Thoughts on the need for anonymity

The other day I was reading a post on BoingBoing about Anonymous getting involved in publicizing the Steubenville and Halifax rape cases, and about a protest rally they organized in Steubenville during which a number of rape victims shared their stories.

They wore a Guy Fawkes mask while speaking, and some of them removed it at the end of their testimonials – but some didn’t. While both choices can be understood, a comment below the piece really got me thinking.

“It is interesting to see in a modern society the lengths people have to go to in order to get a sense of anonymity. 20 years ago women could come up in a crowd like this and be reasonably sure that nobody would know them, take their picture, put it on a global information network, etc… Now you have to work to maintain anonymity,” wrote a commentator by the handle jandrese. “The whole Anonymous movement could be seen as a backlash against our increasingly information available age.”

While this last speculation seems to me just partly correct, it was the first part of the comment that got my attention. I thought: “Yes, that is so very, very true – we have to work to maintain anonymity, both in our online and offline lives.”

I have had the fortune of being able to use the Internet from an early age, at a time when most of the people around me had just a vague idea of its existence, and I distinctly remember the feeling of freedom that came from being anonymous in a world full of opportunity.

I believe I remember it that way partly because I was on the cusp of puberty, and began to feel that I was at the end of that period of life when I could make mistakes and have them chalked up to the fact that I was still a kid.

The anonymity on the Internet was not a way to stay a child, but was a way to keep that best part of childhood: being yourself without the worry of breaking rules – whether those of the social contract or any of the others. I could be anything I wanted on the Internet, and do as I pleased.

Some might say that rules are the thing that keeps society working, and that a lot of people use (real or imagined) Internet anonymity to show their true bad selves. But I would counter that the Internet was – and still is, somewhat – also a way for unconventional individuals to breathe freely.

And the thing is, we are all unconventional in some way, and stretching that metaphorical limb that was contracted for a long time feels so good, and makes you think and consider things that you probably wouldn’t allow yourself in real life.

I needed to be anonymous SOMEWHERE when I started using the Internet. I still need it sometimes. But the Internet is a completely different beast now – it often seems as constrictive as the real world.

I consider the advent of Facebook to be the turning point. You were “ordered” to use your real name and encouraged to interact with people you know in real life. Somehow most Internet users stopped wanting to be what they really wanted to be, and simply remained themselves.

Those who didn’t now live in fear of being constricted again.

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