The death of anonymity

We ask if the Internet is a better place with real names
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It’s often been said that the Internet has played a role in unveiling the uglier side of human psychology. Often attributed as the result of Internet anonymity, a number of factors conspire to result in an environment that is often hostile in the extreme.

Something that the publisher of the world’s largest videogame apparently had enough of when they admitted yesterday that their World of Warcraft forums had “earned a reputation as a place where flame wars, trolling, and other unpleasantness run wild.”

There has been a lot of discussion about this effect. Psychologists sometimes call it the effect of deindividualisation, while others have sought to explain “indirect peer behaviour” as an reproductive strategy (Evolutionary Psychology journal article). Even in popular culture, gaming cartoon icons Penny Arcade created a persistent meme to describe the phenomenon coined as “Greater Internet f**kwad Theory”. (Cartoon here, beware course language).

Without face to face social cues such as body language and facial expressions, meaning is often lost in the inefficiency of the written language and for reasons I don’t pretend to understand, people often will take the worst possible view of what something might mean rather than giving our counterpart the benefit of a doubt.

As someone who has used electronic communication for what seems a ridiculously long time, including those troublesome “angry young man” years, I’ve been as guilty as anyone else in allowing a conversation to spin out of control in a way that would be utterly unthinkable in person. About the best advice I’ve ever been able to give is to say that one should write an email assuming that the reader is going to read every sentence in the worse possible light.

Facebook offered a simple but brilliant idea: everyone would use their real names. This serves two equally powerful purposes, the first being the total removal of anonymity and the second by providing a social context in which someone is a person that you know, and not just another screen name. In a community where something might get back to your mum, you’re going to mind yourself.

Or so the theory goes and so Blizzard hopes when it rolls out the changes to millions of fans. Gamers will will need to come to grips with the fact that they’ll no longer be able to post on the Blizzard forums as Garglegoyle, MsToady or DKwarlock etc. Instead, we’ll have decidedly less ‘genre’ but decided more believable Brian Smiths and Oyvind Olafssens. The names should be real because they will be tied up with the billing mechanism needed to pay for the account.

“Removing the veil of anonymity typical to online dialogue will contribute to a more positive forum environment, promote constructive conversations, and connect the Blizzard community in ways they haven’t been connected before,” said Blizzard.

I suspect that’s overselling it a little. The fact is that a decent slice of the demographic is of a combative mindset that isn’t really that interested in discussing how wonderful everything is. Particularly if they’re telling Blizzard just how hardly done by they feel because some line in a database made their class a slightly less “uber” than they think it should be.

That said, there’s a powerful argument that says if you banish the very worst of the behaviour from the angriest and most vocal of members, by any means, then you leave the door open for participation by those less inclined to surround themselves by that type of atmosphere. Rather like scrubbing the graffiti off the bus stop.

Yet the only thing promoting the spontaneous outbreak of peace and harmony is that behaving badly stands a good chance of getting back to your mum. We shall see what effect it really has but rest assured this is no whimsical move, it’s a massive policy change and one of the largest scale social experiments yet seen on the Internet. Many eyes, casual, professional and academic alike will be watching with a great deal of interest.

There will of course be critics. The arguments will likely centre on the right of privacy. This is obviously not a new argument. One example is the debate raging in the United States ever since the Obama administration unveiled a draft “National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace” policy (pdf here) which advocates the creation of a voluntary “identity card”. 

The American proposal is framed in a discussion about facilitating trust in transactions between individuals and business but it has been greeted by a storm of criticism about the direction of the trusted identities concept. Largely out of a suspicion that the move is a first step to a roll out of “Internet driver’s licence” with the hidden agenda of making such a system obligatory in the future. This debate shows how contentious the issue of privacy and anonymity can be, particularly if government is involved.

In the professional arena, the idea of real identities is of course well developed; everything from the humble business card (which notably doesn’t have Mr Bashydonk written on it) to the rise of modern services such as LinkedIn, a sort of professional social networking site for business personalities. Obviously it’s not mum we’re afraid of here, it’s our professional reputations and of course a responsibility to employers to behave in an appropriate manner.

When we deal with a company, we expect an individual to give us their real name. Aside from anything else there’s a network of laws relating to how transactions ought to be conducted in a fair manner and how differences should be resolved. Obviously private lives aren’t regulated to this sort of extend but nevertheless there are growing concerns about damaging behaviour, some of which does cross into legal territory such as our right to be free from persecution or libel/slander.

Then there's the ongoing discussion of the emergence of so-called cyber bullying in schools but if we consider emerging trends in Asia as any indication then the future may have further unpleasantry in store. China and Korea have experienced a spectacular and disturbing rise of forum-based mobs of anonymous users conducting virtual witch hunts which spill over into very real consequences. The results of which have destroyed the reputations of individuals, often unfairly, even resulting in murder in a few of the most extreme cases.

It's hard to make a case for categorically revoking the right to be anonymous on the Internet; there are many examples where this plays an important role – not the least in countries where open criticism of a government is likely to result in prison, or worse. Even in the West there’s an argument for the role of the Internet in facilitating so-called whistle blowing in commercial organisations.

However as someone who has now used electronic communication for the better part of 20 years, I find myself gravitating to discussion technologies and forums where I know who I am communicating with. Hopefully it doesn’t kosh spirited debate but it my experience there’s evidence it curbs the worst of the excesses and encourages a broader audience to participate which has the overall effect of increasing the quality of the conversation.

I think there's a good case for batting aside concerns of privacy in this case. After all, no one is forcing any of Blizzard's customers to post on the forums. It's hard to see how posting a question about the most effective way to counter an enemy rogue's stunlock ability will result in sensitive personal information being disclosed. Those gamers concerned with privacy first and foremost, ought still to have the capability to maintain it as before.

While the move could just be part of a corporate strategy to get in on the social networking gold rush, the announcement feels a little more personal. A touch impassioned even?

Blizzard’s move might then be just one more development in a trend where an increasing number of Internet users, such as Facebook's 400 million users, choose to relinquish their anonymity for the greater benefit of having a real identity. Of course since this is not the service Blizzard customers signed up for (excepting the upcoming Starcraft II forums) they will only choose to do so if they continue to post on the forums.

I'm going to put my chip down and predict that they will and that this will help the forums be more popular, not less. Others will, of course, feel very differently. Diverse opinions on the matter are inevitable and important in the continuing debate.

I would make a final point for those who have no choice. For Blizzard's customer representatives, who have been taking the very worst kinds of abuse from angry faceless "fans" for a number of years, this move will hopefully go some way to improving their working conditions. I expect many will have become unpleasantly disillusioned as to what it's like working in a so-called entertainment industry.

Surely there is some responsibility to ensuring that a working environment, even a virtual one, meets a minimum standard of expected behaviour?

Photo credit: Steve Garfield

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