Online anonymity is a topic that comes up regularly. Does if facilitate public discussion of controversial issues or just allow anonymous commenters to spread rumor and innuendo with no accountability? Does real-name posting or commenting improve quality via reputation effects or lead to self-censoring? These are valid questions for all online forums, not just blogs or the Bloggernacle.
Jeffrey Rosen covers some of this ground in The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America (Random House, 2000). He is primarily interested in the erosion of privacy, but in Chapter Five, “Privacy in Cyberspace,” he gives some general remarks about historical anonymity in public debate.
The right to speak and read anonymously has played a central role in the history of free expression in America. The Federalist Papers were famously anonymous — “Publius” was a pseudonym for Madison, Hamilson, and Jay; and other Federalist pamphleteers used names such as “An American Citizen,” “A Landholder,” and “Marcus.” … As Justice Clarence Thomas has noted, many of the defining battles over freedom of the press in the Founding era concerned the importance of anonymity in protecting unpopular speakers.
The most famous free-speech drama of all involved John Peter Zenger, a printer who refused to reveal the names of anonymous authors who had criticized the royal governor of New York. Unable to prosecute the authors, the governor prosecuted Zenger himself for seditious libel. In an early example of jury nullification, a New York jury refused to convict Zenger in 1735, and the acquital was widely viewed as a triumph for the related principles of anonymity and freedom of the press. [Paragraphing added.]
In the book, Rosen goes on to discuss the two general mechanisms for disciplining known speakers who violate community speech norms, formal legal redress (for libel or invasion of privacy) or informal social sanctions (direct feedback, gossip, and loss of reputation, for example). That split applies in many scenarios. In an LDS ward, there is formal discipline (via the bishop) and informal reaction to onymous public speech as well. If you give a sacrament talk titled “29 Good Reasons to Go Inactive” or publish such remarks in your favorite independent Mormon journal, you might end up having a chat with your bishop; or you might find your fellow ward members avoiding you on Sunday; or both. Even blogs have this split. There is formal discipline (your comments are so offensive you get banned) and informal discipline (fellow commenters unleash direct negative feedback and you may lose reputation points).
Applying this general issue and discussion to anonymity on LDS blogs, here are a few points to ponder.
First, anonymity is a way of avoiding real-world formal and informal sanctions for norm-violating speech. So requiring real names is a way of enforcing speech norms, a good thing if the norms are beneficial. But there are several responses to this position: (1) What the proper norms are is a matter of dispute (both online and in the real world), so what one person believes to be a defensible speech norm, another might view as an attempted suppression of important public discussion. (2) Even widely accepted norms will sometimes be abused, applied to further a personal agenda rather than the public purpose that informs the norm. (3) Online, even fully anonymous commenters are still subject to corrective informal feedback from other bloggers/commenters or to being formally blocked from the site. As most readers know, T&S requires permabloggers and guests to be onymous but has always allowed anonymous commenters, a compromise that seems to work for us.
A second point is that anonymity is not always designed to evade sanctions for transgressing speech norms. Some online speakers want to avoid attracting cyberstalkers or their real-life cousins. Some online speakers want to avoid not reasonable formal or unformal discipline but UNreasonable discipline. Imagine, for example, being an LDS blogger in Iran or China. It’s not the bishop you are worried about knocking on your door at midnight. Some online speakers do not want employers or potential employers to be able to track their personal discussions online, a reasonable precaution given that some employers or potential employers might (privately) disfavor an employee or reject an applicant they know to be LDS. So there are many valid reasons for online anonymity.
A final point is that anonymous speakers tend to have less credibility. It is one of the costs a speaker faces for the choice of anonymity. That is partly guilt by association — there are a lot of anonymous crackpots out there — but it also results from the lack of personal details that give context and substance to a speaker’s remarks. There are, for example, some long-time Bloggernacle participants whose religious affiliation, education, professional field, geographical location, and even gender are a complete mystery to me. They could be a computer-generated blogger for all I know. They could be clever monkeys with keyboards. The same lack of a human identity problem applies to some “corporate blogs” (here, for example).
My bottom line: There are plenty of valid reasons for online anonymity, more than I might have expected before this exercise. But anonymous speakers have to work harder than onymous speakers to establish credibility and provide a personal context to their posts and comments.