Living with Machines: A Dialogue

Brian Green on Online Anonymity

Over on Psychochild’s Blog, Brian Green has a fantastic four part series exploring the relationship between privacy and anonymity, and arguing against the idea that removing anonymity would address the problem – both because this means giving up privacy, which we value, and because it is not practical to do so. Highly recommended reading for game designers and anyone interested in online abuse and privacy:

  • Part 1 looks at the relationship between privacy and anonymity, and the key questions about anonymity.
  • Part 2 examines the harms entailed in removing anonymity.
  • Part 3 makes the case for the impossibility for enforcing public identity and restricting anonymity.
  • Part 4 looks at dealing with the problems of online behaviour, and the changes that might be required.

I shall respond in full in about two weeks time with a piece entitled Lessons from the MUD, but in the meantime a few quick remarks.

Brian’s example that we are now used to people pulling their phones out all the time in the final part sits badly with me; I do not think this an example of a cultural shift to deal with technology consequences so much as I think we have instituted our rudeness and now accept a higher degree of impoliteness towards each other. The same thing happens in big cities, of course: we learn to be less polite. I do not think this specific example upholds the point Brian wishes to make, in terms of adapting to technology, although I do agree with him that this adaptation both needs to and will happen. We just need to be careful in recognising the active role required in shaping norms.

At several points, Brian trots out the example of people who need to protect their identity. I do not think this is as strong an objection as he and others do; his more general arguments about everyone’s need for privacy are much stronger in my view, in particular because they apply to everyone. If we thought public identities would solve all the problems, the need for some people to adjust their permanent identity online would be a manageable issue. But as Brian nicely outlines, public identities aren’t a guaranteed fix. This is not even a likely fix, as Brian elaborates very clearly in part 3.

We need to be having these discussions, and I am enormously grateful to Brian for wading in here, and making such a thorough report on the issues. I heartily recommend you check out all four parts.


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Thank you for your kind words, Chris! It was fun to write, even if it took a bit longer (and definitely turned out a lot longer than expected. I really look forward to your extensive response; the title alone has me eager to read it!

To address your remarks:

I think the phone thing is less culturally incorporated rudeness and more acceptance of the cyborg relationship we have with our phones. I think our attitudes shifted as we saw the phones more as an extension of ourselves and less as an outside device distracting from the conversation. Of course, I think there's a generational element to it where older people are still more likely to more likely to see phones as outside objects that come between people. But, I still think there was a cultural shift to see them in this new light.

As for general vs. specific needs for anonymity and privacy, I think both are good points to uphold my thesis. I think protecting individuals as well as serving the general needs of people are both worth goals. I understand some people will likely be swayed by one or the other more, though.

Anyway, glad to participate in the discussion! I agree this is something we do need to talk about, and hopefully those of us with some experience can help out.

Hey Brian,
The generational point you make in this comment is of course undoubtedly correct - but I think there is still something amiss, here... responsiveness to the phone is outstripping responsiveness to the people around us. Something has gone wrong. I do agree that there was a cultural shift, though - two, in fact... the shift into seeing the phone as an outside object, and the shift into not noticing the forceful interjection of the phone at all.

The issue I have with the specific needs angle isn't that it lacks validity, but only that it should not be used to leverage the wider issue - those needs could be addressed in other ways, after all. It's good to protect individuals - but it would be unwise to choose a course of action that protected some individuals but in so doing created more trouble for different individuals. We humans have a nasty habit of moving the trouble around. :) From your perspective, since you don't think the situation itself is to blame (being more of an amplifier than a cause), the issues come out differently. There's certainly room for both readings. We share, though, the view that enforcing mandatory public identities everywhere online isn't a viable solution, although differ somewhat as to the nature of the problem.

Thanks for responding to my points, and I look forward to finding out what you make of the longer piece in a week or so.

Long live the Republic of Bloggers!


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