The Ideology of Anonymity and Pseudonymity

08/02/2013 11:28 am ET | Updated Oct 02, 2013

The Political Philosophy of the Internet and its Spread

After decades of cross-pollination between different online communities, a pan-internet culture has developed and refined a common system of values. One of the most ubiquitous and unique features of these systems (when compared to widespread contemporary ideologies) is a deep respect for anonymity and pseudonymity, specifically the dissociation from one's online identity and their offline identity.

The Development of the Belief that Anonymity is a Human Right

Anonymity was not intentionally built into the internet. The current TCP/IP protocol of the internet, which allowed for a distributive system of diverse computer networks, was developed to be fast and flexible. In many cases one did not even need to use a password-protected account. The implications of the anonymity the internet could allow where not relevant for around its first decade of use, as only individuals at a few research institutions had access.

However, the use of pseudonymous handles tied to individuals developed very early in the history of the internet. Due to character constraints and the ease of tying a pseudonym back to its owner, pseudonyms (such as initials) were the norm. These pseudonyms were either chosen by users or assigned to them by their institution. While the practice of using pseudonyms as one's online identity was not intended to dissociate the user's offline persona from their online persona, it was carried over into early online communities and laid the groundwork for the future anonymity of the internet.

Despite carryover of pseudonymous handles into early online communities, many early internet users were uncomfortable with anonymous interaction. This can be seen through the use of ASLMH in early chatrooms and comment threads (this acronym was used to ask an individual their age, sex, location, favorite music, and hobbies). As time went on, communities began to expect less information from individuals and common use of the acronym was shortened to ASL, standing for age, sex, and location. In many cases, this move towards a dissociation of one's offline and online identity was originally motivated more by convenience and a concern for safety than a desire for anonymity.

By the turn of the century, anonymity had transformed into a cultural expectation. Within Second Life, the largest bastion of online culture cross-pollination in the early 2000s (and a good barometer of online communities at that time period), it became offensive to ask for information tied to an individual's offline identity. By the mid 2000s, the hactivist organization Anonymous took its name not necessarily to celebrate the concept of Anonymity, but rather as a reference to the fact that non-pseudonymous posts on 4Chan were labeled as being posted by "Anonymous" (which lead the term Anonymous to represent the collective pseudonym of the 4Chan hivemind). Nevertheless, the choice of Anonymous as a name did help reinforce anonymity as a core tenet of the online community's political ideology.

As of today, the expectation of true dissociation between one's offline and online identity and the anonymity intrinsic to that dissociation is a common element in most online communities (online communities do not include tools used to facilitate offline socialization, such as Facebook and LinkedIn). Within almost all online communities, it is seen as offensive to demand even basic information on a user's real world identity (such as sex, race, location, etc.) though this information may be occasionally offered voluntarily (even in those cases its validity is typically taken with a grain of salt).

The current universality of the belief in the value of anonymity in online cultures can be seen in the near-unanimous condemnation 2013's NSA revelations within the bastions of online culture. Even with the erosion of personal privacy online, the online community has gone out of its way to refine a number of methods to enable the persistence of some anonymity.

Anonymity as a Political Philosophy

Within online communities, anonymity has become increasingly associated with the maintenance of a free society. Anonymity is seen as allowing for discussion in environments in which a person's input is judged solely by its merit and untainted by other participants' biases with regard to that person's sex, formal education, ethnicity, income, age, or culture of origin.

Anonymity and pseudonymity grant individuals, who would otherwise be discounted due to bias or prejudice, the opportunity to have a voice and equal footing in a political or philosophical debate. It also offers protection from organisations being criticized, be they political, corporate, or religious (a key part of Anonymous's success in fighting the Church of Scientology was the Church's inability to retaliate against specific individuals). Objectively, it is virtually impossible for free speech to be silenced when a truly anonymous medium exists for said speech.

Anonymity's role in the protection of personal freedoms and individual liberties has a long history, but has never been as universally accessible as it is through the internet. Without anonymity, Deep Throat would have been impossible as a check on corruption within the Executive Branch. The formation of the U.S. government was heavily influenced by anonymous debates undertook via the Federalist Papers. Even the American Revolution was partially instigated by the anonymously-published pamphlet, Common Sense. Without the protection offered by anonymity, the U.S. would be a radically different country.

The lack of personal accountability that accompanies anonymous environments creates a context in which "trolling" becomes likely. Trolling entails an attempt to inflame or trick others. The use of anonymity-enabled trolling has a long history and can be seen in works such as A Modest Proposal. Unfortunately, the relative accessibility of online mediums has decreased the intellectual caliber of many individuals participating in trolling behavior, leading to a significant amount of cruel and pointless trolling. Still, anonymity-enabled trolling isn't inherently negative, many forms can increase the overall quality of a legitimate debate.

Not only can trolling be useful in exposing hypocrisy or concealed extremism, but it can act as a barrier to participation in a debate by individuals not intelligent enough to discern real points from those made by trolls, individuals who are overly invested in the topic (which can prevent an individual from considering other points of view), and individuals whose sense of entitlement prevents them from participating in a discussion that involves teasing or vulgar, childish language. Despite the disastrous effects of purely malicious trolling, tactfull trolling has proven itself to be invaluable when it comes to preventing outsiders from influencing online political ideology.

Anonymity and Pseudonymity Across Online Culture

The value of anonymity and pseudonymity value within the online community isn't relegated to political and philosophical discussion. It can be seen in the recent push for the pseudonymously-created Bitcoin protocol, which is designed to allow for anonymous economic transfers. A large number of community-based coding projects, such as cell phone ROMs, are produced anonymously or pseudonymously. Almost every online artistic work is published under a pseudonym with many being completely anonymous as a matter of course (anonymous publication is very common on sites like Newgrounds, DeviantART, YouTube, and Tumblr, and is also frequent within specific mediums, such as AMVs, abridged series, fan fictions, and image macros). This policy has sprung from desire to have works stand on their own as well as a desire to prove that the content in question was created for the enjoyment of the community and not for personal fame.

Conditional Anonymity

While pan-internet culture has come to view anonymity/pseudonymity as a human right and crucial element of a free society, the value of anonymity has developed to include conditional factors just as freedom of movement has within societies that value it as a human right. Online communities frequently use "doxxing" (the revocation of anonymity), as one of their strongest weapons against those they perceive as performing injustices whether they entail throwing cats in trash cans, pedophelia, drowning puppies, or rape.