Context, Privacy, and (Attempted) Blogger Anonymity

bloggingtimelineWhile it’s fine and good to leave a comment where neither you nor an anonymous blogger know one another, what happens when you do know the anonymous blogger and it’s clear that they want to remain anonymous? This post tries to engage with this question, and focuses on the challenges that I experience when I want to post on an ‘anonymous’ blog where I know who is doing the blogging – it attends to the contextual privacy questions that race through my head before I post. As part  of this, I want to think through how a set of norms might be established to address my own questions/worries, and means of communicating this with visitors.

I’ve been blogging in various forms for a long time now – about a decade (!) – and in every blog I’ve ever had I use my name. This has been done, in part, because when I write under my name I’m far more accountable than when I write under an alias (or, at least I think this is the case). This said, I recognize that my stance to is slightly different than that of many bloggers out there – many avoid closely associating their published content with their names, and often for exceedingly good reasons. Sometimes a blogger wants to just vent, and doesn’t want to deal with related social challenges that arise as people know that Tommy is angry. Others do so for personal safety reasons (angry/dangerous ex-spouses), some for career reasons (not permitted to blog/worried about effects of blogging for future job prospects), some to avoid ‘-ist’ related comments (sexist, racist, ageist, etc.).

I have several friends who blog anonymously, for some of the aforementioned good reasons. At least one has gone to the lengths of ascribing ‘blog names’ for the people who they write about; George might become ‘Happy Camper’, and Dallas the cat ‘Nail Biter’, and so on. While locations may be noted, times are often vague. In essence, there is a clear effort to limit the likelihood that other people will be able to associate what is written in these spaces with the individual doing the writing.

What, then, do I do when I move to comment on a post; do I adopt my own pseudonym for the purposes of posting? Does the context of the writing provide a normative expectation that those knowing the blogger will hide their own name? Should the commenter still use their own name, but avoid making it known that there is an already existing relationship that might link the blogger and the commenter (and thus establish a line to discover who the blogger is)? In effect, what am I expected to do in these situations, and how do I know what to do?

Clearly there is a particular context that is in play here, and the question becomes how to navigate that context. Norms/expectations can be provided through a clearly marked ‘about’ page (which many anonymous bloggers maintain) that note how they expect individuals to behave. Norms can also be communicated through actually talking with the bloggers in question; they can often provide clear direction on how to proceed. Alternately, it might mean that you just stay away from that particular space/find non-blog comment ways of communicating back and forth. I’ll admit that it’s this latter method that I tend to adopt, on the basis that I would rather be conservative in determining how to engage with an anonymous blog than risk either blowing their cover or providing inroads to uncovering their identity.

While this might seem to be a relatively minor point (i.e. this is just an issue for Chris), I think that it extends to other areas of discourse; we manage conversations and networks depending on the contextual expectations of privacy/intimacy in the real world in addition to digital spaces. The questions surrounding commenting are relatively easily extrapolated to ‘meat space’, but in meat interactions there are a wide set of ‘cues’ about expected methods of behavior. With the continuing abstraction from the ways of identifying conversational norms that have developed over the past millennium, we are increasingly in a situation where identifying norms is more challenging. Further, the extension and mutual penetration of social and cultural expectations of privacy (which are often in variance from one another) leads to additional challenges for identifying privacy norms online.

While ‘privacy online’ is commonly something that is seen through the eyes of business privacy policies, how should be think about maintaining privacy online, and realizing privacy norms, in ‘personal’ spaces such as blogs where the bloggers are anonymous? While some movement is being made on something like a Creative Commons for privacy, such a movement doesn’t seem to also indicate the privacy that content owners expect to be accorded – just because someone publishes something online, they clearly don’t expect their lives to become an open book. Perhaps a Privacy Commons statement should then be extensible enough to capture not only the obligations of business/content owners to web visitors, but also the expected obligations of visitors themselves. This would reverse the present norms online (where visitors generally have few normative expectations), and would be unlikely to undo damage once done, though may open clear(er) lines of accountability for actions.

Ultimately, however, this kind of ‘rights’ or ‘license-based’ establishment of privacy norms, in the context of anonymous blogging, doesn’t seem to ‘fit’ – it’s too legalistic for what is perceived as a relatively minor, personal set of actions. At the same time, I wonder if this latter perception of excessive legality is an indication that my own perceptions of norms of privacy are still caught in ‘meat space’ understandings, and I just haven’t caught up to the speed and global nature of ‘personal’ discourse online. Perhaps there genuinely is a need for a globally explicit set of semi-legal norms that visitors of personal sites are hit with, and that such norms are what are actually appropriate for the current web environment. I admit that I hope that it isn’t a case of my being ‘out of touch’ with digital expectations, but if I am behind the times I hope that there is someone out there who can develop an extensible, workable, system for anonymous bloggers and those of us who know said bloggers.

5 thoughts on “Context, Privacy, and (Attempted) Blogger Anonymity

  1. Chris, I found your article very refreshing in that for a change someone is giving serious consideration to the moral aspects of anonymous speech. So often these discussions center around what can be “legally” achieved or “gotten away with” with respect to anonymous online speech.

    I would love to see more discussions about what “should” and “should not” be tolerated with respect to this historically unique method that allows everybody to be an author, at least everybody with a computer and Internet connection.

    Frankly, I don’t care much for any law in any country with respect to what can and cannot be done anonymously, or what levels of protection are afforded to those anonymous commentators. The reason being I have seen so many lives ruined as a result of malicious, vindictive, relentless, and destructive Internet libel smear campaigns for which the victims have no effective “legal” recourse or relief. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if more people searched their consciences as you did in his recent posting? I would like to see the public in general develop a “repulse reflex” with respect to nasty postings on the Internet. Essentially, the repulse reflex would be an emotional response by any reasonable reader when they come across materials on Internet that would never have been tolerated by any traditional forms of media due to reasonable and moral moderators. This reflex would be a combination of emotional and physiological symptoms such as nausea, disgust, and outrage. It would be closely followed by an earnest commitment by the reader to boycott the advertisers being displayed on the repulsive of the page, as well as a mental note to tell their friends to do the same.

    So what is repulsive? Now we step into the areas of “relative morality” which is something I don’t really believe in. Everyone of us knows intrinsically in our hearts what’s right and what’s wrong, what should be tolerated, and what should be rejected outright. I would like to see the repulse reflex response in the 97% of the population that have consciences when they stumble across materials such as privacy invasion, hate speech, malicious gossip, busybody gossip, factual allegations unsupported by evidence, harassment, and generally speaking any publications not worth the bytes that are stored on.

    Until somebody has personally experienced debilitating anguish associated with an Internet libel smear campaign, they really can’t relate to how destructive it can be. They may begin to understand if someone I love has come under attack.

    Regards, Michael Roberts. Internet Libel victim’s advocate.


    • Thanks for the comments Michael!

      While I can certainly appreciate the issues surrounding the use of anonymous messages, and the damages that can follow from them (as I tried to start thinking about in this post), there are also obviously benefits to such communication as well. The difficulty with, say, a moral response to any mode of engagement with other people is that as various cultures penetrate on another, combined with the relative lack of foregrounded knowledge about acceptable norms online, it can be very difficult to determine what is appropriate and inappropriate to do online.

      I would, again, agree that libel assaults can be destructive, but such assaults can be remedied in many cases through appropriate recourse to tort law (at least in Canada and the US). Obviously the need to use these means would be reduced in a situation where people though a bit more before commenting, but I would be hesitant to quickly associate the violation of a norm of anonymity with an actual case of libel – ignorance, rudeness, unpleasantness, poor thinking, to be sure, but not necessarily libel.

      Again, thanks for the thought provoking comment!


  2. Chris,

    This post has been rattling around in my head ever since you wrote it. I’ve been hemming and hawing and having a hard time coming to a concrete position.

    Where disclosure of identity has been voluntary, I don’t think any additional legal means are necessary. I disclosed my identity to you, (and I’ve done this with a few other bloggers as well) because when I’m offering a professional opinion that has been solicited, I feel I should attach my identity to such opinions so that they are validated.

    We’ve communicated off-channel, and so far you’ve interpreted my wished to keep professional vs. blogging identities separate. You’ve validated the trust I put in you, and I appreciate it. However, since I didn’t put my wishes in writing, I am at your mercy.

    If I was really concerned, I already have a legal avenue available in that I could have put the effort into writing out the terms of my disclosure and created a contract of mutual trust.

    I’m more conflicted over “outing” of an anonymous blogger. Such actions I find immoral, and shouldn’t be tolerated except in exceptional circumstances. But those circumstances would be rare, and would also probably require a warrant (which has happened).

    So do we need to enshrine protection of anonymity? I dunno. Even though you are anonymous, you should still take care to avoid libelous/slanderous writings and other illegal activities (death threats, treason, etc.)

    And then there’s a squishy middle where offenses aren’t that egregious but legal protection would be minor. What kind of punishment would be sufficient? Would it deter “outing” given cross-jurisdictional issues? I think this grey area is so nebulous a concept that trying to legally define it would prove unwieldy and impracticable.


  3. Hi Catelli,

    I think what I’m trying to work through, is how can I know what the normative expectations are for discourse in digital spaces held by anonymous/semi-anonymous individuals. In my case, I fall back to good work on contextual privacy, but its overly legalistic nature leads to some worries. The aim of a ‘license based’ system like I’m thinking of isn’t necessary a law-based one, but maybe what I mean is something that is ‘machine readable’. When I post on some site, before I can submit the comment, there is a notice that lets me know of the commenting policy in short and sweet language, like creative commons licenses.

    I would certainly agree that a law for anonymity would not permit/authorize libel/slander/etc, and that there are already good legal resources that can be appealed to. I’m also not sure how a law would be built, or on what basis (notions of seclusion and privacy would seem to be a shaky foundation given the semi-public nature of all blogs accessible to the ‘net). The squishy middle – which is what I think I’m probably most interested in – its definitely hard to work through. That, of course, is why it’s the most fun grin

    It’s that space that I’ll likely be playing around with over the next little while, while I think about privacy as it pertains to social networking environments, with blogs just being one example. In essence, I want to work towards a theory that sets out coherent principles that would enable contextualized privacy norms in a cross-cultural/national setting, and then ascertain how such principles might be built into electronic systems. I think that this would be useful for social networking, and hope that the principles might be useful in working through privacy matters as they pertain to other modes of examining and modifying content.


  4. Why am I not surprised? grin

    For my part, I approach every situation and make sure I try to analyze risk/reward when disclosing personal information. I burned myself with some pretty ignorant/stupid remarks online in my name back in ’91,’92 when all this Internet crap in its infancy. Lo and behold I was able to find those stupid remarks because Google archived the old Usenet groups. And I thought at some point those remarks would disappear!

    Which is why I am more cautious now. I have a family and a career to protect (And another reason: a blogger I met a while back was stalked by a reader when he blogged under his real name. He has since gone “anonymous” to discourage that. You can never underestimate stupidity or crazy.)

    So Internet discourse has its risks for the individual. Blogging under my real name, for me, has no rewards (for others, such as yourself, trying to make a name out of research/punditry etc. see it differently.) All of my rewards come from the discourse with other individuals, who ignore the fact that I am anonymous and interact with me intelligently and respectfully regardless.

    That’s a value judgment we have to teach people to constantly evaluate. There’s very little room for error, and as I have painfully discovered 17 years later, a permanence to your online historical record. Eh well. This is a new aspect of society we are obviously still coming to grips with. Historically, our interpersonal relationships were fleeting, the record of which locked in the somewhat unreliable human brain. But even then, those memories were collectively shared by small groups of individuals. What happens online can have a cast of thousands, and the record is there in black and white for all to see, for a very long time.

    It’ll be interesting to see how society evolves to come to grips with that. I admire you for making this your area of study. The complexities are certainly beyond my ken!


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