A friend of mine is a long-term, highly devoted member of a certain Internet community that prides itself on upholding “free speech.” Since “free speech” in the view of the Internet and this community in particular seems to fall mostly along the lines of “letting me take upskirt photos of women and/or spread racist propaganda without having to own up to my actions,” I take a dim view of it. I expressed this view to my friend, and we had a civil discussion about it, culminating in his suggestion that I don’t have a problem with the community in general, but with anonymity.
Now. If you’re a regular Chron editorial reader, you’ve seen my old commenting account. I admit I was pretty excited when Disqus allowed me to use my full name. Because, you know, I’m a child. Attention-seeking behavior and all that. Not a problem with anonymity at all! Besides, if you’re a regular Chron editorial reader from last year, you know that I spent a semester anonymously being a butthead to the student body and the administration. If making the previous editorial page editor uncomfortable with running into school officials in the Flowers building wasn’t embracing anonymity, I’m not sure what it could be called.
Or so I thought. However, that was a temporary loss of name; Monday, Monday exists to be a faceless exaggeration of the undergraduate zeitgeist: a funhouse mirror of campus culture. When the column has run its course, the columnist emerges to deal with whatever the consequences may be.
This is vastly different from anonymity as the Internet writ large understands it. At the time I began writing this (a while ago), there was a wave of “doxxing” making headlines on some of the larger blogs. The identity of Violentacrez, a man who spent his Internet life posting inappropriate pictures of young girls and harassing members of his community, was made public. It resulted in this man losing his job. The players on the Internet who were not anonymous—the bloggers, writers, reporters, Facebook connect users—were thrilled. The members of this man’s community were less so.
The doxxing of Violentacrez had an impact that went beyond the life of the man behind the handle. It is a warning, or maybe a reminder; there is no right to anonymity. We have a right to privacy, yes, and to free speech, yes. These should be protected. But nothing is said or done in a vacuum. Not even on the Internet, as the recent suicides of bullied teens should remind us. If you choose to exercise your free speech, you must be willing to take responsibility for what you say.
I’m not advocating punishment for speaking one’s mind—we all read “1984” in ninth grade—but I do believe that if a person chooses to behave in a way that may have consequences for his or her image, that person should accept these consequences, should they come. I mean, you do really believe that whore should kill herself, don’t you? You believe that the president is an uneducated racial slur who should be shot, don’t you? You believe that the members of your rival greek organization do, in fact, anally violate one another on a regular basis, don’t you?
Oh. You mean, you don’t? Then why did you say it?
Therein lie my concerns with anonymity as the Internet offers (or claims to offer) it. I said above that namelessness turns Monday, Monday into a funhouse mirror of campus culture. But here is the interesting thing about anonymity; it has the power to turn any surface into a mirror. Especially the mind. When a person anonymously enters a space composed of ideas, lack of an established identity makes that person more open to the ideas presented. The phenomenon of group polarization—when a large number of people with similar beliefs further convince one another of the truth of their convictions—occurs on an individual level. You—yes you, highly educated, driven, thoughtful student at a top-tier university—find yourself saying things you know, logically, you do not think.
I know that if I were ever forced to answer for some of the things I have said on anonymous websites, I would be mortified. I’ve made an effort to curb this, not because I am against saying what one thinks, but because I have found myself espousing beliefs I simply do not have. I become a canvas. I become a mirror.
If you hate minorities, gay people, women, poor people or even members of Alpha Beta Gamma Delta, and you feel the need to let other people know this, rock on, you crazy cat. You will be treated as you deserve. But if you find yourself expressing these views just because it seems the thing to do, or because you can, it’s a good idea to think: Is this me talking? Or is it the power of being faceless? Because someday you may have to answer for it. And if you’re going to be judged, it should probably be on what you actually believe.
Mia Lehrer, Trinity ‘12, is currently a graduate student in geology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her column runs every other Wednesday.