Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Anonymity and Anonymity

Guy Brian at the MSU phil blog discusses a case in which Butler University sued one of their students who was blogging anonymously about the firing of a professor and saying mean things about administrators. The Deans had their widdle feelings hurt, so they sent their big, bad university attorneys after him in order to force his name into the open.

It's started me thinking about online anonymity again. There seems to be three levels of anonymity. The shallowest, what we could call pseudo-anonymity, is what I was using when I first started this blog using only the moniker "Steve G." Anyone who really cared could easily find enough clues to figure out who I am. I wasn't hiding my identity, I just wasn't overtly advertising it.

The second level is akin to adopting a pen-name. There are folks who use a handle and everyone in the community knows them by their handle and the viewpoints and personalities that come with them. They may or may not be like that in real life, but in their on-line incarnation, you get a sense of when one these folks is yanking your chain, when they are truly passionate, and when they are being sarcastic. You know when you read certain comments to expect a response from them. Indeed, some folks I know will have two or more which they use for types of comments: funny ones come from one name, serious ones come from another. You know who they are without knowing their identity. We could call this semi-anonymity since there is an advertisement of the name of the character, we just don't know who is writing the character and how much the character resembles the writer.

Then there is full anonymity where the name slot on comments is left blank and the name "anonymous" shows up. Here it is intended to be a completely disembodied voice and since anyone who leaves an unattributed comment will receive the same name, it will be uncertain which anonymous commenter left a given message.

The question I want to pose concerns the difference between the ways in which we experience semi- and fully anonymous comments. Does the attribution of a name, even if it is a name we have never seen and may never see again affect how you take a comment? Does full anonymity give a sense of freedom that semi-anonymity does not? Do you take comments from named people more seriously even if you have equally little information about the actual identity of the commenter?