Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Anonymity Issue Revisited (Again)

There was a small group--around 20--for the Springfield, MA installment of the New England News Forum's Civic News Library Listening Series but it was a crowd that was engaged and knowledgable about media--specifically alternatives to media. Folks like Stevie from freepress.org, Sheila McElwaine and Jeremy Cole from the Springfield Cultural Council, Jeff Potter of the Shelburne Falls Independent, writer/journalist Andrew Varnon (who blogged it), and River Brandon (husband of Urban Compass' Heather Brandon) were in the audience. There was also a reporter for the Republican but he didn't intro himself to any of The Rabble--although some may already have known him....his report ended up being a rather bland "say nice things" type of story.

But that doesn't help us have any kind of debate/meaningful conversation about the issues at hand...

As per usual with panels like this, the crowd knew a heck of a lot more about what is going on with the Internet than the panel. Three of the biggest bugaboos about online interaction--"civility," anonymity, and "too much information"--were brought up by the panel in a sort of "What's all this then!" Inspector Harry "Snapper" Organs/Monty Python kind of way...

It was the anonymity issue that kind of "got" me this time. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Madeleine Blaise brought up the specter of anonymity--and that people should not be anonymous when they are blogging....

The thing is, there are very good and important reasons why Americans choose to blog anonymously....and if journalists can't see, or know this about the society in which we live, then something is very, very wrong with our journalists...

I am always taken by a level of hypocracy people will express when it comes to anonymous U.S.-based blogs. If the anonymous work is from a country where political (and usually press) freedom is non-existent, we Americans believe the anonymous blogs. To those People, Anonymous Blogs are a godsend. Anonymous blogs begin to have more importance than the news reports from those regions (which we know are controlled.) Although, that doesn't mean all those anonymous blogs from all those places are any more or less "real" than anonymous blogs in the U.S.

To their credit, groups like Global Voices Online do an excellent job of filtering anonymous foreign blogs by having a staff of amazing editors who know the countries and the cultures enough, as well as know the world online enough, to be able to tell us that the anonymous blogs are indeed from their countries of origin....

It seems to me that it's journalists--not bloggers nor people who read blogs--who are having the trouble determining the authenticity of anonymous American blogs, and are the ones who want us to be totally transparent at all times.

Doesn't that kind of scream a bit about how out of touch some journalists might be with their own culture? Have some journalists reached a point in their careers where they need guides to culture online in order to understand how the People live within this space--and that in order to participate out here, one might need the cloak of anonymity.

For many private citizens, being anonymous online isn't about the press being free (they're fine with that) or about fear of reprisals from the government (some do, but not everyone)--what appears to be the most prevalent reason that gainfully employed adults will have anonymous/pseudonymous online identities is, in part, fear of reprisals from employers.

Yes, in a rampant capitalist society, where employment is "at will" and where your boss can Google you at any moment to find out what you're up to, just the way he/she might make a quickie legal background check, anonymity for many is paramount if they are going to participate in life online.

And it's not that people are hiding deep-dark secrets or mocking their bosses behind their backs. If you know your employer is conservative, you might not want her knowing you've left a diary or two on Daily Kos--and if you're employer's a "progressive," he might think a bit differently about you after reading your blog about the wonders of modified field rifles.

Still, you might not want your employer, or your neighbors for that matter, reading your profile on Match.com or AdultFriendFinder.com. You might not want them knowing it was you who left that snarky comment about "New Age" psychiatry on the F.A.C.T.net message board, or that you've been secretly writing a novel and asking for input from the denizens of AbsoluteWrite.com.

There are any number of reasons why an adult might want to keep mum about his/her personal life. There are more consequences for adults (as danah boyd once pointed out in a post vis a vis kids online)....

Yet just because there are more and serious consequences to what adults say online, it shouldn't mean that adults shouldn't be online. Many adults want to be online--and want to participate in the varied conversations and wonderful things going on out here, without having to worry about the judgements of neighbors and the potential loss of employment for words uttered that are totally unrelated to their employment....

We know one can get fired for talking anonymously online about one's job (Remember Dooce)--and I'm sure it's only a matter of time before what we say online that's unrelated to our jobs will have some serious consequences. If it hasn't happened already...

I know that when I open my mouth on my personal blog--about *anything* personal--that I am making myself potentially unemployable to someone out here in the Pioneer Valley. That's a cold, hard, fact of having a Google-able life.

If journalists in the United States are having trouble dealing with anonymous blogs, then they need guides--maybe some domestic versions of GVO. But they should not make demands on the people. Journalists must step back from the transparency needs of their professions and understand that for most adults, life in the United States is a complex dance-through-the-minefield of politeness and provincial mores, and that personal expression in any venue can have serious consequences to one's livelihood and social standing. Journalists might want to consider that not all bloggers want to be journalists, and that the "anonymous" may not be unknown to everyone--but only to them.

(a quick thanks to Melinda Casino, who, when I first met her, blogged anonymously at Sour Duck....and who taught me the value of anonymous blogging.)

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3 comments:

Dawno said...

You especially don't want anyone to know ecretly writing a novel and asking for input from the denizens of AbsoluteWrite.com - once that gets out people start asking "what's it about" or you get spam emails from Publish America or scammy agents...

Excellent post. As a semi-anonymous blogger I value the relative privacy but don't really fear being "found out". Everyone at work and in my life knows I'm weird. My blog just settles the question definitively for them.

Dawno said...

agh! my quote of your statement got cut off - that post should have said ...to know "you're secretly...etc."

Tish Grier said...

Hi Dawno, and you're right about the scammy/scummy agents (and spam)! I've seen some of the stuff y'all on AbsoluteWrite.com dredged up and it's very valuable (and y'all really fought to keep that board going--I'm glad you did) I don't know if lots of people think consciously about those two things, but you're right--they're one of the hazards when you're not-anonymous on some boards....

good comment, too, about the co-workers. ha!