Privacy vs. Anonymity (or, The Internet is a Very Small Town)

Privacy on the internet is a matter of tremendous concern right now. Danah Boyd addressed it at SXSW in her talk, Making Sense of Privacy and Publicity. Google learned a lesson about it the hard way with their misguided Google Buzz launch. Just yesterday, Facebook settled a lawsuit over its Beacon system for $9.5 million. 

Privacy is an important thing. It gives us safe spaces for frank conversation, or to make mistakes and try new things without fear of public judgement. Privacy is armor to protect us from social pressures.

I've been thinking about this topic for a while, myself, and I have a feeling, though, that when people say they want privacy, sometimes they really mean they want public anonymity: freedom to do what they want in public without fear of personal repercussions. Public anonymity is a fairly new concept, and an artifact of urban and technology-enabled lifestyles.

Consider life in a very small town. Everybody knows everybody else, often by ties of friendship and/or blood. If you go to church on Sunday (or don't), the other congregants will notice. If you have a romantic dinner in a cafe with somebody else's spouse, a friend or relative of one of the involved parties will notice, and maybe even tattle on you. In a small town, it's not likely that the kindergarten teacher would be fired for giving free lap dances and then passing out with her cheek cradled on the bar's toilet seat; she would never have been hired, because everyone would already know about her recreational shenanigans (or alternately, they would know her well enough to know that her personal life doesn't affect how great she is with the kids.)

In a city, we have an expectation that the things we buy, the company we keep, and the conversations we have in public spaces are private -- but in the sense that means anonymous. They aren't truly, completely private, occurring as they do in the public sphere; but we're comfortable sharing this private information in public, provided it's only with strangers who are not in a position to bring social pressures to bear on us if they disapprove of our behavior. They also aren't really anonymous, because anybody who knows you will recognize you of they see you. Posting amateur porn videos is relying on public anonymity; you're assuming that the set of people who will see the video doesn't overlap with the set of people who know who you are.

The idea of public anonymity results in a lot of behavior that would be indiscreet in a small town. In a city, you don't generally mind talking smack about your awful boss or in-laws or spouse in a crowded restaurant full of only strangers. You don't care about the cashier who rings up your purchases judging your Twinkies and box wine. You're comfortable with the idea that the server at the romantic cafe isn't going to tell your spouse about that romantic dinner because not only does the server not know your or your date, they don't even know you're married (and not to each other.) 

This expectation of public anonymity has, for good or ill, carried over to the internet, probably because de facto anonymity on the internet started out as very simple to achieve. (It's become progressively less so.) Likewise, you don't mind asking about any of a million embarrassing or incriminating personal problems on Ask Metafilter, thousands of variations of 'should I break up?' and 'should I call a doctor?' and 'should I get a lawyer?' But internet anonymity is proving to be detrimental to the fabric of society; it's what permits a carnival of sins against other people on the internet, starting with simple trolling and astroturfing, and only becoming more serious from there.

Public anonymity on the internet is eroding fast, though. The internet feels very big, because it is very big. But thanks to many factors, including the increasing ties between offline and online identities and the Law of Internet Invocation, for most practical purposes, the internet is becoming a very small town indeed. Almost anything you put out there can, in good time, be traced back to you, and the consequences can be very real indeed.  

In 1900, only 13% of the population lived in urban areas. For most people, life in a small town was just... life. But maybe now we all live in one very big small town. Maybe small town culture is where we're inevitably heading, and urban-style public anonymity was just a tiny aberration in the history of human interactions. Maybe we need to closely examine the mores and etiquette of small-town life to figure out what we need to navigate the social waters of the future.


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