The New York Times published a review this week of a new book by Jaron Lanier entitled You Are Not a Gadget. Among the themes mentioned in the book and the review was anonymity and how it's fostered a culture of meanness.
I've yet to read this book. Though in review alone it sounds far more sensible than the rest of the Web-fondling frippery currently lining the shelves. On my own office bookshelf sits a copy of Inside Larry and Sergey's Brain, which I've been putting off reading for mental-health reasons (i.e., preserving my own brain).
Anyway, back to anonymity.
We've talked quite a bit about this subject here on Internet Evolution. While some argue that anonymity is necessary for liberty and one's own ability to speak freely, both Larry Roberts and Vint Cerf have expressed that, if they were to do it all over again, they would at least build stronger authentication into the Internet's architecture. Esther Dyson, chairman of EDventure Holdings, too, expressed her concerns that anonymity encourages bad behavior.
Too many events suggest that last point goes without saying. The first that always comes to my mind is Megan Meier's suicide after being taunted by a friend's mother disguising herself as a love interest on MySpace. There's also no shortage of vehement comments on message boards throughout the Web, always donning the username "anonymous" or some other pseudonym. It's just a fact: Ridding oneself of an identity makes it easier to offend. Dyson herself put it a little differently a few years ago: "People behave differently [i.e., better] when they know they're being watched."
According to the Times reviewer, Lanier laments that "decisions made in the formative years of computer networking" promoted anonymity, which enabled "the dark side of human nature." In turn, Lanier says, a "culture of sadism" has gone mainstream.
I agree with Lanier, but there's reason to believe this anonymity issue is going to be moot going forward, thanks in large part to companies like Facebook (Nasdaq: FB).
In fact, the trend for the new digital age is to not only not be anonymous, but to give up more information about oneself than today's data hunters and gatherers probably ever dreamed of. Rather than hiding behind the cloaks of yesteryear, Web users are willingly outing themselves much to the benefit of companies like Facebook and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) that profit from users' narcissistic impulses.
In an earlier video blog series, IE founder Steve Saunders describes this as the rise of "digital profiling" and argues that Internet users are causing anonymity's demise by surrendering so much personal information. This century, he argues, will be defined by identity rather than anonymity.
But will the rise of identity remedy this "dark side of the Web" problem? In a Times blog, one author tackles this question and makes the argument that anonymity is certainly a factor in this "culture of nastiness," but it isn't the only one:
There's the immediacy factor - it's so easy to leave a comment on a blog post without taking a deep breath and collecting your thoughts.
And there's also a much bigger force at work: People don't realize there is a human being on the other side of online commentary. There is a digital blurring of humanity that takes place on the Web.
Earlier this week I wrote about the rise of virtual communications and how it's hindering our ability to communicate. Taking into consideration the aforementioned author's points, we may also be trending toward a colder culture. Anonymity may not be a problem in the future, as we trade our cloaks in for detailed autobiographies. But that doesn't mean we will have arrested the dehumanizing effects of all the technology underlying this so-called "social" media.
— Nicole Ferraro, Site Editor, Internet Evolution