There are two ways of looking at online anonymity. It’s either an excuse for people to say ridiculous things they’d never dare say in real life, or it’s a valuable screen that helps people become more themselves. Frequently it’s both, at the same time. It’s also an increasingly contentious topic that is defining how various big players in the online world view their visitors and users.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is always telling us how important it is that we identify ourselves on the site, and online in general. I can see how point in the context of Facebook, which is set up as a way for people to represent their ‘real’ personalities in the online world. Facebook is all about sharing, so it always strikes me as a little odd when people sign up to the site and then get angry about privacy. Facebook only has your data because you typed it in…
And anyway, data is valuable and Facebook can make money from (a) knowing about you, and (b) helping other people (advertisers, marketing agencies) know about you. Facebook isn’t a charity. It wasn’t set up because Zuckerberg and his friends just wanted to be nice and give everyone a way of wasting 23.9 hours out of every day (the other 0.1 hours are for peeing, pooing and stuff we won’t go into). So from his position, Zuckerberg’s argument makes sense.
But Zuckerberg’s POV isn’t the only one in town. At SXSW, 4chan’s founder Christopher Poole has put the other argument out there, and it’s a convincing one. Poole believes that anonymity allows people to share and interact in a “raw, unvarnished way”. Poole’s 4chan forum has gained (unwelcome?) attention in recent months because it’s seen as one of the places where the hacking group Anonymous came together. 4chan and Anonymous are not the same thing at all, but it’s probably fair to say that a lot of people who are affiliated with Anonymous are also pretty fond of 4chan.
Poole’s vision of the internet as a place where people can be anonymous has some limitations. Generally, authorities in most countries don’t want people to be anonymous in this way. So you could argue that Zuckerberg and Facebook (and other sites, like Google and Twitter) are more aligned with the conventional and the mainstream in western society, while sites like 4chan are going the other way.
Some people see sites like 4chan as the ‘dark side’ of the internet, which is absolute rubbish. If there’s a dark side of the internet (and despite the dramatic language, we all know what the phrase is getting at), it’s certainly not 4chan. When was the last time you head a news story about a kid getting groomed via 4chan? I’m willing to bet it was ‘never’. And that brings up an interesting point: if you create a site where everyone is supposed to be exactly who they say they are, you introduced more opportunities for deception, not less.
4chan has been running for around a decade now, and has been fairly low profile for much of that time. Anonymous has changed that, to an extent, but perhaps not in a negative way. While Facebook has very strict borders with rules about how information moves around, 4chan is the opposite and allows information to spew all over the place or remain tightly under guard, depending on the user’s preference. 4chan doesn’t try to control its users, although there is a degree of board moderation. It’s an interesting contrast, and you have to wonder if Poole’s high profile appearance at SXSW is the start of a new approach that will see 4chan and its offshoots become a more public face of anonymous online culture.