Although most Americans would consider being “up-front” with people to be a common value, the fact is that in many instances we value privacy even more than frankness. There are certain legitimate circumstances in which our safety is protected by issuing our messages anonymously. In mediated contexts, anonymity is a state of communicating where the identity of the communicator is not readily apparent. People use anonymity to solicit dates in newspaper and magazine advertisements, to report knowledge of criminal activities on police tip lines, to engage in whistle blowing activities that draw media or legal attention to corporate misdoing, and to seek shelter when involved in abusive relationships. In such circumstances, not being obliged to disclose one’s true identity, and thus risk one’s personal security, may well encourage important messages that might not otherwise be communicated.
The ability to communicate anonymously has been a particularly thorny issue in CMC. Although anonymity can function to protect people from reprisals it can also distance them from accountability, that is, taking responsibility. Some people misuse the anonymity that online communication technologies afford to commit crimes.
The debates over online anonymity have centered on three key issues.
- The first issue has to do with the informative aspect of identity. Knowing the reputation of the person issuing a statement is a double-edged sword. On one hand, knowing who has said something suggests the credibility that person has to speak on that topic. For example, having information about a source’s expertise on a given topic influences how much one will trust the source’s position. On the other hand, knowing characteristics like the sender’s gender, race, and social standing could lead to an unfair hearing based on a receiver’s personal biases and stereotypes.
- The second issue concerning anonymity deals with group pressures. One side of this argument suggests that people who must be associated with their ideas will only express things they truly believe. Knowing that others will judge them by what they say serves to minimize blind attacks. The other side of this argument suggests that anonymity allows others to express unpopular opinions or question conventional wisdom. Such statements can function as agents of change when those who issue them are not suffocated by group pressures to remain silent.
- The third issue involves the enforcement of existing legal restrictions on speech. Without knowing who has issued them, it is impossible for law enforcement agents to prosecute those who commit libel, obscenity, or copyright infringement.
Pseudonym comes from the Latin words for “false” and “name,” and it provides an audience with the ability to attribute statements and actions to a common source. Like an anonym, a pseudonym provides its owner with some degree of protection. But unlike an anonym, a pseudonym allows one to contribute to the fashioning of one’s own image. Authors and performers have long recognized such a virtue.
Haya Bechar-Israeli (1995) investigated the function and personal importance of pseudonyms among IRC participants. Not surprisingly, Bechar-Israeli concluded that pseudonyms, or nicks, as these nicknames are known among IRCers, served as attempts to present the self in a single line of text. Although he was able to categorize the nicks he discovered in a range of categories
the most frequently selected pseudonyms were referential of some quality of one’s identity.
Nearly one-half of these participants chose to disclose something about their character <shydude>, profession <medoctor>, state <sleepless>, or appearance <handsom> through their nick. Though very few people chose to use their actual names in this setting, a clear majority tended to share qualities about their identities that they wanted others to perceive through their choice of pseudonym.