On Anonymity

A friend of mine is going through a very rough time. She and her family want something very much, and had every reason to believe there was a good chance it would happen. They are not getting their wish. This friend is dealing with some very harsh commentary on her blog by an ‘anonymous’ poster. Others have called this person out, and reasonably so, for hiding behind the name ‘Anonymous’, and remarking that it’s interesting how people feel that without an identity they can be as mean and nasty as they wish. Anonymous responded that she (or he) doesn’t have an identity-free email, and doesn’t blog, so cannot post her information without making her work and location known. She challenges others to post that information about themselves, and then they can call her out for being anonymous.

Sadness and grief for Lisa’s situation aside, I find this quite interesting.

Are we truly ever anonymous online? I post, tweet, and email fully conscious of the fact that nothing is ever private online. Your work may be monitoring the websites you visit, your emails sent on the work server are your employer’s property, your sick ex-boyfriend might be reading your every post on Babycenter, Twitter, and your blog. Or your estranged sister may be visiting your privacy-setting-free Facebook and Twitter (I guess I can’t be too harsh on A for his online stalking anymore, eh? Except that I figured out for myself it was wrong and lame, and stopped). Google’s computers monitor every word of your emails sent on gmail, and yahoo keeps track of where your computer visits.

But can we visit, or post to other blog sites anonymously? Unless you have some pretty fancy firewalls in place, a blog writer can easily see each visitor’s IP address, which also tells us what city you live in (possibly even area within the city), and what internet provider you have. This may announce even where your workplace is, if your work is also a provider. If you haven’t blocked cookies we know how often you visit.  (please don’t get scared off, instead post a hello … oh … wait … give me a moment and I’ll probably scare you off of that too. Great strategy for increasing readership here Melo). Now, those firewalls can get pretty cool. I know my mom reads here, but she doesn’t turn up on any page stats. My stepdad has a pretty darned cool firewall. I have reason to believe there are others too.

If anyone knows firewalls, my stepdad does. Communications engineer. You know, the people who know about this sort of thing. He absolutely has to have one for his work. But if my mother leaves a comment … I can then see her IP and her email address. You know how the forms ask you to give an email that won’t be shared? They mean it won’t be shared with all readers – the blog writer gets to see it. One person who reads here thought she was being quite anonymous on her blog, but with only a moment of searching I found out quite a bit about her. Her email that she entered contained what was obviously her name. She’s now using a much more anonymous email!

So it’s hard to be anonymous when you’re posting comments on blogs. If Anonymous is commenting, his or her IP at the very least is probably available for Lisa to see. If she’s commenting from work as she suggested, then Lisa quite possibly knows where that is.
Alright, fine, the blog writer can see. But what about the rest of us? Let’s say someone posts a comment, and calls herself ISeeJane. Is that any less anonymous than calling oneself Anonymous? I could post a comment and call myself ISeeJane, spoof her as it’s called in some circles. Lisa would know it was me, but everyone else wouldn’t. Anonymous is right, to blast her for not giving a name is a little silly. Even people who give their names and a link to their blog have some anonymity. In this world there are a lot of people who will present a different face, distort the truth, or outright lie. How do you know when you read a blog by a woman saying she lives in Harville, Manitoba, works in the bookstore, and has five year old twins that she isn’t really a skinny fifty year old man getting a good laugh in his condo in Toronto?

Okay, hyperbole folks. I know. Sometimes you just know. Sometimes you know someone who knows that blogger. But anyone who is active on sites like Babycenter know well that extreme misrepresentation can happen. In Cameron’s ‘month’ group alone there was a woman who faked having premature twins (she stole pictures, and was good enough to fool us for a while, from other people’s websites) AND a woman who has been convicted of poisoning her child in a mind-blowing case of apparent Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.  We had no clue. I sure hope little Addalin (was that how it was spelled?) is doing better. While the conviction was for two occurrences, once it became known it was clear that this was a long-time pattern. As far as I’m concerned, she was poisoning her child from early infancy on.

So we have it at either the internet is an open book with your identity, preferences, and life all right out there for some to see … or it’s a world of selective realities presented by people who may or may not be who they represent themselves as. Two extremes.

Me? I’m not very anonymous, when push comes to shove. I’ve never written my last name, address, or bus routes to and from work. I won’t give details that could lead someone to Cameron’s daycare. Even still, a determined person could probably find out where I work and my last name. Right now the scariest people aren’t the unknown ones out there in internet land.  The scariest person, as far as I’m concerned, already knows where I live, and could easily find out my workplace. I’m quite glad that my workplace is secured-entry. (that said, I’ve been as vague as I can be about Cameron’s daycare and identity, and even with what could be found online you’d have a hard time finding our home address)

So, Ms.Anonymous? I feel I could call you out for being anonymous. But what would be the point? You could call yourself ISeeJane, and you’d be no less anonymous. You’re still a miserable, bitter, nasty person. Or at least that’s how you’re representing yourself online. I hope you are teaching your children better manners and more compassion than you are displaying.

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