The Value of Anonymity
Two of the results of the widespread availability of the virtual printing press that is the internet are an increase in published criticism and, in reaction to that increase in criticism, an increased demand for people to publish their material, and particularly their critical material, under their own names. Part of this second result is borne out of a demand for authenticity: we want to know that the things we see and read online are real. Another comes from a voiced desire of the criticized to know their critics. The foundational concept is a belief that people are unlikely to publish false, baseless, or mean-spirited commentary under their own name, because they likely would suffer adverse consequences. In essence, anonymity is harmful to public discourse because it allows people to participate in public discourse without consequences.
Anonymity is not all bad, however. As evidenced by the success of increasingly openly partisan cable news networks, people prefer to receive information and discuss issues with others they already know they agree with. It seems likely that people decide what they think about an article, or even whether they are going to read it at all, simply by referencing source identification material. Republicans disregard MSNBC and the New York Times, to which Democrats flock while disregarding Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, to which Republicans flock. The point is not that these are necessarily insightful, intelligent, or worthwhile information sources, but that context matters in deciding how– or whether– people approach offered ideas, content, information, or potential conversations.
Anonymity can make discourse more robust because it necessarily emphasizes content over source-information context. Readers and listeners must engage with the idea or ideas presented because there is nothing else. Without preconceived expectations, people are more likely to consider an opinion they otherwise would ignore or find a new way of understanding an idea with which they already generally agreed, all of which can lead to more meaningful exchanges of ideas and reassessments of one’s own views.