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The Face Of Online Anonymity

After becoming a parent, I was briefly obsessed with the anonymous online community UrbanBaby. UB was ostensibly about parenting, but it became known as a place where sleep-deprived moms would confess embarrassing secrets. As New York magazine put it, the anonymity was like a blend of “truth serum and a very strong cocktail.”  Beyond the oversharing, UB could be snarky, even nasty. Insults flew over issues like social status, income, race, and – that hottest of hot buttons – school rankings. (Yes, even that.) I doubted if the moms posting hateful or bigoted comments would dream of such behavior in real life. Who were they? Could the jealous troll behind those noxious barbs possibly be anyone I knew?

I quit UB, but I’m still fascinated by how we behave if we’re incognito – or think we are. The recent lawsuit brought by Liskula Cohen is a reminder of the hazards of crossing the line, online. Cohen brought charges against an anonymous enemy who posted vicious insults about her on a blog called “Skanks in NYC.” The judge ultimately ordered Google, its Web host, to give up the blogger’s identity. More interesting, though, is the countersuit — the outed blogger is now suing Google for $15 million for violating her right to privacy.

The case is troubling for a couple of reasons. First, it doesn’t bode well for online privacy, even in situations where it might be considered essential, like political dissent. Second, Cohen will forever be publicly associated with the so-called “skank suit,” which is probably not what she intended when she set out to identify her antagonist.

Most of us have experienced Web discussions that get out of hand under cover of online pseudonyms or no identification at all. Studies call it “disinhibition.” More like the online equivalent of a barroom brawl. The barroom effect, however, is both good and bad. Anonymous discussions are far more likely to deteriorate into gossip, trivia, and worse. But, they tend to be livelier, more interesting, and more robust than those where real names are used. Bottom line, they’re more fun.

So, what to do? There are practical suggestions known to many of those who manage Web communities. In most cases, tight guidelines and effective moderation of online discussions help. Mandatory registration also tends to screen out the truly disruptive players. A club, it seems, is better than a mob. But, as the digital culture and technology increasingly push the limits of free expression, one thing is clear. On the Web, very little is secret, and no one is truly anonymous.

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