I came across a fluff piece on online dating on Twitter today, entitled “So Much for Reinventing Ourselves Online“, written by Jenna Wortham for the Business Day section of the New York Times. Notwithstanding the glib references about sharing too much personal information online and the brave new world of technology, Wortham quotes Christopher Poole, one of the “advocates of Web anonymity” and the founder of an online community called 4chan, who says,
“people should be able to separate their online and offline identities.
“There is always a need,” he said, “to be able to enter into a conversation and have your contribution judged for its merit and not who you are.”
This rather amusing display of naïveté about the true meaning of identity and persuasion would be trifling, but for the fact that:
“Mr. Poole and some other entrepreneurs are trying to build some layers of anonymity back into the Web. He says he’s doing that with a new company, Canvas Networks, that will experiment with an online community that will allow some identity concealment. Others are creating tools and carving out areas on the Web to preserve discretion. For example, a tool called Disconnect disables third-party tracking while Web surfing. And a search engine called DuckDuckGo does not collect browsing history or any personal identifiable information, its creators say.”
These arguments are all specious.
Online and offline identities are not separable.
Anonymity has nothing to do with identity. If one is anonymous, then one is incognito, unknown, unidentified. Personal identity is based upon one’s self-image, self-esteem and individuality. Thus, the ‘real self’ and the ‘fake self’ are incongruous, both on a personal and social level: see, M.R. Leary and J.P. Tangney (2003). Handbook of self and identity. New York: Guilford Press, and S.J. Tracy, S. J. and A. Tretheway (2005). “Fracturing the Real-Self-Fake-Self Dichotomy: Moving Toward “Crystallized Organizational Discourses and Identities””. Communication Theory 15 (2): 168–195.)
To be persuasive, the speaker’s identity must be known.
Aristotle’s The Rhetoric defines the three modes of persuasion as forms of rhetoric: Ethos ( the personal character of the speaker) , Pathos (the emotional appeal of the speaker), and Logos (the logic or reasons of the speaker):
“Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself. Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided. This kind of persuasion, like the others, should be achieved by what the speaker says, not by what people think of his character before he begins to speak. It is not true, as some writers assume in their treatises on rhetoric, that the personal goodness revealed by the speaker contributes nothing to his power of persuasion; on the contrary, his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses. Secondly, persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions. Our judgements when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile. It is towards producing these effects, as we maintain, that present-day writers on rhetoric direct the whole of their efforts. This subject shall be treated in detail when we come to speak of the emotions. Thirdly, persuasion is effected through the speech itself when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question. “
Then again, as Friedrich Nietzsche, in the Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer wrote,
“One chooses logical argument only when one has no other means. One knows that one arouses mistrust with it, that it is not very persuasive. Nothing is easier to nullify than a logical argument: the tedium of long speeches proves this. It is a kind of self-defense for those who no longer have other weapons. “
Granted, an appeal to authority is insufficient to assess the merits or persuasiveness of an argument. However, it is impossible to judge the speaker’s credibility without knowing, at a minimum, the speaker’s identity. A sound argument in a vacuum has no resonance.
Privacy is a personal right that carries with it, a personal responsibility
A Google search of “Reputation management” yields 7,790,000 search results. Is this really necessary? Disclosing too much information is as dangerous as having too little information. Hanging your virtual dirty laundry on the digital clothesline for the world to see makes you the chambermaid of your own misfortune. Trying to maintain different offline and online personas suggests a borderline personality disorder or someone who takes World of Warcraft way too seriously.
But what about democracy and free speech, you ask? Isn’t the ability to mask your identity the only way to express your opinions without fear of government reprisals? I suppose this argument has superficial appeal to the Wikileaks online protesters operating under the (paradoxically) eponymous guise “Anonymous”. Are these social hacktivists protesting the termination of Wikileaks’ accounts “the internet equivalent of a mass demonstration“? Don’t we need someone to show us that the emperor has no clothes?
It all depends on what “free speech” means in this gilded age of avatars, internicks, and nom de plumes. In my view, there is no such thing as “anonymous free speech”: if you say it, you own it. There are no absolutes in life except death and taxes. The truth is a weapon in the hands of the government and whistleblowers, alike. If for Spiderman “with great power comes great responsibility”, then for the rest of us, “with great freedom comes great accountability.”
I, however, remain open to being persuaded otherwise.