The End of Online Anonymity: Why Will You Be Freaking Out?
When you make forum posts beginning with, "I'm not a racist, but..." or call us retards in the comments, do you use your real name? What if you had to? Cracked has no plans to implement such a feature, but the world certainly seems to be heading that direction.
You probably saw the raging backlash that occurred when one of the world's largest video game companies tried to institute a "you must post under your real name" policy: The idea lasted about two days before they were forced to back down.
But that felt like a temporary reprieve for anonymity. Facebook Connect is turning up everywhere, and encourages (sometimes tricks) you into using your Facebook name on other sites (like ours!). As we speak, one of the world's most wired countries, South Korea, has had a real-name policy for Internet users since last year.
For all that's going to accomplish.
The curtain is coming down (or going up, depending on what type of curtain you're picturing) and it's fascinating to see how differently people react to that possibility.
OH GOD LOWER IT AGAIN.
So where do you fall on this spectrum?
People With Secret (But Perfectly Legal) Online Lives
Let's get this out of the way right now: We know you don't have to be a troll to be afraid of revealing your identity online. A whole bunch of us here at Cracked go by fake names so as not to be harassed by people who, for instance, preferred Michael Keaton's Batman.
"These people know nothing of my work. I must find them."
As commenters have pointed out, it's no different than how we all keep our real-life social circles separate--you're not the same person at the job interview that you were the previous Saturday night at the ICP concert, or at your weekly underground fight club sessions.
This is where it becomes a problem. There's no good reason an elementary school teacher shouldn't be allowed to pick up belly dancing as a hobby. However, if she were forced to upload her videos under her real name instead of "Fatima the Enchantress," she's much more likely to lose her job. People are quick to judge about that sort of thing.
Hint: It's the eyes.
Likewise, there's a lot of reasons you might not want people to see you posting on a forum for online gaming. Maybe you're running for office, like this guy.
Ed Hermes: hardcore Halo player, aspiring County Supervisor.
While your Halo skills may win you younger voters, that only helps you on the extraordinarily rare occasions that they actually vote.
Or maybe you just want to surf some forums without being surrounded by ass-kissers but you happen to be Axl Rose.
Unfortunately, in the argument over whether we should make online identities transparent, those of us who prefer online anonymity for innocent reasons will constantly be confused with the other groups on this list. Mostly because that's exactly how they want it.
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People With a Secret (and Illegal) Online Life
This is the actual intended target of anti-anonymity policies: the spammers that spam without consequence; the child pornographers; the trolls that badger kids into suicide; the anonymous assholes making up lies and destroying people's reputations for fun.
Much like Iago in Shakespeare's Othello.
Just this week you've heard how 4chan tracked down and spread the address and phone number of a girl who insulted them via webcam, rallying the forum to call the family at all hours of the night to make death threats. The girl was placed in protective police custody.
She is 11-years old.
Left: How 4chan sees themselves. Right: What 4chan is actually like.
Anonymity doesn't just make this kind of behavior possible, it seems to cause it. It's behavior that occurs purely because the perpetrators are sure they'll never be found out. It was a series of similar high-profile cyberbullying cases that made real-name laws possible in South Korea, starting with the infamous Dog Poop Girl. She saw anonymous Internet trolls post the addresses of her and her relatives, harassing her until she couldn't go out in public anymore and had to drop out of school. Because her dog pooped on the subway.
This isn't just a man cleaning up the poop of some girl's dog. This is history, folks.
Most of South Korea felt this was a little out of proportion for one dog poop. Between that and a rash of cyberbullying suicides involving celebrities, the public decided anonymity wasn't worth it. The U.S. isn't at that point yet, but then again, Natalie Portman hasn't been harassed to death by 4chan yet.
Even though she was partially responsible for a much bigger turd.
Ironically, it is this group that has spawned...
People Who Think the Internet is Going to Rape Them
Some people don't have anything to hide about themselves except the fact that they exist, which they apparently believe is enough to cause someone to track them down and rape them, particularly if they are female. For example, here's some sample quotes from World of Warcraft players in response to the announcement that they would be required to use their real names:
"Not to be all gloom and doom, but just watch. Within the first month or two, we're going to see a kidnapping, assault, rape or murder that will be connected back to RealID."
"Did you ever consider that maybe anyone operating in the world as female shouldn't have to deal with the choice of either a) don't participate, and miss out on something you want, or b) participate, and risk being harassed, stalked, raped and/or killed?"
How World of Warcraft looks like to them.
The idea is that once people know you are female, by looking at your real name, someone will inevitably track you down and harass you, and maybe rape you. Or if you are any gender and get into a fight with someone over politics or over who is using hax, they will track you down and harass you, and maybe rape you.
What is disturbing is this calm acceptance that your own online community is home to a disproportionate amount of extremely dangerous people. No one seems to be worried about being murdered after showing their first and last name to hundreds of other students at their university (in a class roster), or cashiers, or postal clerks. Meanwhile, the same people who are terrified of their real photo being shown online have no problem showing their face to thousands of strangers at the mall, or at a baseball game, or even on the subway, which is almost statistically guaranteed to have seven or eight rapists on each car.
There have been murders over online disputes, sure. But it's a tiny, tiny fraction as many as have happened over real-life disputes. Yet somehow, we consider the Internet to be much more dangerous.
Computer labs are FULL of Internet users, so no smart woman would go in there without a rape whistle.
Now, there's no doubt that the situation with the 11-year-old 4chan target is the kind of mass harassment that could have really only happened on the Internet. But the people in this group would hold that example up as part of the case for anonymity. After all, she would never have been harassed if she'd remained anonymous! It's not that lifting the veil will make 4channers rethink how they treat little girls, it's that it will make little girls of all of us.
People Who are Upset on Philosophical Grounds
Most people in this category haven't murdered anyone and many don't have any embarrassing secrets, and may not in fact have any concrete fears about what would happen if they had to be themselves on the internet.
But they do believe in privacy, and in privacy as a human right that shouldn't have to be justified in a case by case basis. There are lots of things people hide every day that aren't nefarious, like pooping. No one thinks it's wrong to poop and no one is trying to keep the fact that they poop a secret. Yet we put up restroom stalls around our public toilets. We can't build some great logic for it. We just don't want to have to poop in front of other people and that should be the default position.
Even if people can't see in, you'd have to be a freak to feel comfortable pooping in this one-way mirror toilet.
Not as much of a freak as the guy who designed it though.
Sometimes you're not doing anything wrong but your family or your boss have different ideas about what "wrong" is. If you can't convince your mom that a computer can't physically kidnap you like in TRON, maybe it's best she doesn't find out how many friends you chat with online. And what if your boss is a headline-skimmer who thinks all gamers are troubled "addicts"? Maybe you're comfortable being gay around strangers on a forum, but aren't ready to come out to grandma yet.
I mean, you had a whole party planned out for that.
What can be frustrating about this group is that among them is a subset of some very loud bandwagon jumpers who treat every single issue as the tearing down of the fucking Berlin Wall. For instance, the backlash over RealID is nothing compared to the infamous Digg revolt over HD-DVD, when users rose up valiantly to defend the basic human freedom of being allowed to publish proprietary HD-DVD decryption keys, flooding the site until Digg was forced to give in.
For them, everything from net neutrality to marijuana legalization is the front line of an epic battle of good and evil, with the brave people of the Internet fighting for their very lives against tyranny of The Man. Or as one Digg user said of the mighty battle: "Universal Content Utopia is here, and we are the bold revolutionaries. All government, religion, and corporate domination systems are doomed. We are very lucky to be alive today and a part of the colossal overturning of the Powers That Pretend To Be."
They don't realize that it becomes harder to take their arguments seriously if they are finding something new to be hysterical about every other week. That means the people who are being calm and thoughtful get tuned out right along with them.
People Who Don't See What the Big Deal Is
These people are rare, but they exist. They say they aren't particularly afraid of being murdered by strangers, have nothing to hide themselves, and can't really imagine why other people would be unless they were up to no good.
Their avatar is their own face. Maybe they're the type who have 4,000 Facebook "friends" and invite all of them to their birthday party. They show up on a public forum and announce what bar they'll be at that night, in case anyone wants to drop by.
But would they poop in public?
We have to believe more people think they're in this group than actually are. Even if they're so comfortable in their own skin that they would have a furry wedding, isn't identity theft a real concern?
Or maybe they're just underestimating how far it will go. It's easy to laugh at the WoW players getting worked up, thinking anonymity is all about Gertrude Bumgardner not being able to pretend she's a sexy night elf anymore. But are they thinking about that nasty review they left on Yelp.com two years ago, for the same restaurant they're trying to apply for a job at now? Do these people never anonymously vent or blow off steam online about their spouse or coworkers? We're not sure if we admire how open these people are, or if they just haven't thought it through.
"Sorry to interrupt, I just thought I should let everyone know I farted."
We should all be thinking it through, though, because it's looking like some day we'll all have to join this group. So try this now: When you hit that "Submit Comment" button under this very article, imagine your comment coming up with your real name and address.
DISCLAIMER: REAL NAME WILL NOT SHOW UP. CRACKED HAS NO INTENTION OF IMPLEMENTING A REAL NAME SYSTEM. THE WEBCAMS CRACKED HAS INSTALLED IN YOUR HOUSE ARE MORE THAN SUFFICIENT. WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY TO SEE YOUR GENITALS AT ANY TIME.