Sunday, June 20, 2010

Inside the mind of the anonymous online poster - The Boston Globe

The concluding paragraphs of an extensive Boston Globe essay on anonymity follow below.  One potentially surprising twist: Facebook is actually a planetary and self-authenticating (as in people actually being who they say they are) identity system in some respects; as such, Facebook is conducive to people being accountable for their on-line activities (a topic covered in The Facebook Effect).  Beyond the superficial celebrity pages and sometimes challenging etiquette dimensions, Facebook has the potential to significantly improve the quality and value of on-line communication and collaboration.

While news organizations debate scrapping anonymity, the ground may be shifting beneath them. With all of our identifying information getting sliced, diced, and sold, by everyone from credit card companies to Facebook, is there really such a thing as the anonymous Web anymore? Consider this demonstration from the late ’90s by Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor Latanya Sweeney. She took three commonly available data points: sex (male), ZIP code (02138), and date of birth (July 31, 1945). Those seemingly anonymous attributes could have described lots of people, right? Actually, no. She proved they could belong to just one person: former governor William Weld. She tells me that 87 percent of Americans can now be identified with just these three data points.

Maybe the best approach to getting people to behave better online is just reminding them how easy it is to figure out who they really are.

Earlier in the Globe article:

That gets to the heart of the problem. The comments sections on many general-interest news sites lack both the carrot and the stick for encouraging responsible behavior. The carrot is the cohesion of a group you don’t want to disappoint, like Yoshimi25’s Front Burner community. The stick is the shame associated with having your real name publicly attached to embarrassing behavior. Without these two levers, the social contract breaks down.

Inside the mind of the anonymous online poster - The Boston Globe

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