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April 22, 2005

Is It Cool to Be Anonymous?

The blogosphere, transparency, and three tips for keeping it real.

Giovanni Rodriguez

Several weeks ago, in a quiet, unassuming post on its well-trafficked website, the Electronic Frontier Foundation raised quite a few eyebrows in the blogging community. At a time when bloggers have been increasingly vocal about transparency, the EFF posted a how-to piece on anonymous blogging, complete with tools, tips, and tricks of the trade.

the scene
N.Z. Bear is one prominent blogger who chooses to go incongnito. He explains why here.

To many of us—particularly those of us in the business community, where transparency has become almost a matter of religion—it felt like an odd move. (I'm an executive vice president at Eastwick Communications, a Silicon Valley PR agency, as well as a writer and a blogger). PR strategist Steve Rubel observed on his blog, "Anonymous blogs have the least credibility so I am not sure why they are advising people to go that route." It was as though the folks at EFF, who have earned a fair amount of Internet street cred over the years, were committing a social error by advising less-than-savvy newbie bloggers to go incognito; the EFF were asking people to do something that was not cool. Not just in the traditional sense of the word cool, as in "hip," but in the more evolved, contemporary sense, in which both youngsters and adults describe what's acceptable according to "peer-group related values."

Big-time bloggers have disagreed about the importance of transparency. In an email to Gelf, David Weinberger, co-author of the Cluetrain Manifesto, the philosophical touchstone for the blogging revolution, bluntly presented the libertarian view on anonymity: "It's a personal choice. In my opinion, allowing anonymous speech is a requirement for an open society, and is essential in repressive societies."

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who blogs at PressThink, told Gelf, "There's a mysterious kind of guarantee when a real name is attached to a weblog. Without it, everything is less real, more inconsequential."

I felt like the EFF was letting us down by encouraging folks to write anonymously, that anonymous bloggers' important stories would be washed away by a sea of reader skepticism. That was my bias going into this story, and I vowed to examine it.

I started by checking out a lively debate on the tech discussion site Slashdot about whether the right to privacy and free speech trumps the social convention of needing to disclose one's identity. A careful—and sometimes painful—review of the Slashdot conversation offers up some clues. First, as a fair number of Slashdotters and bloggers have observed, the law-and-policy issues underlying the debate are serious, and any meaningful participation in this debate requires at least a passing acquaintance with those issues. Second, as recent experiments and adventures in blogging have shown, there's a lot more to transparency than attribution, and both known and anonymous bloggers are thriving on the Web by observing a few reliable—if not well-understood—social norms that I outline later.

Crude Instruments

Let's start with law and policy. In an interview with Gelf, co-author and EFF policy analyst Annalee Newitz pointed to several groups of people who clearly deserve the shield of anonymity, including: corporate whistleblowers, dissidents in politically repressive countries, victims of domestic violence, and gays looking for communication outlets without fear of repercussion from families and employers.

The EFF, says Newitz, has long advocated and defended our First Amendment right to anonymous expression, a civil liberty recognized in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission. But lately that liberty has come under attack. In an often-cited recent study on anonymity and the Internet, Karina Rigby at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology noted Justice Scalia's antipathy for McIntyre in a more recent decision, suggesting the Court might take a different direction in the near future. She also cited a California Supreme Court case that upheld a state law "prohibiting anonymous mass political mailings by political candidates." Rigby concluded, "The fact that this case involves limiting anonymous speech, which is strongly protected by the First Amendment, does not bode well for media such as on-line communications which would have inherently less protection."

According to Newitz, the EFF decided to publish the anonymity guidelines because of an even more recent threat: Apple v. Does, the December 2004 lawsuit that Apple filed against several anonymous individuals who allegedly leaked information on new Apple products to blogs. (The targets in the case didn't blog the alleged leak, but the EFF's interest in educating the public on the rights they have to anonymous communication under the First Amendment prompted the article.) Journalists and First Amendment activists have rallied against Apple because they're worried the courts might use the case to curtail the media's right to protect the anonymity of their sources. It wouldn't be a stretch for the courts to reach beyond the confines of this case to question the right to anonymous speech in more general terms.

Other developments outside Apple worry First Amendment activists. A couple of weeks ago, a proposed San Francisco ordinance requiring political-communication consultants to register their names set off a viral rant that the crazed City on the Bay would soon be regulating bloggers (Slashdot. Postscript: the city's Board of Supervisors never specifically targeted bloggers, and subsequently exempted blogs from the ordinance.) To these stories, add the backdrop of fear and uncertainty that invisible criminal online activities have created (e.g., phishing, pharming, and "toxic blogs" that are spreading malicious code throughout the internet.)

It's not a coincidence that there are two books on the First Amendment and privacy climbing their way up the bestseller lists. There's a creeping feeling that we are living in an age where the potential for free-speech abuse is so great that we no longer have the tools to redress every instance. In a New York Times review of Floyd Abrams's Speaking Freely, Jeffrey Rosen concludes, "Abrams is surely correct that, as a constitutional matter, the law is almost always too crude and ineffective an instrument to provide a remedy for the genuine harms that speech can cause. (As a technological matter, in the age of the Internet, the harms are real and may continue to grow)." As Jay Rosen told Gelf, "Transparency and anonymity are in conflict." But the conflict may be impossible to resolve in the courts.

The Social Way

If the law is too crude an instrument to resolve this conflict, what do we have? Maybe there's a social remedy for what appears to be a social problem. After all, the blogosphere is built upon technology and tools collectively known as social media.

On the question of anonymity, citizens of the internet have already done a lot of thinking. In 2003, David Weinberger posted a concise and modest appraisal of the subject. "There's plenty of room for every gradation of anonymity," Weinberger wrote. By using any combination of true/false names and true/false biographical details, a blogger can participate in the blogosphere as a journalist, a source, a fictional writer, a ghost-written CEO, or a liar. He concludes that, beyond transparency, there are other ways for bloggers to demonstrate they have "skin in the game." In fact, in a number of blog genres, popular writers have earned the respect of their readers despite their anonymity. An interesting example is the increasingly diverse world of military blogging, where anonymous blogs command large and respectful audiences. In a post on anonymity, the anonymous author of Black Five wrote, "Military bloggers have a whole different set of issues to worry about...You don't have to do much to cross the line to get in trouble in the military."

He's right. In some worlds, revealing your name is not even an option. But what rules do readers follow for deciding whether a blogger is cool? Here are three simple questions that the would-be anonymous might ask before they get started.

Who?

This matters a lot. If you're a political refugee, a victim of domestic violence, or, as noted above, a military blogger, you may need to blog anonymously if you are going to blog at all. On the other hand, if you are a journalist, marketer, or PR person, you might as well give up if you're going to blog anonymously; it's hard to earn trust in these professions, and anonymity would quickly make you invisible.

Where it gets difficult is in the large number of genres where anonymity is presumed to be uncool by the group, but where the blogger has good reason to demand a level of privacy. A young, gay anonymous blogger for the controversial site Scattered Words, who writes about his attempt to become straight, told Gelf, "My biggest concern was first and foremost for my privacy—I write about intensely personal things and I wanted to make sure that if the people close to me learn of them, they learn directly from me." He also worried about a "disgruntled reader one day showing up on my doorstep." We all take risks when we post our opinions on the internet, and the more controversial the opinion, the greater the risk.

What?

The author of Scattered Words has disappointed gays who would prefer him to come out. Yet he has won an audience by providing consistent and credible content. As Rigby noted in her study, "Although some people will automatically discount any anonymous postings, other people don't care who wrote it, as long as it is intelligent or funny."

In the end, good content can trump concerns spurred by anonymity. If you study the success of top bloggers across the entire spectrum of the anonymous (N.Z. Bear), the pseudonymous (Atrios), and the most ego-revealing non-anonymous (Andrew Sullivan), they all have one thing in common: content, in great frequency or great quality, or both. It's a tough commitment to be a blogger, and the grind of having to produce credible content regularly has forced many bloggers to give up.

When?

What troubled me the most about the EFF article was the fear that a victim of some injustice would use a blog as refuge rather than search for a more effective way to right the wrong. The question should be: Will writing anonymously at this time in my life make a difference, or should I follow some other course of action?

The question of when to go public should always be present in the mind of reformers. First Amendment proponents often note that the authors and critics of the Federalist Papers all wrote anonymously. Yet they almost all forget to complete the story about how these writers—a few of our nation's founding fathers—were later able to act on their ideas and write under their own names.

Giovanni Rodriguez

Giovanni Rodriguez is a principal at Eastwick Communications, a Silicon Valley PR agency, as well as a writer and a blogger.







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Comments

- The Naked Web
- posted on Apr 24, 05
Alex Krupp

I wrote about transparency/translucency on my site a while ago here.

I think you do a really good job though. I think that ultimately I have decided that complete privacy and complete transparency work really well socially, but that translucency is very socially awkward. I think though that the real solution is that we each need a digital identity, separate but equal to our physical identity, so that we can have a reputation and a system of anonymous accountability that follows us throughout our digital lives, without linking us to our physical selves.

- The Naked Web
- posted on Apr 24, 05
Giovanni Rodriguez

Thanks, Alex. Just read you article, and enjoyed it.

I particularly like the "core values." In the end, social rules -- not laws -- will help us address the subtle conflicts that arise from our commitment to both transparency and privacy. Looking forward to the debate.

- The Naked Web
- posted on Apr 29, 05
George Hotelling

As a counter-example, one of the most popular blogs in Ann Arbor, MI is Ann Arbor is Overrated, and the author is anonymous (using the site's name for their own). It's widely read, widely cited and cool despite the opacity.

- The Naked Web
- posted on Apr 30, 05
Giovanni Rodriguez

Yes, and it looks like a case of knowing the "what" quite well for that community.

- The Naked Web
- posted on Feb 24, 09
poor man's podium

the internet is a meager effort to provide some first amendment access to the underclass ............. the rich can always buy a judge , ghostwrite an ''ORDER'' and have it filed at the whorehouse , also know as ''courthouse''.


Article by Giovanni Rodriguez

Giovanni Rodriguez is a principal at Eastwick Communications, a Silicon Valley PR agency, as well as a writer and a blogger.

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