Pocochina’s Weblog

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on anonymity

Posted by pocochina on July 29, 2010

It’s really interesting to read these articles by Jeffrey Rosen and Glenn Greenwald together.  Rosen’s article, for those who don’t feel like clicking through eight pages of prose, is entitled “The Web Means the End of Forgetting,” and it’s basically what it sounds like – a discussion of the idea that once something is on the internet (as my mother likes to dramatically intone) it is on the internet FOREVER.  People can’t escape the tracks left by their blogs; their Facebook accounts; even their tweets.

Rosen conveniently elides the idea of privilege online, but I think it’s an important one worth examining.  The idea of “reputation” is one that is almost uniformly far more important for marginalized people – a woman’s sexualized Facebook photo will forever mark her with the scarlet H, but a man’s goofy drunken picture from the same party are evidence of a healthy social life. The article raises some interesting and important issues, but its insistent refusal to address issues of inequality ultimately weakens it to the extent that it’s hardly useful.

Which is why a lot of us, myself included, choose to write anonymously or pseudonymously.  It’s the only way we can express any controversial opinions or experiences, including that greatest controversy of all, honesty about oppression.  This isn’t because I don’t stand by my opinions or think they’re valuable or interesting, or because I am ashamed of them.  I remember years ago, just as I was starting to write, someone pompously writing that if bloggers won’t put their real names on something, we’re inherently untrustworthy, that we must be ashamed of something we’re saying; that we can’t be believed.  As I sensed then and know now from other folks sharing their experiences in a similar fashion, it’s exactly the opposite – it’s not sharing my full name that lets me tell you all the truth, as thoroughly as I know how.  Take it or leave it, but – OFFICIAL BLOGGER ANNOUNCEMENT – if you’re a person who thinks other people should endanger their ability to earn a living or have a tolerable relationship with their families for your split-second amusement, your judgment is really not that important to me anyway.

Nasty comments about “anonymity” also rest on a fundamental misunderstanding of online identity and community.  Fact is, there are a lot of folks who know me as pocochina, in a lot of different forums.  I express consistent opinions, around the same time of day, with lots of foul language.  I have a friends list and a blogroll and a set of rounds I do every day.  Sometimes I speak up, sometimes I post in my own space, sometimes I don’t say anything at all.  But I’ve created my own name, my own identity, my own place in some communities.  And I do think about what I say there, because I’ve chosen to be there because I like what the other people there have to say and I don’t want to derail the community or make other people think less of me.  Sure, some people are jackasses when cloaked in digital anonymity, but plenty of people are jackasses in person, too.  It’s my suspicion that a lot of those people are the same people, online or not.

Which brings me around to Greenwald’s post concerning the way the Serious Media disdains bloggers who write anonymously as an excuse for their own inadequacies, all the while cheerfully using anonymous sources in distracting gossip columns disguised as political “news.”  This is what really irks the shit out of me, because these assholes have never once reported on companies firing adults for party photos on Facebook, or folks being fired for offering their political opinions online under their real names.  The internet is how politically engaged citizens get our information, build our communities, and sometimes the only way we can reach out to a supportive community of like-minded people.  We have to be able to do that without fear for our jobs or our home lives, or our speech would be not chilled but frozen solid.

The reason people did caucuses and stump speeches back in the day isn’t because it was better, and it annoys the crap out of me when people romanticize the past.  It’s because they didn’t have any better options.  No options that were accessible to diverse people, or could be done after the work day and when the kids were in bed, or weren’t dependent on good weather and celebrity appearances.  Those things are valuable, but they needn’t be our entire political discourse.  More people vote now; more people participate and contribute ideas.  Because more of us can, and in large part that’s because of internet activism – whether or not we put our full names on our comments, or even leave comments at all.

And even those glorified, in-person types of activism are irrevocably changed by the internet.  Is there any chance in the world that Fox would’ve been able to fabricate the Sherrod scandal without YouTube?  Or a way for folks to quickly and decisively get at the truth if they couldn’t research it?  I deeply doubt it.  It doesn’t matter if it’s illegal to non-consensually tape someone’s political speech, because it only has to be online for a half an hour if you’re polemic enough.  Black enough.  Female enough.  Gay enough.  Just enough to get the wrong sort of attention, and your career could crash and burn.

Taken together, these two articles are no less than a discussion about who is allowed to express opinions in this country.  People who rely on sub-optimal jobs from large corporations that would frown on their pro-labor politics?  Not just inconvenienced, but functionally disallowed from public discourse.  Moms in the Bible Belt who are questioning their sexuality?  Say goodbye to your kids, they’re going to be raised by the manipulative bigoted shit who hates you.

We scoff at the overly controlling Chinese government blocking access to Livejournal or whatever nonsense, but are we really any better if we allow employers and families to do the same thing?  Not just legally permit either, but socially.  We can and should gauge people, in part, by their political opinions, which often boil down to little more than how well or poorly they feel others should be treated.  But we shouldn’t be able to ruin their lives over it, either.  With or without their names.

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