Saturday 26 June 2010

Notes from under a virtual stone

With the inevitability of English summer rain the footballing scenario that Matron most feared has come to pass. On Sunday, England will once more play Germany in the World Cup and for Matron this means that the time has arrived where it is prudent for members of her national persuasion to hide under a stone. Despite manifold assurances by her English chums that not everyone will be filled with feelings of hostility towards her breed (though, bless you all for saying it and keep’em coming) those of us who have lived here for a while know that this is no time to be an out and proud Kraut in these parts (and if anyone could tell Beckenbauer to shut up, that would also help).

However, while dwelling on the good fortunes (or not) of the 11 “Lions” is bound to be the water cooler moment of choice until at least Monday, the yearning to hide under a stone actually reminded Matron that this is a concept she has mentally employed for some time in another context, namely her online existence. Those of her readers who paid attention (all three of them then) will have noted that Matron blogs under a pseudonym and that her blogger profile includes exactly zero information about her real life persona. She has taken the same approach to her Twitter existence where she has so far admitted a total of two followers – both of them known to her in real life - to her otherwise strictly private account. In other word, she lurks.

Now, the question of online anonymity (or pseudonimity) is an interesting one. Does it serve a purpose or is it a hindrance to fame, fortune and lucrative consultancy contracts? Should all online activity be open, transparent and accountable or is there something to be said for reticence and inscrutability? Matron wonders and ponders and has done so for some time. While many of her academic friends have made names for themselves as bloggers and Twitter power users (and encouraged her to do likewise), she has chosen to remain shrouded in obscurity - largely out of a nagging feeling of unease about what this particular “coming out” would mean for her. So what is the problem? Well, as far as she can tell there are several:
  1. As Daniel Solove pointed out in his excellent book “The Future of Reputation”, all online information is ubiquitous and permanent. Once it’s out there, it cannot be recalled nor can access to it be properly limited. With powerful search engines and information aggregators working to their own rules and algorithms, individuals no longer have any control over the way in which information about them is presented to the inquisitive onlooker, how it is prioritised and what it will be used for. This means that there is a real risk that a false or distorted picture is painted of an individual which is then accessible to an audience of millions, and based on which others (like employers or potential dating partners) will make value judgements. We all do it, and yet, Matron asks herself, is there not a moral question in there somewhere that needs to be answered. At what point does our ability to freely access information about other people make us incapable of judging them in an unbiased fashion, particularly if someone’s online persona is not actually representative of the person that they really are. When does “googling someone” turn into a human rights violation, for example because our accumulated prejudice means we don’t grant them equal treatment? Matron can’t help thinking that until rules or social mores are established that limit the way in which and the purposes for which information available online is used, any attempt to minimise the information available about oneself online seems a sane approach.
  2. Blogging under a pseudonym creates a feeling of relative freedom. The blogger may work in a position where his or her opinions would not be well received or they may actually enjoy being someone completely different online. A pseudonym makes this possible. It also encourages playfulness. Using her pseudonym, Matron can try out ideas that she may not always be ready to discuss online under her real name yet. It allows her to have a full and frank exchange of opinion with others that often help her clarify specific issues in her mind which she then addresses in her academic writing. But what about accountability, some may ask. Shouldn’t people who sound off on things have the courage of their convictions and don’t others, when they engage in discourse with them, have a right to know who they are talking to? Matron would answer “what does it matter?”. If the discussion is on a specific topic, why is it important who the discussants are? As long as both stick to acceptable standards of human interaction, arguments can be made, examined and countered without one person necessarily knowing who the other person is. Of course, the identity of the speaker may weigh either in favour (if they are a known expert) or against (if they are a renowned crank) the argument they are making. But doesn’t this knowledge also (again) lead to bias and prejudice? Don’t we sometimes find that the best ideas come from people from whom we did not expect them? Should we not be able to examine a statement on its merits, rather have our judgement clouded because we know it was made by a particular person? But what if people hide behind their pseudonym while distributing hate speech or false or defamatory statements? Well, this is where the difference between a pseudonym and full anonymity comes into play. Matron is fully aware that if she made, say, a defamatory statement, the person so defamed would probably have a right to find out her identity from the online provider whose service she used. Matron has not made up a fake identity for this blog and she does (she thinks) support a level of online traceability rather than a right to full anonymity. The reasons for this are simple: while the bloggosphere and the Twitterverse are relatively new developments, the right to free speech (and its limitations) are established legal concepts in the offline world. There are very few offline scenarios, where speech, in order to be free, would have to be made anonymously. In most contexts, the speaker would be, if not immediately identified, then identifiable and the right to participate in public discourse is, in most cases, subject to an understanding that commonly accepted norms (whether legal or social) will be in place which enable the detection and prevention of the kind of speech that is not covered by the human right. (Advocating a traceability requirement does, of course, only work if the relevant statement is made within a liberal democratic context. Citizen journalists operating in countries with autocratic or totalitarian governments will hardly be able to do their job properly, if they are traceable.)
  3. Social media have managed to blur the distinction in the heads of many users of what is public and what is private space. As the recent furore around Facebook’s privacy settings shows, providers have created platforms that feel intimate, yet are often accessible by many more people than the individual is aware of. It seems that most users have not yet found a way to deal with the resulting confusion when sharing information about themselves and others. Twitter is a point in case. Unbeaten as a modern form of news feed cum commentary tool, many people have started to use their open tweets rather than the direct messaging function for direct communication with other users. This means that – with a few extra clicks - the “conversation” between those two users can be followed by all their followers, of whom there may be hundreds if not thousands. Are we always aware when we’re doing it? Heck, no! Do we care? Well, in some cases we may. In some cases, we probably should, particularly if we don’t at all times personally know all of our followers. Members of social networking sites also distribute far more and far more intimate information about themselves and others than they would ever be willing to share offline. At this point, we still seem to lack social norms equivalent to those in the offline realms that govern the sharing of information about each other. Matron believes that we do not yet have an internal censor that tells us that certain information “is not for the internet” or social sanctions enforced by our friends if we violate an unwritten code of online conduct (she may be wrong here and, particularly younger, people may well feel that they are well on their way to such norms. If that ewere the case, Matron would be happy to receive examples). Nor do we have a proper understanding of just how widely the information we disclose about others is being distributed or the speed with which that can be done. A pseudonym that is only known by people we know and trust ( and that is respected by them, see below) enables us to protect ourselves against the worst effects of compulsory over-sharing until the necessary social norms have developed and are properly enforced. Gossip about something that happened to “X” remains gossip about the event rather than the individual.
  4. A pseudonym provides limited protection from trolls. Of which there are many in the online world. Indeed, it seems to Matron that one of the bigger problems with the regulation and governance of online social spaces is that – despite all the attempts at netiquette - there is as yet no common understanding regarding the social norms with which individuals should comply. Things are commonly said on online discussion boards that would never be said, if the people involved were making those statements face-to-face (by the same token, we wouldn’t send a double-glazing sales man round to a friend’s house, but we give him their e-mail address for the chance to win a competition). What is the reason for that? Well, Matron would hazard a guess that the online medium removes us from the immediate vicinity of the other person. We do not have the unmediated experience of witnessing the effect our actions have on them first hand. Naturally, unqualified comments can be made even if the blogger’s real identity is unknown. But a pseudonym is at least likely to deter those who play the person rather than the ball.
A pseudonym does, of course, only work if it is effective. And herein, as they say, lies the rub. With every piece of information that Matron discloses about herself - her nationality, her gender, her profession and her whereabouts at any given time - she makes it easier for those who know her in “real” life (and any halfway talented private eye, where they to make it their business to look for her) to identify her as the person behind the blog. She expects that, over time, the anonymity that the pseudonym provides will simply melt away and with it some of its protection. However, Matron is not actually too worried that friends, colleagues and even passing acquaintances may know who she is. Many do already and include references to her pseudonym in their online conversations. What Matron – admittedly very subjectively - is concerned about is the transition of that knowledge from (wo)man to machine, that is the creation of an online link between her real name and her pseudonym which would make it possible for the search engines and information brokers mentioned above to incorporate anything she says in this blog into the profile they create for her real life identity. This will only be possible if one of the people in the know makes that connection public or if the provider of the blogging platform makes Matron’s personal information accessible for that purpose. Should either her friends or her service provider be permitted to do this? Matron thinks not. Some people like to blog openly and benefit from the reputation they build, some prefer to remain anonymous and enjoy the freedom and the feeling of safety this gives them. It’s about choice and it’s about control. It’s about what the Germans call informational self-determination. They protect in their Constitution and we over here enjoy some protection through existing data protection laws. However, what we also need is an equivalent social norm that requires each of us to respect the other’s choice. We do it offline, because there'd be hell to be pay from our friends if we didn't. By and large social pressures keep us in line. We need to work on an online version of that subtle control mechanism.

For as long as powers imbalances exist between different individuals, individuals and companies and individuals and the state, most of us will prefer to keep some information about ourselves private or within the domain of a few trusted individuals. Everybody has something to hide. Information about ourselves and others is not something with which we do, or should should, part unthinkingly. In our networked society we are now all data controllers so the responsibility falls on all of us. Within the realms of free speech, press freedom and the public interest we must begin the discussion of how to establish and enforce online social norms that respect individual's freedom to choose their own level of openness. If we don't, we may at some stage feel like the England goal keeper as he watched that ball slowly finding its way into his own goal.