Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Online Anonymity

Posted originally to Lord Blizzard's Google+ post.

     As near as I can tell there are at least two major perspectives of anonymity on the internet. Neither, as far as I know, really predate the other but at different times they've served a productive purpose. I'm not going to attempt to create a timeline, but clearly at the nascence of ARPANET the idea of anonymity for such a purpose was not practicable, if discussed much at all.

     Anyway, on one side there are the proponents of a anonymized internet. They'll point to the freedom this engenders, the openness of sharing information and ideas in a way that might not otherwise be possible in the physical world due to fear of repercussions or cultural stigma. Consider, as an example, posts on a site such as reddit with the leading phrase 'Get your throwaways ready..'. If a networking site allows for accounts which are not linked to a specific, real-world identity, it can encourage a greater participation in discourse because people have little to worry about in regard to consequences for the things they may say.

     On the other(another?) side, there is the idea that total anonymity on the internet is both a pipe dream as well as immature or poor implementation of a system because total anonymity can encourage irresponsible behavior on the internet and it is much less reliable for data mining for advertising purposes, something which the modern internet is highly dependent upon.
It's a pipe dream because there are any number of ways, even without a Google+ profile requirement, that an individual can be tracked down on the internet based on their activity.

     It can encourage irresponsible behavior such as malicious bullying and trolling when a person feels impunity to act however they like, regardless the harmful consequences(what's called in pop media cyber bullying).
It's much less reliable for data mining for advertising purposes because comparably speaking Lord Blizzard living on Naboo who has two kids, a wife and an apprentice is much more of a concrete item to utilize in good targeted advertising than +Lord Blizzard of who knows where doing who knows what about who knows where and who and whatever(I realize from looking at your about: page you do give information about your real-world location so you don't fall into these cookie-cut extremes).

     As much as we might like for the internet to remain free as in speech and open and free as in beer all while maintaining total anonymity, massive server farms cannot at this time pay for themselves and the paradigm the internet is in right now is that of advertising, and the better the goes-ins for generating targeting ads the better the goes-outs. Google is, if not a hub for this kind of activity and commerce, the epicenter for it. In that vein, we'd do well to remember the 800 pound gorilla that Google is competing with in the social networking realm, Facebook. Their current value(when they go public) is based entirely around this premise that they have much more intimate information for their users than, say, Google does. It's entirely understandable, if not condonable, that Google would be seeking to correlate the massive data they already have with much more specific, real-world identities. I can sympathize that Google could and perhaps should seek the 'higher' ground with being more permissive about pseudonyms so we as a global society can have as much of an open discussion of all items as possible, but I do not begrudge them one bit for the path they have chosen for their social networking platform because of the many pragmatic considerations incumbent upon them. As much as it may come off as a mean thing to say, at least at this time there are many other outlets and venues for you to retain your anonymity when consuming or creating on the internet.