Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The false sense of anonymity behind the username

Internet forums are an increasing phenomenon. If you want to have a conversation about something, there is invariably a forum to do so. Your favourite hobby/tips on the best shopping websites/discussions of current news events. Then there are the more personal forums which claim to provide mutual support by members for members, pet ownership/parenting/depression/bereavement - the list is endless.

The one thing that all of these forums have in common is that generally in order to sign up, you have to have a username. This username is generally considered to be anonymous – and members are usually discouraged from creating a username that would make them identifiable. For me this creates two issues.

The first is that the perceived anonymity gives people a false sense of confidence in terms of what they are happy to post. It’s a lot easier to voice your actual opinion of a situation/individual after all if you’re A, behind a keyboard and not voicing that opinion to someone’s face, and B, doing it from behind a username and not putting your actual name to your actual opinion. I have seen some truly horrible opinions posted on internet forums and some quite nasty personal attacks on individuals, where the poster seems totally oblivious to the fact that there are also real people on the other end of those comments. I am certain that a lot of people wouldn’t say the things they post online to someone’s face.

The second, and I think more concerning issue is that the perceived anonymity of a username means people will post far more personal and revealing information about themselves that they possibly wouldn’t feel comfortable telling their friends and family, in fact sometimes that personal and revealing information might concern their friends and family, and yet they are comfortable posting it on the internet because they believe they are anonymous behind their username.

I think it’s fair to say that the longer you post on a website, and the more people you get to know there, the more comfortable you will become posting the more intimate and personal details of your life. And yet we can never be sure who is reading what we’re posting on the internet. After all, if you have a username that makes you unidentifiable, your husband/sister/next door neighbour that you are posting about might also have a username that makes them unidentifiable, and if you are posting about them, they could just as easily be reading what you’re writing and even commenting on it without your knowledge. And the more you write, the more you identify yourself, through revealing your location, the number of children you have, the issues you might be having in your life.

In fact, the people you’re posting about might not even post on the same sites as you, they may purely lurk there. After all most internet forums can be read without a member needing to join, so it is very easy to lurk on a website, reading the specific posts of specific individuals without those individuals even knowing who their posts are being read by.

While I think that deep down we do all know that the internet is not anonymous and that anyone can be identified if they post enough identifiable information about themselves, I do think that the fact you can join a site with a username does give many people a false sense of security in terms of what they reveal online, especially if they are a member of that site over a long period of time.

I have regularly seen written that people see a web forum as their only source of support, for many different issues, even to the extent that I have heard people say they can post things on their forum of choice that they couldn’t reveal to their real life family and friends.

And yet once you post something on the internet it is there for ever. If you reveal something personal about yourself you have no idea who might stumble upon it and when. So even if you posted something today, you might have forgotten about it in five, ten, fifteen years time when your partner/sister/even your children might stumble upon it and recognize you, or even themselves in the detail of your posts.

In truth posting on an internet forum is a bit like standing blindfolded in the town square, while people who are also blindfolded walk past, so you can’t see who they are, and they can’t see who you are, but they might recognize you from your voice/the things you have to say. But you won’t know who has heard because you didn’t see them. You wouldn’t do it in the street, and the internet is no different.

In reality one should really stick to the principal of only posting things online you would be happy for anyone in real life to read, on the understanding that anyone in real life might already be reading it. And step away from the idea that a username creates anonymity, because in truth all a username creates is a false sense of security.

2 comments:

  1. I completely agree. I know what you are referring to here. But I have sympathy with those who are, perhaps naively, lulled into a false sense of security about these things...

    I follow the principle as you say that I would only ever be happy for people in real life to read what I write - even if what I write would set up some tough conversations round the dinner table if ever discovered.

    Great post.

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  2. I see exactly what you mean. Every now and again I go on an anonymity drive, and start covering my tracks and changing usernames. Then I slip up and it all comes out again.
    I suppose that part of why I blog is for career purposes in the future, so I need it to be connected to my real name, but I sometimes forget and get more personal. Like LittleMe says, though - there is nothing I wouldn't want IRL people to know, I just might not say it to them out of awkwardness of politeness.

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