Anonymity is under attack. “It’s time to end anonymous comments sections,” implored a recent op-ed in the Washington Post. In the U.K., a parliamentary committee has argued for a “cultural shift” in favor of treating pseudonymous comments as untrustworthy. There’s even a popular Swedish TV show devoted to tracking down and publicly shaming people who post nasty anonymous comments online (see “The Troll Hunters”).
Anonymity’s value seems to be at a new low, and it’s happening against a backdrop of never-ending surveillance. If it’s not CCTV cameras watching our every move, it’s companies and governments harvesting our digital data.
Anonymous speech may seem like the spawn of recent technology, but in truth there’s a long history of anonymity being used for a positive purpose. The Federalist Papers were originally published under a pseudonym. The Supreme Court has repeatedly granted First Amendment protection to anonymous speech.
Imagine if everyone were forced to disclose their real identities online. We’d be discouraging potential whistle-blowers. We’d be discouraging anyone who wanted to voice an unpopular belief. Yes, anonymity can engender antisocial behavior—but it can also provide a means of pushing back against increased surveillance.
As an anthropologist, I’ve spent half a dozen years studying Anonymous, the collective best known for its crusades against dictators and corporations. My studies of this ragtag band of hackers and rabble-rousers has revealed to me how important the prospect of anonymity remains.
The group’s ethic is partly indebted to 4chan, a popular and subversive image board that enforced the name “Anonymous” for all users, thus hatching the idea’s potential. One activist explained the crucial role of 4chan in cementing “the primary ideal of Anonymous”: “The posts on 4chan have no names or any identifiable markers attached to them. The only thing you are able to judge a post by is its content and nothing else.”
Why care about this, if you’re not an activist? You should care because Anonymous functions as a social laboratory where participants experiment with the power, threat, and promise of anonymity itself. Anonymous political acts are often portrayed as cowardly, but we can just as easily observe a noble imperative—anonymity displaces attention from the messenger to the message.
Gabriella Coleman is the author of Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous.
This post was updated on December 18, 2014.