This happens every few months -- whenever there's a flare up of "bad behavior" on the internet. Some genius thinks he can solve everything by just "getting rid of online anonymity." The latest to step into this well trodden, widely debunked, canyon of ridiculousness... is Lance Ulanoff over at Mashable. He seems to think that he's the first person to seriously consider the idea
of doing away with online anonymity, and it only serves to show that he's barely thought through the issue at all. First off, it's simply wrong
to associate anonymous comments with trollish comments. Yes, some
anonymous comments are trollish, but most are not. And, in fact, many trollish, harassing comments come from people who have their real names attached to them. This has been studied widely, but Ulanoff doesn't even bother to look for evidence
, he just goes with his gut. The largest single platform for harassment online... has been Facebook
, which famously requires "real names." That hasn't stopped harassment, and nor would it do so on Reddit.
Ulanoff completely brushes off privacy concerns, by misunderstanding them. Completely:
Please, please, spare me all the privacy arguments. I know that each and every one of you is terrified that if your real names appear anywhere online, a cyber-crook will start wearing your identity like a cheap suit. Of course, you often forget that you’re sometimes complicit, in some fashion, in the crime: Answering phishing attack emails, using terrible passwords, not shredding your snail mail. Granted, sometimes the cyber thievery happens when hackers scoop up tons of private data on a third-party server.
Yes. This all happens. And I still want to end online anonymity – even if it does leave us a little more exposed online and, though not my objective, destroys Reddit.
Preventing cybercrime is not the main reason why people like to remain anonymous online (again, if that were true, why would anyone be using Facebook?). Many people have really good reasons
for wanting to be anonymous online, having to do with not revealing details of their personal life
. Want to have a discussion about surviving rape? Maybe you don't want to blast that out to the public. Hell, want to have a discussion about being stalked online? Perhaps not the best thing to put your name out there in public, right? Or what if you're criticizing a boss? Or whistleblowing? Or questioning anyone who has authority to make your life miserable?
Ulanoff lives in a privileged world where apparently he can't ever imagine needing to speak truth to power (this is a reporter
?!?) or where he might want to be able to discuss things personally without everyone in the world knowing about it. Lucky him. Most of the world is not so lucky.
We need to shut down online anonymity and stop confusing it with privacy. The answer to protecting yourself online is not to be someone else and please do not talk to me about online identity as if it’s some fluid thing to be protected. If you officially change your name, your address, your email, your phone number, please, by all means, change it online. “FunkyDawg” is not your identity. It’s a handle.
On virtually all of my social accounts, I am “LanceUlanoff.” Granted, I’ve built a tiny online brand around my name, but I’ve also found this transparency much easier to manage than a bunch of random handles and identities. It also keeps me honest. I am accountable for the things I post on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Again, this is because you're in a position of privilege where you don't need to go in search of people to talk to about how your parents beat you. Or you don't need to find a community to talk to about coming out. Or about finding a new job. There are all sorts of reasons why anonymity matters, and Ulanoff doesn't seem to have considered any
of them. And they're not just the "extreme" cases of rape or sexual orientation or things like that either. There are lots of reasons why people might not want to reveal their personal interests or hobbies. What if all of your co-workers are staunch Republicans and you secretly support Hillary Clinton? What if you don't really want
the world to know that you are the world's most knowledgeable expert on the TV sitcom Taxi
? It could be anything
. Maybe you like steamy romance novels and you think your friends would make fun of you for that. Maybe you think hockey is a stupid sport, but all your friends are really into it. Not everyone's life is an open book, nor should it be. There are lots of reasons we don't reveal everything about us, and it takes quite a lot of ignorance to assume that just because you happen to live in a comfy situation where your life is an open book that everyone else's should be as well.
Even if sites like Reddit continue to allow members to hide behind screen names, they should know, in the Reddit system, who they are: Full name, age, birthdate and maybe even address. If Reddit does this, it will not only cut down the number of attacks, it will likely scrub Reddit of much of its disgusting, hateful and racist content. It might also help the site, assuming it survives, monetize more activity than it is now.
Again, this is a total myth. Facebook has much of that info and yet all sorts of hate and attacks happen on Facebook all the time
. Ulanoff can't seem to get over his initial conflation of "anonymity" with "bad behavior." There is some overlap in the venn diagram, but it's nowhere near as complete as he seems to think it is. Also, if Reddit has that info, then it's at risk
. Notice all those hacks and data leaks lately? How safe will the woman seeking help to leave her abusive husband feel knowing that some hackers might leak her name and address at any moment?
None of this, by the way, should hamper “Free Speech” on Reddit.
Yes, actually it will. A ton. Because all those people who would like to feel comfortable discussing things in such settings will go away. The Supreme Court itself has made it clear
that anonymity is a key part of free speech. Ulanoff should familiarize himself with some of its statements, such as:
Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.
And yet, Ulanoff ridiculously thinks that he's the one protecting people from an "intolerant society" because he's too ignorant and too privileged to recognize all those people who rely on anonymity.
Oh, and then he closes it out with his own, incorrect, definition of the First Amendment:
I know that most of the members who hated Pao and wanted her out were angry about the necessary changes she was making and they often decried her actions as an attack on free speech. Sorry, but, in my book, hate speech does not equal free speech.
In your book it may not, but under the Constitution it does. That does not mean, of course, that Reddit needs to put up with hate speech. That's a decision for the company to make on its own. But Ulanoff's argument here is so confused as to be laughable. It's like a high school student who just discovered these issues and didn't bother to do any research before spouting off his opinion.
The facts are pretty clear: anonymous speech is incredibly important in protecting free speech, mostly in protecting people from harassment or risks. It is a key tool that allows people who are facing difficult situations to find each other and discuss. On top of that, most
content from anonymous individuals online is perfectly reasonable and fits within community norms. Finally, requiring real names has never been shown to adequately limit trollish behavior. So Ulanoff is spouting off an idea that puts more people at risk, limits communities that need such connections the most and does nothing to actually stop trollish behavior.
If, however, these Reddit members really believe it is their right to harass, spew hate and post their insane ideas about various races, then do it without the mask of a user name. Put your real name and photo on the site. Stand up for what you believe in, you bastards.
Again the ignorance and the privilege shine through. Ulanoff can't imagine a world in which anyone would say something anonymously unless they're being a "bastard." You'd think that someone who has spent as much time online as Ulanoff apparently has would at least know enough to do some basic research, or at least talk to some people who actually do rely on anonymity every day.