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Internet anonymity

Wednesday, 18 April 2007 — by

My name, my face and my words are my personal brand. They’re what I use to promote myself, my ‘blog and my business. To hide is to not be seen. But that’s just my thinking. Clearly, I can’t speak for others. So what’s wrong with being heard but not seen? Well, we’re going to find that out right here…

First of all, I want to qualify the focus of this article: this isn’t going to be a debate on political anonymity, because that’s too massive and exceeds the remit of simple ‘blogging anonymity so clearly enjoyed in many free nations, and delves into socio-political issues that are too complex for me to even attempt to disentangle on a Monday evening.

Anonymity and the invisible population

From a human perspective, and as humans on the internet, anonymity most probably came about not through decision or even choice, but out of primitive technologies, such as bulletin Board Services, which wouldn’t have had any real provision for personal profiles.

Additionally, operating systems like Unix made popular the concept of a username, which is quite distinct and often separate to the name of the actual user in question.

So anonymity may well be a byproduct of function, rather than decision.

This sense of anonymity still exists today. I’m usually to be found under the usernames Octane, OctaneInteractive, Forbes, or ForbesBingley. There are services which I’ve joined as a matter of professional curiosity which I’d rather .. ahem, not be seen dead in under my own name.

I also use my real name sometimes, but it’s quicker to just type Octane. While you could argue that I hide behind these usernames, that’s not strictly true. With most of the services I’ve signed up to, my real name, location and photo are often visible to all other members, or even the public.

Anonymity could be seen as just being easier than being onymous (the opposite of anonymous, apparently,) but I’d hazard a guess and say with a certain degree of confidence that some people do hide being their on-line anonymity to avoid accountability for both their actions and their words, which is both sad and lamentable.

There’s where I’m going to draw a line under the issue. I think there are many reasons for being anonymous, so I’m now going to look at the possible consequences of internet anonymity and just how much anonymity will we really have in the coming months and years.

Real content is still the king

When we sign up for some on-line service, we’re often given the choice to fill out a form, the purpose of which is to offer up some details about ourselves to either marketeers, or other members of that service.

Often, these details are quite simple, such as name, birth date, where you live, gender et cetera.

Whether you choose to fill out all of these options is ultimately your choice. But what are the possible consequences of all of this feverish form-filling?

Well, for one, if you’re like me, there may be a point in the not-too-distant future where my profiles become hubs, out of which the search engines can trace my activities with even more detail.

For the likes of me, this can be a good thing, and I’ll explain.

I write, and I’m quite a prolific writer, too. I’ve written a bunch of stuff for Ezine Articles, as well as ‘blog entries and articles on Ecademy, also formerly Always On ‘blog entries as well as various fora up & down the globe, as well as this ‘blog.

Some of my articles have been published elsewhere on the web, places mostly unknown to me, but most of which do credit me as being the author.

However, what if some of my stuff doesn’t credit me as being the author? And, what if I decide to run that same content elsewhere? Or, run that content on my own ‘blog?

Through the eyes of the search engines, this could be seen as ‘content scraping‘, which carries a penalty.

In simple terms, content scraping is the act of pulling together often superficially original, accurate content to build ‘splogs’ (spam ‘blogs,) which are often automated ‘blogs built to game the search engines into driving traffic to them so that the visitors then click on some banner advert, or other revenue tool.

But if there’s a mechanism to aggregate my various profiles into one place, either within the Byzantine algorithms of the search engines, or via the likes of Profile Linker, as discussed on TechCrunch, then maybe the search engines can be more precise in their penalizing of those gaming them and rewarding those playing by the rules, like yours truly!

So there’s the potential to be credited for your own content, and not being marked down for content scraping.

The eye wire

But there’s a flip side to this always-on search engine watchfulness. How long before the search engines allow us to search for people by their username? And, is that an invasion of their privacy?

There’s a very thoughtful, concise and introspective thought-peice over on Standard Web Standards by Regnard Kreisler C. Raquedan, which makes for good reading:

“I have to admit, putting my personal information tied to my blog carries several risks and responsibilities. There’s always identity theft (although I would doubt anyone would take interest in stealing mine), there’s also the risk of getting sued if I make disparaging remarks.”

Finally, he ran a poll with the question: “Would you trust a blog with an anonymous author?” And of the 25 people that voted (including myself,) 72% felt that they would not trust an anonymous author.

It’s this one article that started me thinking about internet anonymity and internet censorship in the first place, so it’s fitting to bring the discussion back in that way.

So we have an issue of trust, where the anonymous writer is perceived as being less trustworthy than their more visible counterpart.

It’s quite easy to draw immediate conclusions from this, but we’re only dealing with 25 people voting. Maybe there’s other studies out there? Right now, I’m not going to go hunt them down, I feel sure they’ll back this conclusion up.

However, as we paint broad sweeping strokes across this delicate canvas of trust in our fellow man, we cannot dismiss all anonymous writers as being frauds, charlatans, shills and con-men. There will always remain those few who have their reasons and are as trustworthy as the day is long.

Setting the issue of trust aside, and going to back to my previous question, could we see a time when the price of gaining trust is the loss of personal privacy?

If the search engines are all-seeing, all-knowing, then so too will be the people sat in front of their computer, typing out our names into the likes of Google, Yahoo!, MSN or Ask.

Yes, we’ve revealed certain details about ourselves to web portals and other places on the web. And yes, we accept that someone could – with such a mind to do so – find out more about us, given enough time.

But what we didn’t envisage is a time when all of this information is aggregated into one place.

We might tell a friend which plant pot we keep the spare house keys under, or a colleague which username & password to use to access our computer, or even let a family member use your credit card once in a while. But what you don’t do is let all of these people have access to the whole lot!

This is all pure speculation on my part, but it does seem logical in certain respects. Might such a feature of search engines not come about at the behest of certain governments? As a direct request to subvert anonymity, masquerading as an aspect of national security, dressed up as a new search tool, perhaps?

The point is, is there a dividing line between personal, freely available information about you on the web, and invasive scrutiny, verging on a violation of privacy?

Maybe there is no line anymore. Just footprints leading off in every direction…

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Comment and be known


Biby Cletus → Wednesday, 18 April 2007 @ 9:20 BDT

Nice post, its a really cool blog that you have here, keep up the good work, will be back.

Warm Regards

Biby Cletus – Blog

Wayne Smallman → Wednesday, 18 April 2007 @ 9:25 BDT

Hi Biby and thanks for your time!

You didn’t hang about, did you? I’ve only just posted this article.

Thanks for the compliment, and if you’ve got any questions, you know where to find me.

Thanks again…

Sprague → Thursday, 19 April 2007 @ 4:47 BDT

Wayne/Octane (sounds like an X-Men character… cool), anonymity has a long history — many Revolutionary heroes wrote under pseudonyms to get their ideas out without having to worry about repercussions.

I use the rat id for similar freedom, it’s a character that I can use to present anything I want to say without worry of embarrassment. The downside is that I’m pretty sure some people don’t feel they can “connect” to an obviously false id. But, of course, you don’t necessarily know someone just because they use their real name…

Wayne Smallman → Thursday, 19 April 2007 @ 8:07 BDT

“Anonymity has a long history — many Revolutionary heroes wrote under pseudonyms to get their ideas out without having to worry about repercussions.”

Agreed.

But that’s why I issued a disclaimer at the beginning of the article.

Anonymity for political purposes is just too big a subject. That would need a totally separate treatment to what I’ve written here.

I don’t disagree with anonymity on the web as such, but from my own point of view, I do find it frustrating when people (on forums, emails, this ‘blog, even) post anonymous comments and then just leave.

Now, note how I mention comments in an open-ended way? That’s because sometimes the comment can be really constructive, but for whatever reason, the commenter has legg’d it! So there’s no way to continue the dialogue….

Wayne Smallman → Thursday, 19 April 2007 @ 8:08 BDT

And thanks for the comment, by the way!

I’ll be adding you to my contacts on MyBlogLog…

Sorry Comments are close. Quite possibly for a good reason. Share your thoughts on some of my other posts or contact me directly.

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