To reveal oneself or not. That’s the unenviable moral choice all parents and teachers now face: how to educate kids about Internet anonymity? Should we teach our children that it’s OK to invent fake online personas, or should we insist that they tell the truth and broadcast their real identities? The moral dilemma is actually a lot more complicated than it first appears.
Today’s generation of kids under the age of sixteen –- let’s call them Generation Facebook –- are the first to literally grow up on the Internet. Teaching these kids that it’s OK to lie about one’s identity has profoundly dangerous long-term consequences. It is legitimizing the idea of anonymity, thereby transforming the Internet from a community of real people into an atomized chaos of fictional characters. Generation Facebook have the potential to be the first real Internet citizens –- yet genuine online citizenship is the first and most tragic casualty of an Internet inhabited by anonymous characters.
The first impulse, particularly of parents, is to encourage our kids to lie about who they are or, at least, not to tell the whole truth about themselves. It’s very hard, for example, for a parent of a pubescent girl with a MySpace or Bebo page, to encourage their daughter to publicly acknowledge her age -- let alone reveal other more intimate details about her identity.
Parents are understandably paranoid about the social scum –- the sexual predators, the financial scammers, the con artists, the bullies, and the gossips –- who are corrupting the Internet with their criminality, perversions, and incivility. And it’s only natural that, in order to protect their kids from this evil, many parents are encouraging them to create invented online identities.
Three recent well-known cases symbolize the evils of online anonymity. There is the appalling case of Megan Meier, a 13 year-old Missouri girl, who was driven to hanging herself in 2006 because of the anonymous postings authored by the mother of a neighbor. There is the equally publicized case of the two female Yale Law School students who have been persecuted by anonymous (and patently untrue) postings saying that they are both lesbians, have sexually transmitted diseases, and have given sexual favors to Yale faculty. Then there is the case of Lisa Krinsky, the COO of a Florida drug service company, whose professional reputation as a businesswoman and company officer has been dragged through the mud on various Yahoo Inc. (Nasdaq: YHOO) message boards.
In each case, real lives have been wrecked by the evil actions of anonymous Internet users. And, in each case, the courts –- under pressure from First Amendment fundamentalists –- have failed to treat these anonymous users as criminals.
But the corrosive consequences of anonymity go beyond these dramatic cases. You see, anonymity is fast becoming the fundamental curse of the contemporary Internet. Vulgar and irresponsible anonymous Internet users are souring public discourse, corrupting message boards, establishing a bilious online world of vitriol and insult. By doing away with the human element on the Internet, anonymity is turning the Web into a literal version of Second Life. We aren’t treating each other correctly on the Internet because, when we don’t reveal who we are, we aren’t investing our real selves in online relationships.
Generation Facebook needs to understand that every action on today’s Internet has consequences. If you steal music, for example, you are killing the recorded music industry. If you aren’t willing to reveal yourself in a social network like MySpace or Bebo, then there’s nothing really social about that network. And if our kids are uncomfortable revealing who they actually are on a social network –- just as we don’t let our kids wander into certain neighborhoods -– then they shouldn’t be in one of these social networks in the first place.
Can anonymity be legislated out of existence? Fortunately, we don’t live in Iran or China, and we aren’t under the rule of an authoritarian government that can get away with treating all online anonymity as a crime. That, of course, is as bad a solution as an entirely unregulated Internet in which anyone is free to be any fictional character they choose to be.
So it’s really up to us, as parents and teachers, to educate Generation Facebook about the inhuman consequences of anonymity. It’s quite simple: if we want the Internet to replicate the most civil qualities of human society, then online citizens need to reveal who they are. If not, then life on the Internet will inevitably be nasty, brutish, and short.
— Andrew Keen, Silicon Valley author, broadcaster, and entrepreneur