The Death Of Anonymity

The Internet did many things. It truly leveled the playing field, allowing a Mom & Pop store in Poughkeepsie to compete globally with an 800-pound gorilla. At the same time, it gave Fortune 500 companies the chance to become a little more nimble and even human (IBM’s Art of the Mainframe webisodes springs to mind, and I suppose even the newly resurrected Subservient Chicken from Burger King qualifies).

Social media took that to the next level, giving voice to the meek, whilst humbling the once-untouchable bullies. How’s your big yap working out for you, Donald Sterling?

The social media revolution ushered in two new, seemingly contradictory hallmarks: transparency and anonymity. Anonymity gave the Average Joe a voice and a vote. Through his (or her) concurrence or dissent, rating, rave, rant or review, the balance of power swung radically to anoint this “median voter” as the judge, jury and executioner.

Even if you were a nobody, you could be a somebody with your own blog, stream or collection of thoughts in the form of a pseudonym, nom de plume or creative profile. Remember the Bronx Zoo Cobra and Fake Steve Jobs? By the way, my pen name via a nom de plume generator is Chas Parpia, although these days, John Travolta does a much better job for us. I’m Jonah Jarmes, by the way.

Unfortunately -- and this is often the case in society -- idealism and purity give way to deviance and nefariousness. These days anonymity has become the voice of the coward, not the courageous.

Reviews on iTunes, ratings on Yelp or comments on blogs attributed to “anonymous” can be mean-spirited, malicious and so opaque that ulterior motives are always in question. They come from places of jealousy and insecurity, as opposed to respect and intellectual curiosity.  They are the hallmark and the special sauce of websites like Glass Door.

But it is in the hallways of our schools that anonymity has become a stench that creates a chasm between the potential and perils of technology. In the past few weeks, an App called Yik Yak has displaced Ask.fm as Public Enemy Number 1, elevating the intensity of cyber-bullying to new lows. It has even resulted in police action in my own county. Anonymous postings in a geo-fenced area might sound like a great way to corral the collective wisdom of the crowd, but when race, ethnicity, religion or sexual preferences become the catalyst for rumor and ridicule, we have a major problem on our hands.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve long been a proponent of freedom of speech in a digital, connected and social world. I am the author of “Join the Conversation” after all. But while pseudonyms may be nothing new in our world, the speed and magnitude at which tremendous damage can be done is without question new and not improved at all.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink and reimagine anonymity, before it is done for us by the regulators, who are almost always more clueless than the perpetrators and instigator themselves.

Perhaps it’s time to institute better controls akin to double opt-in or the equivalent.

Anonymity is sacrosanct, but so too is transparency, honesty, integrity and the greater good of our society -- especially when children are concerned.

I welcome your anything-but-anonymous comments.

Tags: privacy
Recommend (2)
3 comments about "The Death Of Anonymity".
  1. Natalie D angelo from Sharecare , April 29, 2014 at 12:09 p.m.
    Agreed! Step into the arena if you are willing to criticize.
  2. BRIAN CONNOLLY from furthermore , April 29, 2014 at 4:18 p.m.
    Stupid article, Joe. Tired topic and a simpleminded treatment to boot. Anonymity is a fundamental counter to an ignorant mob. Here, this title would have served you better: "Web Demagogue Argues for Streamlined Lynching Methods." THAT is the damage that comes with tremendous speed today.
  3. Joseph Jaffe from Evol8tion, LLC , April 29, 2014 at 10:11 p.m.
    @Brian - stupid is a strong word. We all remember the days of Second Life and bloggers expressing themselves under pseudonyms. My article is less about that and essentially where this has devolved as it relates to cyber-bullying, which is a real problem. You might be an "old timer" when it comes to social and I'm not sure if you have kids, but for everyone else...I think it's relevant. P.S. Glad you used your real name!