My Word

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

In 1993, Peter Steiner captured the sentiment that I was trying to convey to my students. The Internet was the great equalizer. Middle school students can be pretty judgmental. If you don’t have the right clothes, or the right hairstyle, or like the right kind of music, or have the right body type, or reject the right authority figures, you can quickly find yourself ostracized. Most of them have felt that pressure to conform, to be the same as everyone else.

I was trying to explain that it’s okay to be different online. Maybe you weigh a lot more than others your age. Maybe you speak English with a thick accent. Maybe you have a physical handicap. Maybe your skin is a different color. That’s okay. On the Internet, people judge you only on the information you give them. It was a very liberating idea, where the exchange of ideas can take place on their own merit, without all of the preconceptions that come with our physical interaction.

They were such simple, naive times, those early days before the world wide web was, well, so world-wide.

A few years later, I took this a step further. From the lens of online safety, I explained to my eighth grade boys that, statistically speaking, the cute 13-year-old girl they just met in an online chat room is more likely a 45-year-old man. They didn’t care for the imagery, but they got the point.

What I told my students way back in the dark ages is still true. You are judged online only by the information you give people. But if your name is one of the things you don’t give, then your ideas have no weight. Take a look at any site that allows user comments. If anonymous comments are permitted, there’s almost certainly an inflammatory conversation taking place. I was sad to see Patch reverse their rule requiring that the site’s users use their real names. The result was an immediate degradation in the quality of the discourse, to the point where I no longer bother to read comments on the site.

The same argument can be used to defend Google’s position in the Nym Wars. If we really want people to behave civilly in an online environment, we have to tie their online identities to their offline ones. In short, we have to know who they are.

We’ve had problems in our high school recently with graffiti in our restrooms. Our students seem to take great delight in decorating the stall walls and doors with their artwork. I sense that they’d be somewhat less inclined to do so if they weren’t anonymous. Almost none of them signs their work.

Take this to the political arena. I’ve stopped consuming mass media entirely until after the election, because I’m tired of the constant barrage of ads. Most of the political ads we’re seeing now are attack ads. They don’t promote or advocate for the election of a candidate. Instead, they attack the candidate’s opponent. And where do these ads come from? So far, $374 million have been spent in the presidential election by super PACs. These are political organizations that collect money from anonymous donors and use it to smear the preferred candidate’s opponent. It’s anonymous, just like taking a sharpie to the bathroom stalls of the White House.

I’m a believer in the first amendment. I believe that we (we, the citizens of the world, not just we the people of the United States) should be able to say and write whatever we want most of the time. We should be able to challenge our governments. We should be able to speak out for the oppressed. We should be able to act like jerks and say things that don’t make any sense and support candidates who have no business seeking elected office. But we should also have to stand behind those words. You don’t get to be an invented troll online who exists only to argue.

Despite my initial embrace of the potential of anonymity online, I’m only one person. My words are my words. And when I put them online, I attach my name to them. If you don’t do that, I’m not going to pay attention to you.

Photo credit: Matt Westervelt on Flickr.

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