Lots of calls to end anonymity on the Internet lately. A bill introduced in New York – a so-called Internet Protection Act – would require bloggers to remove posts not made under a real name. A couple of well-known legal bloggers don’t permit anonymous commenting on their blogs.
(Also, many comments – and publications – aren’t technically anonymous, but are pseudonymous, meaning published under a false name. In both cases, the true identity of the author is concealed. There is a potential for greater mischief when postings are made under another individual’s name, with the purpose of attributing the statements to that individual. I find the second possibility more troubling, although an argument can be made that the First Amendment permits this kind of satire, at least as to public officials.)
I am sympathetic to the arguments against web anonymity. Legal gossip site Above the Law‘s commentariat can be a little scary. Read a post on something as innocuous as spring bonuses and the comments will run the gamut from actively, hatefully racist to homophobic to possibly defamatory to definitely creepy and deranged. And I make it a point never, ever to read the comments on national news sites. Just, eww.
But there is a long, even treasured, tradition of anonymous commentary in free (or semi-free) nations. Benjamin Franklin, unable to convince his brother to publish his articles, became “Silence Dogood,” a widow with an exceedingly sharp edge. In one letter, “she” wrote:
Now I bethought my self in my Sleep, that it was Time to be at Home, and as I fancy’d I was travelling back thither, I reflected in my Mind on the extream Folly of those Parents, who, blind to their Childrens Dulness, and insensible of the Solidity of their Skulls, because they think their Purses can afford it, will needs send them to the Temple of Learning, where, for want of a suitable Genius, they learn little more than how to carry themselves handsomely, and enter a Room genteely, (which might as well be acquir’d at a Dancing-School,) and from whence they return, after Abundance of Trouble and Charge, as great Blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited.
While I was in the midst of these unpleasant Reflections, Clericus (who with a Book in his Hand was walking under the Trees) accidentally awak’d me; to him I related my Dream with all its Particulars, and he, without much Study, presently interpreted it, assuring me, That it was a lively Representation of Harvard College, Etcetera. I remain, Sir, Your Humble Servant,
Common Sense was originally published anonymously, and apparently with good reason: England eventually tried Thomas Paine in absentia for sedition (albeit for other things he had written). Anonymity gave us Pope and Swift. Daniel Defoe would likely have been crucified for Moll Flanders. George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) might not have been published at all. More recently, publishing anonymously or under a pseudonym has permitted authors to write on subjects considered taboo or controversial: Go Ask Alice (drugs and teen sex); Primary Colors (the ugly truth of political campaigns). Also, have you seen a little magazine called The Economist?
I recognize that a comment calling another’s personal sexual proclivities into question does not rise to the level of Common Sense in the marketplace of ideas. But neither did Franklin’s Silence Dogood letters, or another pseudonymous Franklin publication, Poor Richard’s Almanac. Many writers begin anonymously or pseudonymously and eventually reveal themselves. It may be that there is something nurturing and worthwhile about anonymity for some, that permitting them to participate in the conversation on their own terms allows them, in time, to display their ideas more openly. This growth comes at the cost of weeds, and we may have tolerate them, or risk losing the garden altogether.