I woke up today to read a really good email from Jason Calacanis. I was certainly one of the people who wrote some negative stuff about Jason only to be confronted with a nice man who is both a successful entrepreneur and a great speaker. It’s always an awkward moment. Luckily, after more than a decade using the internet and maybe the calming effects of age, I’m much less prone to internet asperges syndrome although I’m much more likely to blurt something out on twitter or have to check myself every now and then when sending a short email. The other day, Mike Arrington got spat on. While Mike isn’t exactly the most loved guy on the internet, many draw the line at getting spit on. While I agree that things are getting out of hand for people like Jason and Mike who are some of the most successful people who have bootstrapped themselves on the strength of blogging, they’ve also done their share of negative baiting, Arrington’s bashing of Twitter and particularly Blaine Cook comes to mind as well as Jason’s spats with David Winer. However, when the stakes escalate to personal violence then it’s time to splash water on our collective faces and try to wake up.
The Internet Magic Mirror
The crazy thing about the internet is the “fake anonymity” creates a magic mirror effect between the haves and have nots. In this case the “haves” can be anything from more money, more fame (especially the internet variety), or simply more expertise. Usually, the target of ire is someone with a very visible profile or following. Their actions are more or less public and their opinions shape discussions on the internet. It’s like we’re looking at them from behind a magic mirror. They see a mirror, we see them. The only difference is they may not see us but they can hear us like we hear them. If you peek at the comments section of any famous blogger intrepid enough to allow them, you see it is a veritable cesspool with some rare gems in between.
Why is the anonymity fake? Unless, you are a cracker or hacker versed in internet protocols you know very well that unless you hop a couple proxies and take steps to cover your tracks, that when you overstep the line, the police will come knocking at your door. Probably, given away by your internet service provider. Also, the longer you stay on the net the more common patterns emerge. Common handle names and avatars not to mention writing style. These are all digital fingerprints that you leave all over the internet. If you own a domain, your real name and mailing address might be a whois search away or plug in an email address from your contacts into facebook to look them up. Yet, we seem to think that we are a lot more safer saying whatever comes to mind without thinking out the consequences when posting online. We might as well as use our real names.
What we have is something more akin to a WWE wrestling match than civil dialogue where crowds jeer and boo the “bad guys” who are in reality not so bad and even really great people in real life. It becomes a form of entertainment where we forget that we are constantly looking to these people for inspiration and ideas while ridiculing them with snide comments.
The Value of Anonymity
However, while I agree with Jason’s plea for civility and empathy, we are talking to people in a stable, democratic, and more or less civilized society. We must not forget that anonymity can serve as fertile ground for the exchange of ideas and as agents for social change. Civility and privacy is defined by the ruling class, just look at the liberties the Bush administration took with our privacy. Anonymity is the “blood barrier” of last resort that prevents government from encroaching on our rights when social checks go awry, it’s why the internet is a dark, powerful force in changing communist China (for better or worse is something history will show). America’s founding owes a lot to men like Thomas Paine (who would no doubt be a political blogger in this day and age) and the Federalist Papers. America’s independence and democracy was forged in the crucible of anonymous discourse led by the very leaders of the American Revolution. To sacrifice anonymity in the interest of civility and empathy would be a very steep price to pay indeed.
Some Things Need To Change