Anonymity is a tool. Use it wisely.

A creative tool, no less. To use just one example of why, I call on the messageboard model of anonymity on the web, which fosters creative latitude by removing the potential for stigma. In other words, if all the childish mocking of your nascent creativity is reason to not submit your work for consumption, then anonymous messageboards enable you to resubmit new, or amended work, without being identified with the previous unpopular effort.

In a world where the ‘fail, and fail quickly’ model of iterative discovery has some commercial merit it is likely that this model of anonymous contribution should also have some valuable intellectual merit. it should not be a surprise.

However, there is a distinct downside to such a model, for some individuals at least, which is that no ownership can be claimed for successful and popular creativity that lives anonymously.

The flip argument, is that we should always identify strongly and personably with our creations. Grab a slice of the internet, say this is ME. This is my creativity, do you like it?

At first sight a commercially Darwinian position, one which allows for oddities and silliness, peculiarities, trends and mob behaviours influenced by factors other than the inherent ‘value’ of the work, factors such as an artist’s popularity, for example.

I introduce the inherent quality of the work as an idea, because that is the exact counterpoint between 4chan’s or reddit’s anonymity, and that of an established artist. In these forums you can only judge content on its merits because you are otherwise unaware of the provenance of that content.

It is incidentally the exact same argument that lies behind the new BBC talent show the Voice. With the judges listening only to the singer, their chairs turned so that they cannot see the artists, we must believe that they have selected the participants based on pure vocal talent alone. It is a seductive method of selection, meritorious, judicial, fair and decent.

It is also fairly brutal. For every unfair caustic Cowell barb on the x-factor, there is an artist, ejected from the Voice, stripped of illusions as to their talents. Cowell’s reputation allows a maligned individual to reject his opinion, to dismiss him as cruel. In such a process as followed by the Voice one can only blame the raw goods. The knife cuts both ways and whereas there is nothing wrong with that, we should still recognise the vice alongside the virtue. To be proven inferior can be as, if not more, damaging than simply being told such.

Nonetheless, the Voice does demonstrate something important about the making money side of things creative, too. Which is this.

  • To get paid, people have to know who you are.
  • To maximise the impact of your talent, people have to know who you are.
  • To build a reputation, to generate loyalty (and as a result a more stable personal financial model), people have to know who you are.

Because, of course, on the Voice the anonymity ends at the point of selection, followed by battles and live shows and the actual competition itself.

All of this is to make a simple point. Debates on web anonymity tend to be somewhat binary, either full on for or against, whereas instead we should recognise the value of anonymity as a tool and use it appropriately whilst also understanding that most of life is not anonymous and that human interactions, are not generally anonymous, and that most interactions are enhanced by some level of identification.

The web will not long remain a playground where interaction takes place on an anonymous basis. The simple fact of facebook’s existence and success, shows us that the human need for real identity is present in the digital realm as well as the so called ‘real world’. Actual identity is more common in the real world than in the digital, but you can still find anonymity, or manufacture it if you want to. There are losses if you do, but it is possible.

Similarly, whereas many of our digital experiences are increasingly more identifiable we should understand that we must not kill the opportunity for faceless contribution, it has values that are peculiarly well aligned to the fast paced nature of digital communications and we would be poorer for its loss.

Identity is the long standing human default in this debate, anonymity the digital newcomer. But I’d bet a pound to a penny that the long term evolutionary compulsion to identity wins out, and becomes the new digital default. Let’s just hope that we recognise and allow for the value of anonymous contributions also.

2 thoughts for later posts.

  1. What is non-digital anonymity? Is it buying a car with cash in a city you don’t live in?
  2. What is the effect of changing the radius of our identity? Digital communications now extend beyond simple geographic limits. This significantly changes obligations of trust within communities.
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One Comment on “Anonymity is a tool. Use it wisely.”

  1. […] the world at large needs a level of achievable anonymity to function. Cities were the first such artefact, providing the young with an arena within which to grow and […]


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