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Is Facebook a good argument for anonymity?

AnonymousThe founder of Facebook wants us all to have just one identity – whether we’re work or play – to make us more honest, but Lisa G. Leitz believes in the value of anonymity.

12 September 2010

According to NPR correspondent David Kirkpatrick (who spent a lot of time with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg while was working on his new book):

“He disagrees with the notion that people have different identities. To him, the idea that someone is different at work than at home, than at a rock concert, is dishonest,” says Kirkpatrick. “He believes that he will live a better life personally, and all of us will be more honest, and ultimately it will be better for the world if we dispense with that belief.”

This is an interesting idea, particularly because anonymity has a tendency to bring out the worst in folks. Want a self-guided tour of the dark side of anonymity? Visit a news website that allows folks to use screen names and check out the postings after controversial stories and columns.

Anonymous people are more than happy to harangue. They heckle the hell out of each other as well as the person who wrote the article—usually the only person in the “conversation” who’s using their real name, by the way.

In the small town where I used to work as a reporter, I remember the city attorney advising council people to not e-mail each other about council-related business. “For some reason, people seem to view these exchanges as if they were whispered conversations in class,” he warned.

That warning didn't stick. Inevitably I had to make a public records request for a council man’s e-mails that discussed city business. One of the emails I received concluded with the old council man joking with a (much younger) council woman that he’d left a “Frederick’s of Hollywood” package for her on her chair prior to the last council meeting. Had she found it yet, he asked?

Yep, the ewww factor was pretty much off the scale on that one. When people think they’re talking when nobody’s listening, the results can be bone-wrenchingly revelatory.

When I was looking into starting a blog on Open Salon, I was originally going to use my real name. Since I’ve had a very public job in the same small town for 16 years, it’s not like I’m not used to seeing my name all over everything.

But in my world, there is no such thing as a quick trip to the local grocery or post office because I have to talk to everyone. Hell, small towns are the original Facebook. Not only do you know everyone, you know what they drive, how many kids they have, what church they go to, which distant uncle in Montana has prostate cancer, whether they planted some new tulips in their front yard last fall. And they know everything about you, too.

I’ve written many columns in the paper about the importance of people being brave enough to speak out in public. We noticed a pronounced decline in letters to the editor and a growing reluctance to speak out at public meetings over the last 10 years.

I used to privately blame our extremely conservative community, since anyone out of lockstep gets viewed with suspicion and there is a pervasive attitude that any kind of disagreement is unneighborly.

But now I wonder if this reluctance stems from the overwhelming scrutiny people face in small towns.

I remember a neighbor’s son once throwing a tantrum about a dirt ramp they’d built in the field next to my house. They were jumping their bikes on it, and the ramp disintegrated on this kid in mid-jump. He ended up with the bike on top of him in the dirt.

One of the other neighbor boys thought his buddy's resulting stomping-around-throwing shovel-and-bike-around tantrum was hilarious, and started taking pictures of the tantrum-thrower with his cell phone.

Later that evening, we heard the tantrum-thrower’s dad showed up at the picture-taker’s house and demanded that the parents of the picture-taker delete the photos of his son off their kid's cell phone, and he insisted on supervising the operation.

So I suppose on one level, my use of a lame screen name for my blog puts me on the same level as my privacy-freak neighbor.

But let me argue for the benefits of anonymity for a minute.

Any newspaper publisher will tell you they've been haunted at one time or another by the irony of “free speech” since economic considerations like running a business bring a whole host of crap into play other than the "truth."

Anonymous postings are wonderful for getting the “truth out there”… whether that truth is factual or emotional. But the problem is once the chilling influences of responsibility and money are axed by anonymity, what structure remains to "rein in" the truth-teller?

That sets up a massive problem for "anonymous" because their audience will immediately question what they're saying. "We don't even know who you are. Why should we believe what you're telling us?"

And if the audience isn't listening, isn't believing, where does that leave the truth-teller?

I remember reading a science fiction book called The Truth Machine by James Halperin about 10 years ago, which correctly posited the world would change—and in a freakin’ hurry—if everyone was required to wear a foolproof lie detector.

I have no doubt Zuckerberg has read that book, and his insistence that people would be better off if they were the same person “no matter where they were” echoes Halperin’s honest-world utopia in a big way.

But is he right? Consider for just a moment how many different faces we all have. Think of what you're like at a family funeral compared to a Saturday on the beach.

What are you like in bed? Are you the same person then as you are when you’re making toast for your children before they go to school?

And does the whole “being honest enough to be the same person no matter where you are" idea mean you’re being dishonest with your grandma for not being the same person with her as you are when you’re with your friends on a rowdy outing?

For better or for worse, we have evolved into very complex beings. Even so, we’re only allowed the briefest flashes of insight about the equally complex universe around us.

We’ve been naming and classifying “beasts of the field and fowl of the air” for very long time now, so I suppose it’s only natural we’d turn our attention to our own race and insist our names should define all that we are.

The very act of naming gives us an illusion of control, and believing we're in control helps us avoid that very unpleasant mental vertigo we get when we realize just how much we don't know.

But who are our true selves? The self at work? The self at play? The self with friends? In love?

How much simpler life would be if Facebook is successful in insisting we need to stick to just one self. Maybe then we'd feel content that we had another little piece of this hall-of-mirrors universe solved.

But I believe our different selves are a constant source of conflict, energy, and fascination.

I’d sure hate to lose all of mine.

Lisa G. Leitz is a former community newspaper publisher who survived working 415 weeks in a row but does not wish to repeat the experience. She has a MFA from Eastern Washington University, has edited two novels, and published poetry in the anthology Seven Hundred Kisses. She lives in the central Washington desert with her family, and blogs at: Open Salon and Pork Belly Acres.



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