Mini-Feature: The Invisibility Power

Does anonymity encourage people to misbehave, or does it reveal how people would choose to act all the time if they could?

Yes. Anonymity is a mirror of desire, but desire is a mirror of the desire of others, so things are complicated. What could be more of a guilty pleasure than slipping on the Ring of Gyges and doing all manner of nice and wondrous things for people? You would be like a good fairy or a demiurge worthy of pagan or primitive worship.

Even the worst misbehaver among us gets some pleasure from behaving well, or even perfectly, because desiring the pleasure of perfect behavior—in the sense of feeling like a god—is itself a variety of misbehaving, arrogating to oneself something reserved from us by God.

Nevertheless a world in which we could never be anonymous would be an absurd one, even more absurd than the Ring of Gyges. It would be a world where everyone was forced (because this could only happen through force) to wear a ring that made them inside and out always and everywhere perfectly visible and detectable.

This sounds dismayingly similar to the internet, you say? Fascinating!

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind

This is a question frequently asked in the internet age, but I wonder whether we are really right in referring to some online interaction as occurring under conditions of "anonymity." Strictly speaking, tweets, articles, or other projections without a name attached occur in the context of pseudonymity. The "pseud," as we call him online, is not really acting as we imagine Gyges might if he had the ring of invisibility, or as we hope and fear we would if we were in Gyges' place.

We have talked several times about what that removal from the fabric of social cause and effect--that true anonymity--would mean for the human psyche. Some of those Gygean attributes are on display in the character of the twitter troll--increased audacity, for instance, used for both good and ill. But a crucial element is missing from the Gyges myth which makes the online pseud what he is. Though the poster will not get credit or blame attached to his real personal name in everyday life, he will accrue notoriety in the false persona he constructs for himself. He has not slipped out of the human community entirely, as Gyges or Frodo might. He has instead created a dummy self, a blank canvas onto which he projects a constructed, desired, or otherwise suppressed version of who he is and wants to be.

This accounts for some of the worst misbehavior we see from the very online, which has as much to do with virtue signaling and self-construction as it does with catharsis and vented spleen. Then again, some of the best writers online do their work under cover of this same kind of shadow-self, emboldened like all great pseudonymous writers before them to speak and think without the narrow constraints of their daily life in the world. Perhaps then in this regard the pseuds are not so different from the rest of us: they are subject to the same temptations, and given the same opportunities, that this new technology makes newly available to us who post under our own name as well. We are all of us building a self-portrait out of pixels, a creation we look upon and long to call good.

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind

Folk wisdom holds that the best and truest charity is practiced in secret. Philanthropy with your name attached to it is a mask for glory, the thinking goes, and the only real test of goodness is when your beneficence is carried out privately. Keep it between yourself and God, as Jesus commanded when he said not to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.

But who wants their hands to flail around like that? In an ideal world, perhaps, populated by angels, we could expect private acts of charity to satisfy all social deficiencies. But in the world we have got, expecting the best of people based on their secret gestures sounds rather fond. Consider the nasty stuff people seem to get up to when no one is looking. It's probably evens as to how many people pilfer from a blind man's tin cup versus how many contribute. 

People are imitative and need examples and models for their behavior. Charity must be trumpeted or else how can we expect anyone to learn how to do it? There's a reason why hospitals and universities offer naming rights to their donors. You wouldn't expect someone to give millions of dollars to a museum in exchange for leaving the space over the doorway blank.

People are vain and seek glory. Until we have reached perfection we should channel these vulgar impulses toward socially productive ends. Not only should acts of charity not be anonymous, it may make sense for their promulgation to be mandatory.

-Seth Barron, managing editor of The American Mind

The standard take over the last few decades is that online anonymity allows and encourages the worst in people. This is why they tell authors never to look at the comments beneath their articles. Digital technology is thus blamed for causing every vice under the sun. But this isn't the whole story--and the same complaint could be made about the technology of the printed word.

First, "the comments" reveal the underbelly of human behavior that is always with us. They remove regional and class filters. Yes, we are always like this. We always have been. Sure, people will behave differently at a cocktail party, in person. Yet if you took the same people in the comments and put them in a room with an author, the ensuing conversations might differ, but I sincerely doubt that the ultimate divisions and rancor would disappear. The mode of discourse would change but the result might be worse in some ways.

Second, and most important, anonymity enables salutary discourse and informational exchange that is not possible otherwise. The founding generation of Americans used "pseuds" to great effect in the media of the late 18th century. Truth can flow freely, as well as bile, when people can speak without others knowing who they are. Further, one can more objectively evaluate what others are saying when the usual prejudices arising from knowing who they are is off the table.

In sum, anonymity is not the boogeyman people make it out to be. It has upsides and downsides. It should be considered as a neutral mode of communication that can be used for good and ill. In our era, when so many are understandably afraid to speak freely in their own name, it should be considered a necessary aspect of the discourse we desperately need.

-Matt Peterson, founding editor of The American Mind