Anonymity can be a positive force. The idea, as expressed by people like Google CEO Eric Schmidt, that “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to worry about,” just doesn’t hold up. It assumes an infinitely just world, and not simply in legal terms, but also in social norms and political interests. It ignores the fact that voicing opinions and unflattering facts can have consequences.
…Online, there is another good reason for protecting the anonymous commons: it increases the diversity of people who speak up. To speak publicly is to take a risk. What if you say the wrong thing? What if you insult somebody? What if your words are misconstrued? Every spoken phrase could be measured up against your current and future employers, your friends, your family, your reputation. Only those without much guilt or shame – either by way of purity, nihilism, or sociopathic narcissism – are left to voice their opinions. They control the conversation. Whereas in the anonymous world, there is no ego to feed. There are no Sarah Palins.
It’s funny that, despite my well-known antipathy to Plato, I derive so much pleasure from the contemplation of ideas for their own sake. A large part of what I love about the Internet is the ability to bypass all the sensory input I have no interest in and get right to the heart of the matter: words and thoughts. I love the pure democracy of it, even, the way any basement-dwelling “loser” or bored, unattractive cubicle drone can enrich and enliven my day by writing in their free time.
Despite the cultural lip service paid, most people don’t really love the interchange of ideas or the concept of free speech, though. Most people seek out affirmations and a hive-mind to comfort them, and treat dissenting ideas as a personal attack on their identity. Speak too freely, and you guarantee that someone will dutifully make note of your words in a dossier to be used against you should the need ever arise. It’s not that most of us have anything horribly repulsive to say anyway, but anonymity gives us the chance to speak off-the-cuff without suffering vindictive reactions from a culture in which giving offense has become a mortal sin.