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Identity in Communities & Networks

Catch Me If You Can: The Quest for Anonymity in Online Communities

| Abstract |
Anonymity is not a new concept and certainly not something that arose with the invention of the Internet. Pseudonyms have been used by countless individuals throughout history to disguise their true identities and escape the scrutiny of others based on their true selves. Whether to escape; the constraints of social status, gender roles, expectations that come with positions of authority, or the consequences of the law; people sort out anonymity because it freed them from the social limitations that plagued their ‘real’ lives. These days it is much harder to remain anonymous. The extent of social infrastructure and governmental regulation (such as citizenship) in conjunction with records kept by financial institutions, make it difficult to be identity-less in modern society. The Internet is a rare facilitator of anonymity due to its ability to separate the consciousness from physical reality and has thus generated much contention on the World Wide Web. This paper argues against the notion of Internet transparency amid increasing social pressure implemented by traditional institutions of power; and gives evidence to support anonymity, and by extension, the Internet’s rare ability to empower individuals’ basic human rights.­­­

Online anonymity is a powerful means of delivering information and to a large degree removes the consequences that plague ‘real’ life; as a result of this delayed responsibility the list of ways this freedom is abused grows exponentially every day. However, users should not relinquish their freedom to shield their identities without a fight.  Anonymity is defined as “the state or quality of being anonymous”, to be “unknown or unacknowledged” but it is “not something which was invented with the Internet” (Palme & Berglund, 2002). The use of anonymity and pseudonyms dates back ‘throughout history, the most famous examples of which include William Shakespeare, Marc Twain and Ed McBain’(Palme & Berglund, 2002). The real names of some of these authors are known, others might never be uncovered; but each sought out anonymity for different reasons. The use of pseudonyms or anonymity is an effective means of removing ‘preconceptions of the author from a message’ (Palme & Berglund, 2002) , exercising control over perceptions of that intended message and removing the ‘real’ identity (context) which might confuse or warp that which is communicated. It can also be used to dodge responsibility and hence consequences that might be applied to the material that is discussed and/or displayed.  The following paper will examine how identity plays a major role in computer-mediated communication and argue that Internet users should not relinquish their right to remain anonymous amid pressure from external institutions and media authorities for complete online transparency. Users should be able to choose whether they shield themselves from potential persecutors by becoming anonymous online. After discussing some popular methods of anonymity such as the use of virtual private networks and the performative aspects of the construction of self on the Internet; the following paper will analyse the notion of ‘real-name’ identity use on the Internet amongst changing social attitudes and increasing efforts of governmental bodies to authenticate, verify and define the sharing of information as transactions. In conjunction, this paper focuses on the ideals of the World Wide Web, examines the role of online anonymity in social change and argues that though there is strong evidence to suggest that anonymity may be the death of collective intelligence, perceptions of anonymity encourage rare incidents of unfiltered discourse that society cannot stand to lose.

The Role of Identity
Identity plays a major role in the perceived value of information (social capital) on the Internet. The advent of phenomena such as the “instant expert” has exacerbated the need for the validation of knowledge through evidence of expertise via identity and disclosure. This is largely attributed to lowered barriers of entry on to the World Wide Web through platforms like social networking sites and hosted blogging communities which provide profiles and pages for users to share their thoughts and opinions on; discontinuing everyday people’s need for extensive understanding of Web infrastructure and hyper-textual media language. The rise of participatory culture and self publishing via Web tools therefore has contributed to a ‘mass devaluation of Web based information’ (Retzer, 2005). Simply put; anybody can have a web page or get a book published, these forms of media are so readily available that they no longer hold the same significance. As a result, there is extensive noise to contest with on the Internet. It is hard to discern a valid source of information from the millions of misinformed and biased messages being posted and uploaded all over the Web; thus identity becomes a significant determinant of social capital.

According to Don Slater’s appraisal of relationships and identity online, it is the basic characteristics of new media that centralise identity’s importance on the Internet; because it is ‘virtual, defies traditional spatiality, and dis-embeds and disembodies individuals from reality’(2002). Users are separated from their physical self, disconnected from geographical location and time, and are able to interact despite diaspora. It is this detachment from the physical self that warrants the ‘performative aspect of an individual’s online identity’ (Pearson, 2009) and makes computer-mediated communication vulnerable to manipulation and deception. It is in recognising this potential for deception and manipulation that citizens of the Internet begin to question whom they are interacting with and what their motivations are for doing so.

Mistrust & Online Communities
By examining what Judith Donath describes as the patterns of social categories that shape our perceptions of others, it is clear that there are multiple methods of deception whereby Internet user’s preconceptions can be manipulated. For the purposes of this paper it is essential to examine specific incidences of identity concealment and identity management in online communities and social networks; one such example is the use of kill-files in online news groups as observed by Judith Donath in a study of identity and deception. ‘Kill-files’ are a commonly used tool implemented to filter web-content and set parameters that allow user’s to flag and ‘circumvent unwanted postings’(Donath, 1999) for example; adding a fellow user’s screen-name to your kill-file ‘prevents you from having to see any more of their postings’(Donath, 1999). In this example, Donath describes how an individual was unable to successfully block material from a fellow news group user because said user was ‘in control of multiple aliases’, pseudonyms that disguised their posts (1999). At the same time, this also exemplifies how even under different screen names the offending user was identified by other participants due to the nature of content that was posted; recognising common ‘voice and language patterns’(Donath, 1999). Even though the ‘real’ life identity of this user is not linked to their activities online because they have shielded themselves with the use of pseudonyms and data encrypting software, they are not totally without identity; they are still designated a troll. This case study is a key example of how pre-conceptions can form in the minds of others over time and how accumulated behaviour patterns can be used to categorise individuals. This example also argues for the power of anonymity and pseudonymity in online news groups; defying preconceptions tied to an identifying user-name or real name. Unfortunately, as incidences of deception become commonplace and gain attention from the media; from impersonation, to identity theft and defamation cases; wide spread issues of trust manifest in the psyche of Internet-mediated communities.

In recognition of; the many uses and misuses of identity manipulation in online communities, in conjunction with “the growth in use and power of personal computers…”(Sommer); forensics has had to develop a keener sense of how users are able to circumvent being identified and traced by authorities in order to commit offences (sometimes criminal) over the Internet. The use of distributed processing  and ‘growth of networks both private and globally public have contributed to the issue largely because they impact not only on what computers can deliver to their owners but massively complicate the search for and nature of evidence that may be found within them’(Sommer). Online crime is often committed with the use of anonymity as it is an effective means of protecting one’s self from the consequences of the law and may be used to disguise digital footprints. Many different crimes such as ‘slander, the distribution of child pornography, threats, racial agitation, fraud and intentional acts of damage such as distributing computer viruses are to varying degrees punishable by law’(Sommer). Collecting substantial evidence to convict those involved is however, more difficult than it seems. Even in an place like the Internet “where everything is indexed, archived and often publicly available”(Masters, 2011) it can be difficult if not impossible to track down technology-savvy miscreants. If successfully located, prosecution is made even more complex due to a lack of internationally-federated illegal acts; that is, the law varies from country to country. Therefore, existing Internet Law often fails to capture those outside the jurisdiction of the prosecution. The ugly side of online anonymity rears its head when criminals alike have access to diverse methods of avoiding identification and networks filled with other criminals at their disposal.

The Pursuit of Anonymity
Virtual private networks (VPNs) such as The Onion Router (TOR) are commonly used to browse and distribute material whilst ‘preventing others from watching the individual’s Internet connection and learning what sites are frequented as well as the physical location of the individual’ (“The tor project,” 2012). The Tor Project is just one example of an anonymity based community helping its members remain anonymous on the Internet. This openly licensed software works with existing applications such as “web browsers, instant messaging clients, remote logins, and other applications based on the TCP protocol by distributing processing over a large anonymous shared network’ (“The tor project”, 2012). This method makes it difficult to trace to one machine and hence an individual user. Thus, as a result of the pervasiveness of crime and mistrust on the Internet; anonymity has come under much scrutiny via media bodies and government agencies that would seek to remove it entirely. The advent of Facebook and its real-name profile policy, in conjunction with South Korea’s real-name internet law; demonstrates a social shift towards identity disclosure and online transparency. However, a privacy paradox emerges where; in an attempt to lower the risk of being deceived or misrepresented, citizens of the Internet (netizens) reveal more about their off-line self and expose their identities to potentially unlimited threats and consequences. The idea behind these policies is ‘ if you have nothing to hide then you won’t mind sharing it’ and challenges netizens to address the scope of potential representations of themselves by  removing space for error and misrepresentation, meanwhile removing their privacy. This level of disclosure often results in heightened vulnerability rather than strength against the myriad of disguised agendas of media institutions and governmental authorities; advertisers and third parties often after power and financial gain.

Internet Transparency vs Social change
Changing attitudes towards disclosure along with increasing efforts of media and governmental institutions to authenticate, verify and define the sharing of information as ‘transactions’ has made anonymity much harder to accomplish and maintain. Though there is evidence to suggest online anonymity is abused by selected individuals there are many positive potential uses that empower individuals and remove obstacles to social change. In a TED hosted conference Christopher Poole, founder of the controversial, uncensored online image-board 4chan, spoke of the rare ability of online anonymity to un-inhibit users and encourage un-repressed discussion of socio-cultural issues. A rare facilitator of what Poole calls “unfiltered discourse”(Poole, 2010), anonymity is often viewed as a sort of counteraction for the consequences that plagues face-to-face communication. This is often attributed back to the sense of ‘detachment from off-line context’ that users may experience when they go online and ‘grounds claims for the Internet as a vehicle for social liberation and facilitator of group efforts’ (Slater, 2002).

“With the anonymous system, you can’t single out users, it’s very honest because obviously if you don’t have a reputation to tarnish, if you don’t have a name that’s linked to what you’re saying, then you can really say whatever you want. And the most important thing about it is because all information is treated equally, you are judged not by who you are, but by what you are saying which is the way it should be”(Poole, 2010).

By examining this concept in the context of internet dissidents, protest and political activism in communist China it can be implied that Internet users living in a politically repressed society can benefit from anonymity in order to avoid persecution for their political opinions. Examples of brutality like; the massacre that took place in Tiananmen Square on June 4th 1989 (initiated by the Chinese military to crush democratic protest efforts) and the political minefield surrounding the  imprisonment of human rights activist and Nobel Prize Winner Professor Liu Xiaobo, make obvious the reasons online anonymity is an attractive mode for political discourse. It is important to note that ‘even in democratic countries, some people claim, rightly or wrongly, that certain political opinions are persecuted’ (Palme & Berglund, 2002) and that anonymity empowers all types of people’s basic human rights to freedom of expression. VPNs are not just for those with ill intentions, and aid participants of political pressure groups to remain identity-less in spite of those who would seek to silence their protests. Therefore, on the basis of positive social change; this paper argues that anonymity is a crucial aspect of internet-mediated communication and should not be relinquished because it presents a rare opportunity to empower basic human rights to freedom of expression.

In conclusion, this paper has discussed the devaluation of Internet based communication and the role of identity as an important influence on what is perceived as social capital; it has outlined the ways in which Internet-mediated communication un-embeds and disembodies individuals from their off-line selves; and grounds the concept of performative identity in online communities. This paper has also addressed the increasing technical challenges of securing and maintaining anonymity on the Internet and has questioned the effects of real-name internet laws on the existing privacy paradox. Through an examination of communities such as news groups and political activists in China this paper has provided insight into the ways in which anonymity and pseudonymity are utilised to avoid persecution and manipulate preconceptions of identity in order to deceive and misdirect others. Lastly, this paper has drawn on these examples to generate an evaluation of anonymity’s significance as a facilitator of unfiltered discourse and successfully argues that though often misaligned with the principle ideals that the World Wide Web was founded on, the use of online anonymity is a rare and powerful tool that has such infinite potential for learning about and understanding the facets of society that would otherwise be ignored. Online anonymity perpetuates social justice and gives hope to those who are otherwise disempowered by authoritative bodies of control and oppressive institutions that operate in the physical world; it has the capacity to level the playing field and extends the reach of democracy.



Donath, J. (1999). Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community. In P. Kollock, & M. A. Smith          (Eds.), Communities in Cyberspace (pp. 29-59). New York: Routledge.  http://smg.media.mit.edu/people/Judith/Identity/IdentityDeception.html 

Ladner, S. (2007). What Designers Can Learn From Facebook’s Beacon: the collision of ‘fronts’.   Copernicus Consulting. Retrieved from http://copernicusconsulting.net/what-designers-can-     learn-from-facebooks-beacon-the-collision-of-fronts/

Masters, A. (2011). Identity on the internet: The pros and cons of anonymity Retrieved from:             http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2011/09/19/identity-on-the-internet-the-pros-and-cons-of-  anonymity/.

Palme, J., & Berglund, M. (2002). Anonymity on the Internet. Retrieved from             http://people.dsv.su.se/~jpalme/society/anonymity.html

Pearson, E. (2009). All the World Wide Web’s a stage: The performance of identity in online social           networks. First Monday. Volume 14, Number 3. Retrieved from;             http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/2162/2127

Poole, C. (Speaker). (2010, February). The case for anonymity online: Christopher “moot” Poole on          TED.com [Web Video]. Retrieved from http://blog.ted.com/2010/06/02/the_case_for_an/

Retzer, J. (2005, April 18). The economic value of information networks1. Retrieved from http://www.pren.net/documents/economic_value_of_networks.v2-3.pdf

Slater, D.(2002). Social Relationships & Identity Online and Offline. In Livingstone, Sonia (Ed.)             Handbook of new media, Chapter 31, pp 533-546. Retrieved from:       http://link.library.curtin.edu.au/p?cur_aleph000723585

Sommer, P. (n.d.). Digital footprints: Assessing computer evidence. Retrieved from             http://www.pmsommer.com/CrimLR01.PDF

The TOR Project
. (2012). Retrieved from https://www.torproject.org/ 

Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York; Simon and Schuster. p. [271]-320. Retrieved from: http://link.library.curtin.edu.au/p?cur_aleph000331375

Turkle, S. (1997). Constructions and Reconstructions of Self in Virtual Reality. In S. Kiesler (Ed.), Culture of the Internet. Hilldale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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Catch Me If You Can: The Quest for Anonymity in Online Communities by Ashleigh Audino is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported


12 Responses to “Catch Me If You Can: The Quest for Anonymity in Online Communities”

  1. Hi Ashleigh, great paper! As you say in your introduction, there tends to be an assumption online that, if it cannot be linked back to you, your comments are free of any censorship. This then becomes the idea of the “keyboard warrior”, with people a lot more comfortable arguing behind the comfort of anonymity. This is how I’ve always seen it and so I found it really interesting to consider that this may not be the easiest choice, given the move towards “real name” policies. As you said, the concept of ‘anonymity’ means different things in different contexts, with the privacy concerns in China.

    I also really liked your point about identity becoming ‘social capital’ amongst online noise and I think that’s very true – in order to stand out you need to almost brand yourself. However, as you say, this then increases the chance for a violation of privacy. When researching my own paper I came across on article on online privacy, that I will link below, which explained how providing sites such as Facebook with your full name, birth date and place of education can result in cases of identity fraud. I was wondering what you thought about this, as there then seems to be a fine line between identity construction and identity control?

    (The article I mentioned: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/17/technology/17privacy.html?scp=1&sq=how%20privacy%20can%20vanish%20steve%20lohr&st=cse&_r=0)

    Posted by CaitlynHarvey | April 29, 2013, 4:42 pm
    • I’m glad you got where I was coming from Caitlyn & thank you for that link. I don’t think I’ve heard it said better than Maneesha Mitha who was quoted in that article explaining how the conventional definition of personally identifiable information has become more or less obsolete because of technology.

      Certainly, this all relates back to what I said about the Internet being a massive database;“where everything is indexed, archived and often publicly available”(Masters, 2011) you have to be tech savvy to avoid it coming back to bite you.

      Many might argue that it is near impossible to be anonymous online but I like to think you can stay invisible as long as you don’t attract too much attention. You get noticed when you act in a contentious manor whether online or offline.

      I think it’s a matter of attracting the attention of someone with the means to track you down, that you really have to worry.

      As long as you don’t give people reasons to pursue you, they generally won’t waste their time and resources. But, if you’re handing that sensitive information up on a platter? Well,put it this way. I wouldn’t consider myself a victim to the moral compass of a criminal who I, myself gave access to my personal information. The Internet is already filled with facebook-stalkers that call themselves my friends voyeurism is a pretty natural part of human existence. We might not like it, but short of walking around with blinkers on, we can only control what we actively expose. That’s why I think it’s important not to relinquish our ability to remain anonymous in the one medium it is still possible to achieve.

      I think we are stupid if we think we really have that much control over our identities. Everything we do reveals something about us. We can attempt to influence perceptions of our identity, but we can’t change who we are just because the person on the other side of the line can’t see or hear us.

      Does that answer your question Caitlyn?

      Posted by AshleighAudino | April 29, 2013, 6:06 pm
  2. Love the topic you chosen and wow, those evidence! I like how it reminds us that anonymity didn’t come from the Internet! And your use of William Shakespeare is brilliant! :D Not a lot of people know of this. As someone who spend a lot of time in online forums and such, I have to say being identity-less is becoming more difficult now. Say, when I want to join a forum or a social network, I have to be very careful not to link that part of my identity, with the identity that real-life people see on Facebook.

    Love this : “Simply put; anybody can have a web page or get a book published, these forms of media are so readily available that they no longer hold the same significance.” As someone who prefer to have paper cuts while reading a book, I agree. Books just don’t hold that same feeling. You don’t really need a publisher or paperback edition anymore. *points to the closing of Borders stores*

    Great coverage on the criminal/anonymity link. Definitely something on the rise now, such as Anonymous. Woah, never heard of TOR before! In a way, it’s dangerous. But, I guess, some people would go that way if they’re desperate enough for simple entertainment, such as torrenting overseas TV shows; at the same time of avoiding authority from catching them. Hmm. This makes me think. =D As a reader, I don’t know if I’ll agree or disagree. Excellent point here. 
    Yes, it is sad that people are oppressed from anonymity, or even worse, persecuted. Feels almost inhumane to do that; blocking someone’s personal right. And then you think of what happened with criminals being free, when you let a society have anonymity.
    “it has the capacity to level the playing field and extends the reach of democracy.” Brilliant! :D
    Loved the paper!

    Posted by Bianca Kartawiria | April 29, 2013, 6:13 pm
    • Thanks Bianca, I completely understand, it’s hard to say one way or the other whether anonymity is a good thing.

      I tried to show a non-biased standpoint on it by including examination of the misuses of online anonymity.

      The reality is that anything can be warped for seedy purposes if someone has a mind to do so. I think it’s dangerous to eliminate anonymity from the Internet in fear of how it can potentially be abused though.

      We’re all still accountable to those we offend online as long as they are intent on seeking justice or reprisal.

      Look at the case of dusty the cat for instance or human-flesh search engines.

      http://www.kenny-glenn.net/- Dusty the cat
      http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/07/magazine/07Human-t.html?pagewanted=all – Human Flesh Search Engines

      It was the content shared by the anonymous criminals that motivated these groups to track down the people responsible for these animal-cruelty atrocities. I’m trying to condone the use of anonymity for social justice but I agree that anonymity is an idea that creates turbulence.

      Do you think giving up anonymity would dramatically impact your own online activities?

      OR do you think you could adjust if Australia introduced a real-name internet law like south korea?

      Posted by AshleighAudino | April 29, 2013, 6:40 pm
  3. Yes, giving up anonymity would impact my online activities and me as an online person a lot. It would mean not being able to talk to people as free as I want. Thus, having online friends will not have a point anymore. In a way, it would limit freedom of speech. It would border us with famous people such as politicians or celebrities; where any sentence they say can be twisted. That, would be a horrible world to live in; at least from my point of view. I will not be able to adjust to it, at all.

    Posted by Bianca Kartawiria | April 29, 2013, 6:57 pm
  4. Hi Ashleigh

    Your paper was well written and I found it easy to read and flowed well. Always important if we want people to keep reading! ☺

    I find the notion of Social Capital a strange one. I suppose it depends on if you are interacting on the net to build self esteem via social capital or not. I do believe it is an extremely prevalent phenomenon though, specially on Facbook amongst the youth; given the large number of ‘friends’ they acquire. And in saying that your paper is very relevant to their future.

    My issue with Slaters quote is that it is from 2002 and predates Web2.0. Back them it was easy, incredibly easy, to disembody yourself from reality- not much computer ownership, dial up accts and basic IRC and chat formats with a few bulletin board styles just coming into existence. AS I say in my paper http://networkconference.netstudies.org/2013/in-a-web-2-0-world-are-the-words-virtual-or-online-redundant-when-defining-community/ can any resource that does not include these (facebook and Twitter) in a discussion of community have a valid point?

    if you have nothing to hide then you won’t mind sharing it’ Although I do not agree with this – I am more of the” if you wont own it don’t say it philosophy” I don’t agree with being forced to share details but you can choose how to control what you put out there.

    Do you believe that it will get more difficult to keep the separation of identity that people still feel is the bonus of the net? Where once people ‘played on the net to explore alter egos and identities it is now becoming part of the fabric of society and merging with our day to day lives in such a way that it is hard to separate. “The Net is only one of many ways in which the same people may interact. It is not a separate reality” (Wellman & Guilia, 1997).

    Thankyou for writing such a thought provoking paper


    Wellman, B, & Guilia, M. (1997). Net Surfers Dont Ride Alone: Virtual Communities as Communities.

    Posted by Simone Inglis | April 29, 2013, 9:42 pm
  5. Hi Ashleigh,

    I really enjoyed reading your paper and would like to share my thoughts.

    There is an interesting dichotomy between the revealing of identity to expose individuals who wrong others, and protecting the identity of individuals from being wronged. More importance should be placed on exposing members of our society who involve themselves in such atrocities as child pornography or in Poole’s (2010) example, the abusing of “Dusty” the cat over protection from identity theft and material possession. At fundamental levels, we as a society need to examine how we respond to the needs of our community members who are victims to identity theft, rather than promote a system which hides from it and incidentally protects criminals.

    I agree that it is important to protect the right to freedom of expression although I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who said something along the lines of ‘those willing to give up liberty to gain security, deserve neither and will lose both’.
    While the notion of “unfiltered discourse”(Poole, 2010) is an interesting ideal, to hide the identity of a speaker is to both alter the context of the discourse and thus filter it, and to de-humanise the process of expression. The argument for anonymous discourse in the interest of honest discourse is paradoxical, as using anonymity in the interest of un-repressed discourse is obtainable only through the repression of identity.

    We face an interesting time ahead as we as a society determine the value of freedom of expression, accountability of online expression and the value of both our freedom and our security.

    Regards, Carl.

    Poole, C. (Speaker). (2010, February). The case for anonymity online: Christopher “moot” Poole on TED.com [Web Video]. Retrieved from http://blog.ted.com/2010/06/02/the_case_for_an/

    Posted by Carl J. Hamilton | May 1, 2013, 12:55 am
  6. Finally got round to yours, have just finished reading some others in the Identity stream and in comparison I thought this was written with a really strong argument, but still contained a wide scope on the issue. Congrats.

    –>I feel like you need to support the statement, “as a result of this delayed responsibility the list of ways this freedom is abused grows exponentially every day”, especially because it is within the first sentence. Unless you are meaning the actual instances of abusing the freedom are exponentially expanding. I think it would be possible to narrow down the methods of abusing this power to maybe, under fifteen ways?!? I have had a really quick look and haven’t found any research directly related to this, so it could be cool to try and form a kind of ‘model of online anonymity abuse’ which tries to define the ways in which Internet users abuse their perceived power of anonymity.

    –>I am basically in full agreement with the ideas you have presented. I really like how you mentioned Retzer’s (2005) ‘mass devaluation of Web based information’, and how you have strengthened the idea that identity online is significant due to the ‘noise’ that must be contested with from misinformed contributors. I would bet that you’ve seen at least one of Clay Shirky’s talks explaining ‘cognitive surplus’, but if you don’t know what I’m talking about, I would check out: ‘Clay Shirky: How cognitive surplus will change the world’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qu7ZpWecIS8 (Shirky, 2010). Your point reminded me of this instantly, although there are of course a few conflicting ideas revolving around the fact that you are referring to individuals on the Web, as opposed to Shirky mainly referring to the Internet population as a whole. I think the most relevant part of the video in terms of your paper, comes at about 5:20.

    Thinking about this gave me an idea that supports the idea of anonymity online being beneficial to society. I think the fear of negative evaluation that may come from the thought of portraying an idea, spurs from the previous inevitability of projecting the ‘self’ as part of an idea (of course this is not limited to just ideas, but putting it this way helps me explain it!). This form of ‘dispositional anxiety’ is definitely reduced through the emergence of a perceived ‘anonymous’ online identity. Maner et al. (2006) have a really good way of explaining this in ‘Dispositional anxiety and risk-avoidant decision-making’, in case you think I’m just making things up. I realise that in your introduction you discussed the likes of Shakespeare, Twain, and McBain being anonymous before the Internet age, but with this, the same principle applies.

    So what am I yapping on about? I believe that if people had always been given access to a platform where they could display their thoughts without displaying their identity, and therefore risking the fear of rejection, we would already be riding hover-boards. I do understand, however, the paradox your paper presents regarding the equal playing field of web-based collaborative platforms, and how some of the greatest ideas from the most brilliant of minds would be swallowed in a sea of anonymity. Please let me know if I have completely misunderstood the intention of your paper! I realise my ramblings are getting increasingly hypothetical, but I have to ask if you agree with this idea: I think we are faced with a race to defeat the online ‘cognitive surplus’ (Shirky, 2010), before the end of human existence, and that anonymity may be a key factor in this.

    –>I think that acknowledging the “wide spread issues of trust… in the psyche of Internet-mediated communities” is one of the most important points you bring up. It’s interesting how a precarious relationship between utilising Internet information and believing Internet information has been established in the ‘Web 2.0’ age, due to ‘misuses of identity manipulation’. A further analysis of the ‘Internet information coping strategies that are learned through Internet use’ would be really interesting; did you come across anything like that in your research?

    –>I know this has more to do with the gaming stream, but when you mention anonymity and online crime I instantly thought of this video I watched during research for my paper called ‘Serenity Now Attack on World of Warcraft In-Game Funeral – MMO Anthropology’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iP4OdfqypFk&list=SPFF8FDC5960A6F3E6&index=9 As ThePrinceOfMillAve states in his video, it is clear that because the perpetrators of this virtual mass murder knew that there was no way of being persecuted for acting immorally, and within the game’s rules, they planned the event with full intention of revealing their identities as a way of gaining the ‘social capital’ you speak of. It ties in loosely with what you say about ‘slander, the distribution of child pornography, threats, racial agitation, fraud and intentional acts of damage such as distributing computer viruses are to varying degrees punishable by law’(Sommer). It is interesting that these ‘miscreants’ are punished even though they are acting within the guidelines that are set within the Internet (the limits of computer code). Simply put, your point highlights how the Internet blurs the line between what is punishable and non-punishable, based on ‘real’ life immorality.
    So in trying to think of a conceding point, thought I would bring up situations where content is originally presented anonymously by a user, and upon acceptance if the content, a user will then reveal their identity to claim ‘social capital’. I guess throughout the paper you could be clearer in highlighting the collision of the human desire to promote the self (selfishness), and the desire to contribute to a community. Obviously word count is a constraining factor, but I think that highlighting where your argument fits in terms of this would make it incredibly hard to make a counter-argument against…

    –>Finally, I like how you have included a hyperlink after ALL of your references. I wish I had thought to do that, it makes things so much easier.

    Bed time.

    Citations Used:

    Maner, J. K., Richey, J. A., Cromer, K., Mallot, M., Lejuez, C. W., Joiner, T. E., & Schmidt, N. B. (2006, October 17). Dispositional anxiety and risk-avoidant decision-making. Personality and Individual Differences, 42, 665-675. http://people.uncw.edu/ogler/Experimental/Fall%2008%20Final%20Paper%20Resources/disp%20anx%20risk.pdf

    Retzer, J. (2005, April 18). The economic value of information networks1. Retrieved from http://www.pren.net/documents/economic_value_of_networks.v2-3.pdf

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    Posted by David Docherty | May 1, 2013, 2:10 am
  7. Hey Ashleigh,

    What an engaging paper! I thought the topic you chose to write your paper on was particularly interesting. In addition, the way in which you articulated and argued your points was really thought-provoking. I really appreciated how you explored both the positive and negative implications of anonymity and pseudonimity online.

    You drew attention to many great points and backed them up with evidence very effectively. I particularly like the point you made early on in the paper about people using anonymity and pseudonimity as a way of avoiding responsibility and the consequences that result from certain actions and behaviours online. This is so true, and it’s important that this is articulated in relation to this topic. As the Internet is not a tangible realm, users are tricked into thinking that they can simply go online, adopt a new name and do things that they would not normally do in the real world (for fear of the consequences), and behave in a certain way that has to be suppressed in reality. What these individuals fail to recognise is that there are still particularly extreme legal ramifications associated with this behaviour on the Internet, just as there is in reality.

    Another point that you included in your paper that was really intriguing was the idea that, online, individuals are detached from their physical self and it is this disconnection from an individual’s physical identity that warrants the performative aspect of their online identity and causes computer-mediated communication to be vulnerable to manipulation. This is something I cover quite extensively in my paper, and I really like the way you’ve articulated this point. The point you made about pseudonymity being almost useless in particular situations where users can recognise commonalities between other users’ use of language and tone, etc. was quite interesting too. As an active user of many social networking platforms and forums where profile pictures and such do not reveal the physical identity of the members, I am very familiar with and aware of the ‘trolls’ in the online communities that I am a part of.

    It was really great how you explained that using anonymity in online communities and on the Internet, in general, is not always carried out with negative intentions. You articulated this well through the example of Internet users in politically repressed societies using anonymity and pseudonymity to mobilise their right to freedom of speech through the expression of their views on the politics and economy of their country, etc. online without having to fear persecution from their government for going against them. The way you ended the paper couldn’t have been better. I thought it was perfect way to conclude by stating that online anonymity perpetuates social justice and empowers those whose right to freedom of speech is repressed by their nation’s political regime. I firmly believe that anonymity is a very effective way of, not only perpetuating a democratic environment online, but also of promoting the ideals of a democracy to the world.

    Thank you for such an eye-opening paper and I strongly agree with your argument and appreciate all the points you made to support your viewpoint on the topic. It was very well written and researched, and this made for a very engaging read. Well done!


    Posted by Daniel Kouzinas | May 15, 2013, 5:58 pm
  8. Hi Ashleigh,

    FIrst of all I love your name :)
    Secondly I wanted to read your paper since it reminded me of the film catch me if you can. In fact the title of your paper totally suits the aspects of anonymity which you are highlighting in your paper.

    Moreover, when you mentioned about social capital I think that you could have used some of Pierre Bourdieu’s idea even though he is more of a sociologist than an Internet specialist.

    According to me, nowadays, anonymity is what people are looking for. Since if someone has an online presence then it’s hard to be deleted from the online world. But if you had a hidden identity then it would have been different!

    Hope you could have some time to read my paper,

    Posted by Rachel Olivier-Bheeka | May 19, 2013, 1:27 am
  9. Hi Ashleigh,

    One of the more engaging papers I’ve read, very well articulated. You bring forward some very thought provoking ideas!

    I’d just like to add my two cents, even though the conference is over…

    I agree with the view that anonymity can be a powerful thing when you consider the internet as a tool for as you say, ‘empowering individuals’ basic human rights’.

    You also make mention of ‘a privacy paradox emerging where; in an attempt to lower the risk of being deceived or misrepresented, citizens of the Internet (netizens) reveal more about their off-line self and expose their identities to potentially unlimited threats and consequences’. As a somewhat related thought, I’d like to hear your views on a situation where anonymity is used to debilitate others or even commit cyber crimes? Is it simply the case that Internet transparency is useful in some instances and not so useful in others?


    Posted by Laura Capel | May 23, 2013, 12:50 pm
    • Hi Laura,
      Thanks for the time you gave to read my paper. It’s nice to see that people are still interested in the topic streams even though the conference is over.

      In answer to your question regarding cyber crime and application of anonymity on the Internet; I don’t condone nor accept cyber-crime what so ever. Unfortunately anonymity makes us all vulnerable to manipulation though. However i believe it is no different being defrauded on-line or in person by a con man in the flesh. I think it’s more a case for education and self reflection when it comes to instances of most identity theft cases and fraud.

      Criminals target the weak, the lonely and disillusioned members of society that are too trusting or not educated (in this case tech savvy) enough to recognize the signs.

      It might seem a little harsh but people who get conned by online scams (which are usually fairly unsophisticated and show evidence of fraudulent information or inconsistencies) like Nigerian 419 scams, fake lotteries, phishing emails and illegitimate websites are to a degree ignorant.

      I’m not saying anyone deserves to deal with the consequences of cyber crime but these days everyone should be well aware of how these scams work and be using an antivirus internet security software package to protect against trojans, worms, etc..

      A working knowledge of internet scams and cyber crime was introduced into the syllabus for media studies within the W.A. education system in 2008/2009.

      Rather than sacrificing anonymity for the sake of its undesirable uses we should focus on educating people about internet scams and encourage awareness of stranger danger like we used to.

      People need to change their attitudes towards the internet and really question and seek to authenticate the information they see on their screens for themselves.

      Posted by AshleighAudino | May 27, 2013, 12:55 pm

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