s mistake is in assuming that everything people will not say therefore should not be said, should not be known, and is totally unimportant.

This is a critical error. For better or worse, anonymity allows us to see what people are really thinking. That is not something to be disposed of so casually. The fact that a certain idea may exact a social cost does not always mean that it shouldn’t be heard. One of the most significant offerings of the internet is that it has specifically provided an outlet for such views, unfettered by concerns of courtesy, tact, or social norms. Do people take advantage of this for the purposes of dishonesty, frivolity, spam, stupidity, prejudice, astroturfing, harassment, threats and crime? Absolutely. But the very feature of anonymity that people so often condemn is precisely what gives it its unique value: unaccountability liberates people.

Supporters of anonymity will often cite its crucial role in the lives of whistleblowers, victims of stalking and violence, human rights activists, and citizens living under oppressive regimes. These are important purposes, but I don’t think we have to appeal to the most virtuous uses of anonymity in order to defend it. What if we want to know what people really have to say? Even the most idiotic, hateful and pointless posts provide a valuable window into what people are actually thinking, or even just what they feel comfortable expressing in private.

This is something we ought to be aware of. If people are secretly ignorant, violent and destructive, and they’re just waiting for this to become socially acceptable, we’ve learned something very important about them. And when these opinions are brought out into the open, they can be recognized for what they are, and addressed appropriately. But by enshrining the dogma of social approval as an absolute metric, and using the fear of reputational injury to discourage honesty, opponents of anonymity aren’t just regulating the behavior of malcontents – they’re enforcing ignorance upon the rest of us. Anonymity offers us a glimpse at the dark heart of society that only a fool would dismiss as irrelevant. And only through staring down the void in our collective soul can we come to understand how horrible the human race truly is.

The notion that the mandatory use of real names is an effective means of enforcing civility is not only misguided, but simply wrong. Facebook and its users stand in direct contradiction to this assumption, and they demonstrate this every day. Taken outside the walled garden of privacy controls, we all get to witness the most flagrant displays of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and religious ignorance of every stripe. Most importantly, the presence of real names does nothing to stop this. Instead, we find that people feel free to express such sentiments when they believe they’re in an environment that’s accepting of these views – regardless of whether they’re identified or not. Claiming that real names will solve any of this is like saying that bullying can’t happen because people will know who’s bullying them. Obviously, it doesn’t work that way. If anything, the exposure of real names has only enabled entire communities to band together against these people in a witch hunt of internet stalking.

This is what requiring identification would really mean: everyone’s personal information would be out in the open for anyone else to use and abuse as they please. You might think that making everyone equally vulnerable would discourage any misbehavior. But for the same reason that nuclear deterrence is ineffective against the suicidal, some people simply don’t care. A threat to one’s social standing means absolutely nothing to someone with no sense of self-preservation, and everyone else would be left at the mercy of maniacs. If you thought that was a problem with anonymity, imagine how much worse it’ll be when everyone’s identity is there for the taking.

Cyberbullying may be a serious issue, but it is one issue, and it is not the only relevant consideration here. Rewriting the fundamental assumptions of the internet just because people are saying things they wouldn’t say in person is an unwarranted overreaction to something that can be addressed with far less extreme measures. However you choose to manage people’s identities on your blog, forum or profile is your own business. But to say that anonymity as a whole must be eradicated from the internet is to take that choice out of everyone’s hands. And even if you think you know better than they do, this is not your decision to make. Some of us would like the opportunity to listen, and that means people must have the opportunity to speak.