In support of withheld identities on the Web

Daphna Baram would like to curtail anonymity for commenters like those on Comment is Free:

“…we have just waltzed, blind-eyed, into the populist celebration of “the great democracy of the internet”. There’s nothing democratic about a state of affairs where people put themselves and their opinions on a public platform only to be confronted by a hooded, faceless crowd, often armed with rotten eggs and over-ripe tomatoes.”

This doesn’t wash. She should choose another platform where she can moderate comments or turn them off entirely. This is her prerogative. She could even use pingback to follow the debate raging about her posts elsewhere on the Web. But to advocate interference with people’s ease of anonymity on a site she doesn’t even have to use, well…

She says:

“Think about it, will you? Are you about to say something you are ashamed of? Something that does not represent your opinion? Is there any reason for you to conform to the ethos of anonymity of the internet? Let’s make this revolution happen without it being imposed on us.”

This reveals an oversight of the the ways in which discussion forms opinions, brings about commitment to a set of values, and also changes minds. It accounts for her willingness to surrender the kind of environment where commenters can stick their necks out, get things wrong, and revise their opinions without risking their reputation and career prospects. She seems to overlook the near-indelibility of the mark we leave when we venture an opinion on the Web.

The implication of her suggestion is that the Web becomes a kind of portfolio of accountable opinions. But her notion of ‘accountability’ doesn’t acknowledge the distance the passage of time can insert between people and their opinions. Quite simply, people change. Moreover, people often become ashamed of the person they were. It follows that it will become important for them to control what they might come to perceive as incriminating marks they leave on the Web. Why should they be documented when face-to-face conversations which may be just as informal are treated as ephemeral?

So, in Daphna’s world, do people have the right to selectively request deletions, amendments or notation to their Web contributions so that they can present themselves in ways which reflect their current values and correspondingly will not haunt the social or working lives they hope to pursue?

Probably not, because this would be both wrong and close to impossible. Impossible because public-access Web stuff can be reproduced and proliferated in a couple of clicks – you can’t control it and even if you could the burden would be enormous. The Google cache has incriminated many a revisionist. Impossible because people having conversations tend to respond or refer to each other’s views in ways which endure even if one party modifies or deletes their original post – since a view reflected back like this is inevitably subject to interpretation, Daphna’s idea of accountability is compromised. Also wrong because it ruptures the integrity of discussion threads, conversations which are far more than the sum of their individual parts and to which people contribute in the expectation that their contributions will make sense as long as they remain*. Also wrong because some revisionism is surely inevitable in any life course, why foreground it? Finally, wrong because impossible and therefore a deterrent to people participating in online conversations for fear of becoming personally accountable, for the rest of their life, to a view they may wish to disown in future. And if like me you have a very unusual name? (After all, who’s called Flesh these days?)

So in Daphna’s scenario, I suspect, you’re accountable for your juvenilia, your losses of equilibrium, your most radical dissent, your most unacceptable confessions for all time. In which case it’s worth noting that in some states, or in time to come, allowing your opinions to be linked to your identity might cost you more than your reputation. Bashar Al-Sayegh, Hao Wu, Ali Sayed al-Shihabi, and Rami Siyam can testify to that.

Daphna mistakes the rancidity of comment on CiF for the Web in general. Rather than demanding accountability from commenters, she should choose a platform she can control.

*This is why it’s better, if you’re receiving or interacting with comments, to use strike-throughs rather than deleting or overwriting your original text.

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