Anyone who’s been on the Internet for a while will be familiar with the idea that anonymity can to the worst coming out in the general populace. It’s not hard point to prove either, just wander over to any mildly popular video on YouTube and browse the comments section for a little while and you’ll see ready confirmation of the idea that regular people turn into total shitcocks the second they get the magical combination of anonymity and an audience. The idea was most aptly summed up by Penny Arcade in their Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory strip, something that has become kind of a reference piece sent to those poor souls who search for meaning as to why people are being mean to them on the Internet.
However it seems that the equation might need some reworking in light of new evidence coming from, of all places, South Korea.
I’ve long been of the thought that forcing people to use their real names would work in curtailing trolling to some degree as that removes one of the key parts of the fuckwad theory: anonymity. Indeed a site much more popular than mine said that the switch to Facebook comments, whilst dropping the total number of comments considerably, was highly effective in silencing the trolls on their site. Just over a year later however the same site posted an article saying that there’s considerable evidence that forcing users to use their real name had little effect on the total number of troll like comments citing research from South Korea and Carnegie Mellon. I’ve taken the liberty of reading the study for you and whilst the methods they employed are a little bit… soft for determining what a troll post was they do serve as a good basis for hypothesizing about how effective real name policies are.
If there was a causative link between forcing people to use their real names online and a reduction in undesirable behaviour we would’ve seen some strong correlations in the Carnegie Mellon study. Whilst there was some effectiveness shown (a reduction of 30% in the use of swear words) taken in the context that troll posts only account for a minority of posts on the sites studied (about 13%) the overall impact is quite low. Indeed whilst TechCrunch did say that Facebook comments silenced the trolls they may have called it too early as the study showed that whilst there was a damper initially, overall the level remained largely static after a certain period of time.
What this means for the Greater Internet Fuckwad theory is that the key part of the equation, anonymity, can be removed and much the same result will be had. This is a somewhat harrowing discovery as it means that the simple act of putting a regular person in front of an audience can lead to them being a reprehensible individual. On the flip side though it could also be more indicative of the people themselves as the study showed that only a minority of users engage in such behaviour. It would be very interesting to see how that compares to real life interactions as I’m sure we all know people who act like online trolls in real life.
In light of this new evidence my stance on using real names as a troll reduction method is obviously flawed. I was never really in any favour of implementing such a system (I considered using Facebook comments here for a little while) but I thought its efficacy was unquestioned. My favourite method for combating trolls is a form of timed hellbanning where by the user will not appear to everyone else but to them they will appear like they are contributing. It’s a rather ugly solution if you permanently ban someone but time limited versions appear to work to great effect in turning trolls into contributing users.
It may just be that trolling is an inevitable part of any community and the best we can do is remediate it, rather than eliminate it.
Whilst we’re still in the very early days of Google’s latest attempt to break into the social networking scene they’ve still managed to create quite the stir, at least with the technically inclined crowd. The combination of a decidedly non-Google-esque interface coupled with the simple fact that it’s not Facebook was more than enough to draw a large crowd of people over to the service, to the tune of over 25 million in the short time its been made available to the public. The launch has been mostly trouble free for Google with their rock solid engineering providing a fast, bug free experience and its straightforward privacy policies. There has been one sticking point that’s been causing quite a stir however, enough so that some users don’t see it as a viable platform.
That issue is the fact that you have to use your real (legal) name on Google+.
Now for most of us this isn’t much a problem, especially if you’ve been on a social networking site before. For the past 4 years or so I’ve been using my real name or some abbreviation thereof online for the simple fact that it helped build my online presence, rather than hiding it behind a thin curtain of a pseudonym. That’s because for the most part I haven’t had the need to hide behind a curtain of anonymity (thanks to living in Australia, for the most part) since if I feel the need to express my opinion online I also feel the need to attach my name to it. Of course I still have pseudonyms that I use (Nalafang and PYROMANT|C are the 2 most prolific) but they’re more part of my gamer heritage than anything else, as I don’t really use them in any other context.
Still I understand that many people have built relationships and authority based upon their pseudonyms rather than their real names and this is where Google+ struggles. A great example of this is Digg’s top user MrBabyMan, who has quite the following thanks to his heavy involvement in the news aggregator, has a much smaller following on Google+ due to the restriction that he use his real name. Of course dedicated followers are able to suss this out but the point remains that people are far more aware of his online presence as MrBabyMan than they are as Andrew Sorcini. The question then is why is Google being so pedantic about real name use on their new social network?
You could trace it back to Google attempting to mimic what Facebook has, where it’s almost a given that anyone on there is using their real name. Of course many people don’t use their real name (for many reasons) but Facebook doesn’t seem to take much of a stance when they do, and will even let you change your name on a whim should you feel the need to do so. Google’s stance, at least according to CEO Eric Schmidt, is that they built Google+ primarily as an identity service not the social network that everyone is making it out to be. That’s an interesting notion but, for me at least, doesn’t answer the question of why Google won’t let people use pseudonyms on Google+.
There are many people who want to use Google+ as another platform for their online presence and for some this means using it under the guise of a pseudonym. Now whilst the case can be made that people will tend towards being fuckwads when given some degree of anonymity many have their online identities closely tied to the pseudonyms which they created. If Google was really serious about being an identity service then these sorts of people should have no issue since their identity, at least online, is their pseudonym. The question then becomes what’s the benefit of forcing them to use their real name rather than the one that they have so much invested in and whether this could become a big issue for Google’s new identity service.
For Google the benefits are pretty clear. Since your Google+ account is heavily intertwined with all other Google services the second you opt into their social network all those other services, nearly all of which are pseudonym supporting, now have your real name attached to them. Whilst Google already had a pretty good profile of you built up already thanks to those other services they now have a vastly more critical bit of information that ties them all together. There’s nothing particularly sinister about this motive however, it’s mostly so they can more expensive ads targeted at you, there’s a non-zero benefit to Google requiring your real name on their social network.
Those seeking to join the network under a pseudonym are at a distinct disadvantage however as they’re basically leaving their current online identity at the door. Of course the argument could be made that they’ll transition fine and it’s just that Google+ is still in its nascent stages, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that Google is doing potential users a disservice by not allowing pseudonyms. There’s a happy middle ground for both Google and potential users in the form of verified accounts (which they’re already doing for celebrities) or say letting users have a nickname displayed whilst having the real name hidden but Google doesn’t seem to be amenable to these ideas, at least not yet.
For a social network that’s basically been issue free since day one it’s a real shame to see Google get stuck on something that’s been so ingrained in the Internet community since it’s inception. I don’t think it will be the nascent social network’s undoing, but it’s definitely not getting them any positive press and has the potential to keep many power users away from the service. It will be interesting to see how they deal with this going forward as right now their focus is (rightly) on growing their network, rather than dealing with edge cases like this. However they could win themselves a lot of good press by simply allowing pseudonyms on their network, whether they will do that or not is something only Google can answer.
There’s been very few times in my online life when I’ve felt the need to go completely anonymous in order to voice my opinion or partake in an activity. Mostly that’s because I’ve got quite a bit invested in my online identity and with that comes a certain amount of pride which I hope to carry with me during my online activities. I think the only times I can remember trying to be anonymous about something was when I wanted to pull a prank on someone or if I was voicing a controversial/against the groupthink opinion. Still I recognise the need for a medium such as the Internet to facilitate completely anonymous communication especially when it facilitates such great things as Wikileaks.
I remember back in the early days of the Internet I spent the vast majority of my time there under a pseudonym purely because that was the way it was done back then. Indeed sharing personal information across the wire seemed like a bit of a faux pas as you couldn’t trust the people on the other end not to use it for nefarious purposes. Over time however I saw services begin to crop up that chipped away at this idea, encouraging their users to divulge some sort of personal information in order to get something in return. Blogs were a great example of this with many of the blogging starlets being those who shared interesting stories about their lives like Tucker Max or Outpost Nine. Still for the majority there was still a layer of anonymity between the writer and the reader with many choosing not to reveal details that could identify them personally, keeping their online and offline presence happily separate.
A few years later we saw the beginnings of the current social Internet revolution. These services are based around the idea of mimmicing those interactions we would have in everyday life and usually attempting to augment them as well. In order to facilitate such an idea any of the anonymity granted by the Internet has to be stripped away so that the offline relationships can be replicated online. Such information also forms the basis of the revenue streams for those who provide these online services to everyone, usually at no cost to the end user. In essence you’re trading your online anonymity (and by extension privacy) for the use of a service, effectively turning it into a currency.
Interestingly enough is that your privacy doesn’t have a fixed cost, it’s quite relative to who you are. Heavy users of social networking tools are in essence costing the company providing the service more money than those who don’t use the service as much. From a pure metric standpoint you could boil this down to bandwidth, storage space and potential incidents raised that need to be fixed by a member of your team. However those heavy users are more likely to have more personal data on your website making them far more valuable than someone else. If you take an example of say a celebrity on Twitter (as much as it pains me to say it, like Bieber and Lady Gaga) they are probably the biggest cost to you on a per user basis, but they’re also the most valuable. In essence one unit of their privacy currency is worth oodles more than someone like me.
Still the use of these services does not preclude you from going anonymous when you need to. If I really wanted to hide my tracks I could go to an Internet cafe in another city, encrypt my connection and pipe it through TOR and start blasting out information through all sorts of means without it ever being traced back to me. All the information about me online then would be less than useless, save for the fact that anyone attempting to trace me would figure out that I knew a thing or two about IT. Realistically even in this time of sharing almost too much information with the world there are still very few barriers to hiding yourself completely should the need arise.
I will admit though that the traditional means of being anonymous, which were usually an innate part of the service, have faded away. The Web 2.0 revolution’s focus on user generated content has meant that there’s is literally untold masses of information available, something which hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Internet giants:
“There was five exabytes [five billion gigabytes] of information created between the dawn of civilization through 2003,” he said. “But that much information is now created every two days, and the pace is increasing… People aren’t ready for the technology revolution that’s going to happen to them.
“If I look at enough of your messaging and your location, and use artificial intelligence, we can predict where you are going to go,” Schmidt said, adding unnervingly.
“Show us 14 photos of yourself and we can identify who you are. You think you don’t have 14 photos of yourself on the internet? You’ve got Facebook photos!”
For those who enjoyed the anonymous online life this means that, like it or not, there’s probably information on you out there in the Internet. Whilst we’re still a long way from being able to make sense of this data avalanche the ever rapid advancement in computing technology means that one day we will. This means that peeling back the veil of anonymity will be easier for those seeking to do so but on the flip side that just encourages those who value their online anonymity to find better ways to combat that. In essence we have an arms race that I can’t fathom how it will play out, but history has shown that a dedicated minority can put up one hell of a fight if they’re cornered.
I guess I take a engineering perspective to online anonymity: it’s a tool to be used for certain problems. When the time comes that you need to do something online that doesn’t come back to bite you there are options for you to follow. I’m quite happy to trade some personal information for the use of a service that I deem valuable, especially when most of it is a matter of public record anyway. In the end whilst we might see the end of our traditional views of online privacy and anonymity the tales of its death are greatly exaggerated and it will remain a fundamental feature of the medium for as long as it functions.
Back in the early days of the Internet we didn’t have things such as Youtube or Facebook, so we had to make do with such wonderful technologies as good old HTTP and Usenets. The Usenets in particular were pretty niche, and most people wouldn’t know of them, let alone use them. It really was a golden age for the Internet, since you really needed to know what you were doing in order to get something online and you had to look pretty hard to find and cross over to the wrong side of the tracks.
These days with it being so easy to set up a website or blog anyone can throw up a page or just perform a quick search to find what their looking for. Modern day search engines do a good job of filtering out most of the chaff, but when you’re looking for something obscure it’s very easy to get something that looks genuine but is nothing but utter dribble. I remember a good example from a while back on the Holy Grail. A teacher of mine knew quite a bit about the subject and decided to see what material was available. Out of the myriad of sites he found about 2 where factually correct, 3 were misguided and the majority were plain wrong or bordering on delusional.
Sometimes however, people are drawn to this kind of insanity. Whether it is the freedom of anonymity or just a desire to cause and experience choas, places on the Internet exist for those among us who seek to see the taboo side of our humanity. I make no secret that I am one of those people, and I’ve spent many hours seeing what us humans get up to when all the rules are left at the door.
Probably the most famous example of a place such as this is 4chan. Whilst on the surface it would appear to be a clucky little clone of the Japanese imageboard 2Channel delving deep into its recesses shows a dark underbelly. In the early days of this board it was particularly famous for its /b channel, which is void of a general topic of discussion and is deemed to be “random”. It is in here that people from all over the world post things that would normall be taboo, wrong or downright illegal. It is also the gathering ground of the online group Anonymous, who delight in causing mischief for corrupted organisations or just the general public. Strangely enough it has even started a trend, with other sites carrying the *chan identifier popping up all over the places wishing to emulate its success (or even drive deeper into deprativity).
It is interesting to note the places that because of their size, attract a great number of people who aren’t there for the board’s purpose. The BodyBuilding website appears normal on the surface but digging down into their forums will show that their largest forum, Misc, has the most threads (in excess of 800,000) and as a consequence the most rubbish. Whilst it isn’t as removed from reality as the likes of the *chan boards, due to the sheer volume of people on there it attracts people who aren’t interested in body building at all, and sometimes even those who are at the end of their rope.
A more regulated but none the less interesting place to visit is the Something Awful and its forums. What makes this place interesting is its dedication to comedic material, which sometimes leads it to strange and whacky places. Over the years it progressed from a personal site for the creator “Lowtax” to a bustling news site with a set of forums renowned for their online shenanigans. Whilst it is probably closer to the right side of the railroad then the other sites I have mentioned you can still see some people using the freedom of anonymity to spew forth their misguided opinions at each other.
Often I would wonder as to why I would visit these places, why I would revel reading the vulgar reality of the human condition. That was, until someone else summed it for me:
Lampkin: The horror of the age. The great ugly material. The cloak of deceit.
Apollo: The truth. Hmph. Kind of overrated, I guess. You know, when I was nine, maybe ten, my grandfather… he would wave me over. And he’d do this all the time. And then he’d say, uh, “Lee, be a good boy. Just don’t be too good.”
Lampkin: Everybody has demons. Them, Baltar, you, me. Even the machines. The law is just a way of exorcising them. That’s what your father’s father told me. You want to know why I hated him? Because he was right.
Apollo: So you hated him because he was right, and I hated the law because it was wrong. Because of what… Of what it put him through. I mean, he defended the worst of the worst. I remember reading about him. The outrage. Helping murderers go free. What I don’t understand is why he put himself through all that abuse.
Lampkin: You think he gave a flying frak? Joe Adama cared about one thing. Understanding why people do what they do. Why we cheat our friends, why we reward our enemies. Why we go to war, sacrificing our lives for lost causes. Why we build machines in the hope of correcting our flaws and our shortcomings. Why we forgive, defying logic and the laws of nature with one stupid little act of compassion. We’re flawed. All of us. I wanted to know why, so I did what he did. I spend my life with the fallen. The corrupt. The damaged. Look at you, you were so ready to get on that Raptor with me today. The bad boy, the prodigal son.
Bonus points to those who recognised that exchange from the TV series Battlestar Galactica.
Sometimes, to truly understand ourselves we have to delve into the most extreme parts of our humanity. It’s just amusing that the internet, which was created for only one thing has given us this opportunity.