Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Anonymity and Accountibility

Herbie's picture

The Internet is a wonderful place.  However, it's also very dangerous.  It's easy to think about the dangers the Internet presents when you first shop on a new website, and you wonder whether or not giving them your credit card information is really a good idea.  Or when you meet someone new online, you wonder if they're actually who they say they are, or if they're really twice your age and incredibly creepy.  I think the most dangerous thing about the internet, however, is the way it allows us to mask ourselves in anonymity and pretend like that makes it okay for us to behave badly. Or even the thought that using nicknames means that no one will find out who we are.

For instance, I work as a camp counselor at a Girl Scout camp "near" my home in Texas.  As part of the Girl Scout camp tradition, counselors use "camp names."  Camp names are nicknames that we go by all summer.  They have many purposes: camp names individualize us so that there are no "double names," guessing our real names is a fun activity the campers can engage in all week long, and it also serves to protect us from the creepier campers who like to stalk us outside of the camp environment.  However, Herbie is also my camp name, and any camper Googles me will find this in addition to information about the 2005 Disney remake, Herbie: Fully Loaded (which is not where I got my name).  Nicknames do not make it impossible to find you, especially when you use your nickname with such regularity.

My favorite teacher in high school who kept a blog.  My friend and I found it when we were in her office one day, trying to show her something on the Internet.  Later that night, both of us went back to the beginning of her blog and read the entire thing up through the most recent entry.  We then spent the rest of the semester and all summer keeping track of her entries.  Her entries were all very personal accounts of her marital issues and  her relationships with her coworkers, whom were not always portrayed favorably, though she wrote under a nickname and refused to address any of the people mentioned in the blog by their real names. 

Perhaps there's a difference in the way we approach the internet based on our age.  I practically grew up with the Internet.  Though I didn't become an avid user until 2000ish, I still spent most of my adolescence on the computer and learning to protect myself from the many creepers that exist in this world.  I wasn't allowed to be on the Internet without supervision until late 2001, after several months of demonstrating I could make responsible decisions.  I learned very early that everything we say on the Internet can come back, and that we are responsible for everything we say.  For instance, I'm not going to write anything here that would be inappropriate for one of my poorly-supervised 8-year-old campers to read.  My teacher, however, either was unaware of the inherent falsehood in Internet anonymity or made a very poor choice in ignoring it; she was fired within the year when a spiteful student showed our teacher's blog to another faculty member.  The official answer we received was because she displayed such rude behavior towards her coworkers.

In fact, at Bryn Mawr Plenary in (I think) Spring 2008, we voted to make all of us responsible for what we do and say on the Internet.  Bryn Mawr students are accountable under the Honor Code for everything we do on the Internet, and so is everyone else, even those people not at Bryn Mawr.

User Rob Helpy-Chalk commented on Jo(e)'s blog post that we read for class tomorrow about how he doesn't want "kind of blogging [he does] to count for tenure or hiring decisions. I don't want it to count against me in tenure or hiring, but I don't want it to count for me either."  Unfortunately for him, he may have not have a choice.  It is clear that the wave of the future is to hold everyone accountable for everything they put on the Internet, serious or not, grammatically correct or not, worthwhile or not.  McNeill talks about blogging as an almost solely private, anonymous act with a few exceptions.  That kind of blogging seems to be going the way of the dodo.  The words I write can be tracked, certainly to my Bryn Mawr email address and to my IP address.  There is no escape from accountibility.


spleenfiend's picture

no one wants to hide now

i worked at a girl scout camp too!  luckily, my fake names weren't listed with my real name on the website, so they did make me fairly anonymous.

there is, however, a way to be anonymous on the internet, and it's quite simple. once you're behind a proxy server, your IP address can't easily be traced.  but you have to be very, very cautious.  and even if you post anonymously, some people still may be able to tell it's you based on what you say.  the thing is, no one wants to be anonymous!  no one wants to be cautious!  we've gone from hiding behind fake names straight to facebooks, which always feature real names and pictures and often locations (based on network), even when they are private.  people are quick to beg to be traced and quick to put as much information about themselves online as possible, probably because of the allure of creating an online identity.  there is never anything private about a personal blog.  it is a call for attention...though people are often careless and don't realize they may attract the wrong attention.

people should definitely realize they are accountable....there is certainly nothing private about the internet.  but to an extent, i am willing to accept the risks because i love the way the internet connects people, and there are values to being truly anonymous but also values to taking on identities.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.
11 + 9 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.