A while back, Colleen Nystedt responded to my post about anonymity in public engagement. She’s said, several times, with reference to the challenges her platform PlaceSpeak is attempting to address, that “anonymity breeds contempt.” I had a comment in her response to her, but it was lost getting from the textbox I was typing in to my blog, and was never able to respond properly to her point.
I’m feeling a renewed interest to doing so. I’m blogging right now from Vancouver ChangeCamp, at the Hive co-working space here. It’s a grey and rainy day here in Vancouver, and the rooms are abuzz with conversations about all sorts of possible changes; and Colleen is across town speaking at TEDxSFU.
I think about the people who I’ve seen spoiling public processes online. I think about the discussions I’ve helped facilitate where people feel the need to assert their opinion in a group situation (either on- or off-line), often at the expense of others’ patience. They are viewed as droning, or being unconstructive or inarticulate, or, in Internet spaces, they are being trolls, and depending on the conversation venue, they are voted down, tuned out, ignored or harassed for what they say.
Does anonymity breed contempt? I find it interesting that lots of contempt gets thrown at City Council during public hearings, where a person’s relative anonymity may vary. I see Colleen’s point, that your credibility as a citizen contributing to a public forum has everything to do with whether you are willing to put your name and face to your opinions — or, as she put it, “people are less likely to act out if they are themselves.” As I identified in my previous post on this topic, however, I feel like that speaks too much from a privileged position — it assumes that “being ourselves” is better than otherwise, and I don’t think that’s a one-to-one equivalence. This was really driven home for me in conversation with April Smith. As a resident of the downtown eastside, she operates in an entirely different systems, where reputation and anonymity have a very specific reference to her physical world, and everything to do with her personal safety, her ability to do and be what she wants.
I think danah boyd‘s recent comments about privacy online to the Wall Street Journal were really insightful about helping us sort this out. Specifically:
[...] privacy is not simply the control of information. Rather, privacy is the ability to assert control over a social situation. This requires that people have agency in their environment and that they are able to understand any given social situation so as to adjust how they present themselves and determine what information they share. Privacy violations occur when people have their agency undermined or lack relevant information in a social setting that’s needed to act or adjust accordingly.
In sum, I don’t think it should be taken lightly that sharing one’s location as a requirement for entry might pose a barrier. At very least, it’s a process that involves trust, and I don’t see much exploration into how to earn that trust, only that having faith that the trust won’t be betrayed is a price of admission into the discussion space.