SkepTech: Anonymity on the Internet

Like Miri, I’m going to be at SkepTech…[checks calendar]…holy crap, tomorrow!

And lucky me, I’m going to be on a panel about anonymity on the internet, moderated by the lovely Chana.

This panel will explore the conflict between online anonymity and harassment. In a world where absolute freedom is practically possible, what shall be permitted? Anonymity is a double-sided coin; it can be a great generator of content, activism, and community, but also provides a safe space for blatant racism, sexism, homophobia, hate speech, and death threats. Is moderating any more “self-policing” than the violent comments policing who creates content? How far should self-policing go—should we go troll hunting into meatspace, causing commenters to face serious, “real life” repercussions? How far is too far, or not far enough?

I have a couple of thoughts–but mostly I want to hear yours. This isn’t a subject I’ve given much direct thought. I obviously spend a lot of time on the internet, but I rarely comment on blogs. Mainly, I interact with commenters by either…
1) Pruning the terrible ones.
2) Reading the really insightful ones and passing out shiny internets.
And the occasional 3) Reminding people that I’m Kate, and not Ashley*.

So, in no particular order:

I don’t think anonymity is quite so much the question as whether or not the moderation policy fits the goal of the site. When it fits, you have a useful site–though everyone can hate your goals and disagree and critique them and boycott them and all that.  Aligning goals and policy, but on opposite ends of the spectrum are Reddit and Shakesville.

Reddit: Though within-subreddit moderation can be pretty high, across-subreddit moderation is low. And by low, I mean nearly non-existent. However, reddit mainly wants to have a Wild West Internet setup. (“Subreddits are a free market. Anyone can create a subreddit and decide how it’s run”[link]), and their policy reflects it. I have feelings about this, which is to say that I don’t like it.

Shakesville: Shakesville is the opposite of reddit. Explicitly a safe space, they have a highly structured comment policy, use content notes, and wield a fierce banhammer. They want a space without explaining at the 101 level, and they want to exist as a haven on the internet. For one reason or another, I’ve never become part of the regular commenters, but I appreciate the idea.  The commenting policy–which is followed very closely–creates the space Shakesville is looking for. Readers are devoted, and the comments fit in with their goals: violating the rules of the safe space will get you banned. Of course, I don’t think this is how the entire internet should run–101 spaces matter, and fucking up and misunderstanding and asking really awful questions and learning because someone took the time to explain why, exactly, affirmative action isn’t racist against white people? That matters too. But safe spaces can be useful, and Shakesville is one of them.

And when comment policies don’t match up with the goals?

Basically, you get every mainstream news site. Seriously, have your read the comments? Don’t read the comments. No real conversation happens, because everyone is busy yelling about how Obama is a Muslim, the earth is flat, and The Next Great Conspiracy Theory. And when the occasional debate does start, some ALL CAPS WARRIOR leaps in. It’s an exercise in futility, and most people hate it…so they don’t participate, and then even fewer people are left to patiently explain that no, it’s not true that atheists eat babies.

As for troll-hunting in real life?
I don’t like call out culture–the naming and public shaming (particularly shaming on the internet, where stupid is forever) rubs me completely the wrong way. Yes, people have really awful damaging attitudes, and sometimes I do think it can be done carefully, well, and surgically*, but mostly, allies should spend less time calling out and more time making change. And change doesn’t happen by alienation. (Caveat: this doesn’t mean you have find r/MensRights and make a go of explaining feminism. But when you think you can have conversations, do that.)
Relevant reading: I Remember Saying Stupid Shit

What do you think?

*Note: This post was written by Kate, and not Ashley.

**Goal: define “carefully, well, and surgically” by the time I’m on the panel on Saturday.

You can follow SkepTech at @skep_tech

SkepTech: Anonymity on the Internet

15 thoughts on “SkepTech: Anonymity on the Internet

  1. 2

    Don’t forget anonymous bloggers. It’s not just commenters that can be anonymous. I can tell you that some of the best journalism in Greece is from anonymous journalists that blog and write sometimes write for print magazines. They are anonymous because frankly they have credible threats against them by far-right groups and business interests. However they cite everything that the do, so tranparency is ensured.

    On the other hand, anonymity it can be abused for all the reasons you mention.

      1. I maintain my anonymity on my blog and in comments not because I want to be nasty but because I live and work amongst fundies. I do post comments in the local paper using my RL name which was a bold decision. They switched to FB for comments, and too many faith-friendly articles were going unchallenged. So far I’ve had no repercussions…. that I know of. I hope my coworkers are live-and-let live with me because I am with them. I don’t make their religiosity an issue at all. But I do have to live here, so I’m careful.

  2. 3

    As a real-name commenter, I often find myself stymied by the possibility that an otherwise excellently-apropos anecdote could be easily traced and the other people involved identified: “Yesterday I met a fool who…”, “My friend’s ex-husband …”, etc, etc, etc.

    Using my meatspace name occasionally pays off for getting-in-somebody’s-face purposes, but I regularly wish I had come up with something smartass yet livable-with before I clicked my first “submit” button, almost a decade ago.

    1. 3.1

      Yeah. I attempted to circumvent that in my own commenting/writing by using a name that sounds like a real person’s name–which means that people often don’t realize I am pseudonymous. On the other hand, I have little investment in avoiding connections to my legal name.

  3. 4

    As an aside, I wonder if there is a way to make it more clear which blogger writes a post when a blog has two regular contributors. Is there a way that your picture and bio could be put on the top when you contribute, and Ashley’s would be at the top when she does?

    We now return you to your regularly-scheduled comment thread….

  4. 5

    Real names policies hurt trans people. Even if they want to use their real names, it often isn’t their legal one, and changing your name legally is a hassle and costs a ton of money. So by enforcing such a policy, you are forcing people to use a name that isn’t real.

    It also hurts victims of abuse who need to remain anonymous from their abusesers.

    Their are no benifits to real names policies, and I can name many more things that hurt women, queer folx, trans folx specifically, disabled people, other minorities, and activists.

  5. 6

    I was raised and taught, when the internet was shiny and new, that it is not safe. You don’t use your real name and you don’t tell people where you’re from or where you live. All those people might seem nice but one of them might also just be the more hi-tech version of the creep in the van offering “candy” to kids.

    However, having used this moniker for 16 years or so I imagine anyone who really wanted to could probably link this name to my RL info. On the other hand, at this point people IRL could probably start calling me ‘Sith’ and I’d respond as though it were my given name. In a way it is the name I’ve given myself.

  6. 11

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