2 Aug 2011

We must fight for both anonymity and respect

We need to preserve the protection of anonymity but fight for a culture of respect. Or none of this will be fun anymore.

There are anonymous cowards on the internet who abuse others, spread hatred and distribute obscene criminal material. And there are anonymous heroes on the internet too, who fight repression, spread inspiration, ideas, wit and truth.

It is entirely understandable that Facebook, Google and others would want to stamp on the bad by ending anonymity, but they have not yet done enough to show how they would preserve the good.

Here’s an uncomfortable thing to admit: I find Twitter a bit less enjoyable these days. It is more powerful but less fun. More like work, less like leisure.

In the early-adopter era the social network was a largely warm environment, where abuse was relatively scarce and passionate debate was conducted with respect and good humour. I would tweet about X-Factor one minute and the election the next without fear that the trolls and pedants would start hurling abuse.

In 2011 my tweets are less carefree than they were in 2009. That’s partly because of the confidence anonymity grants people.

As Randi Zuckerberg recently argued, if people were forced to speak online with their own identities, as I do, most would probably be less aggressive and more thoughtful.

But without anonymity we would be starved of tweets from Egypt, Syria, Iran and repressive regimes around the world where internet anonymity is unleashing new freedoms and ideas. We might lose the mobile phone videos that tell us what is really going on, the whistleblowers who reveal corruption and the brave insiders who leak the things the powerful try to keep from us.

Facebook and Google need to show how they would enable these things if widespread anonymity was lost.

In my ideal world social networks would have borders which I could chose to cross for new levels of content: people I love, people I know, people I have heard of and people who are complete strangers.

At the moment I use Facebook as a safe private zone – only for friends and family. I use Twitter as a public place, for work and also for fun but not a place I reveal much about my private life. So Twitter is far more likely to direct me towards new ideas, video and news but is also a place I must have a thick skin. Facebook is safer, but not nearly as interesting.

I have only just signed up to Google+ and am not really using it yet – I can see why having different circles might mean I can have the benefits of both Facebook and Twitter in one place but not until everyone embraces it.

The trouble is, I want to be accessible to everyone and to have access to everything but I do not want to be constantly braced for abuse and offensive material. I want my children to have the broadest possible horizons and to search out new ideas and relationships online but I do not want to them encounter either twisted minds or thoughtless morons.

So ultimately I keep coming back to a simple proposition. Respect is the vital component to all human relationships, whether in person or online, anonymous or identified. Without it social networks become jungles that we will start to fear, like dangerous suburbs that are best avoided.

Just as “never press send in anger” finally sunk in to most of us on email, we need to recapture the culture of those early adopter days on Twitter. We need to preserve the protection of anonymity but fight for a culture of respect. Or none of this will be fun anymore.

Follow @krishgm on Twitter