On behaving onymously

Maybe it comes from being born and raised in Calcutta, where anonymity is rare and privacy rarer still. During my youth I often felt that Cal was the world’s biggest village. Lots of overlapping gossip circles and nosy neighbours and all that. But it was all in-your-face, so it didn’t feel like how it feels in the West.

Before you can have the curtain-twitching gossiping narrow-minded neighbour, you need to have curtains.


Things that prevent light from coming in, that create places of darkness. Things that people hide behind in order to disguise or conceal their snooping. Things that people draw closed in order to prevent others from seeing what they are doing.


I’ve heard many people make strong cases for anonymity, often in the context of democracy and dissent. [Maybe I need to revisit Cass Sunstein, I will do so this weekend]. We have to be careful about this, because we can hold up the development and enrichment of many things while we argue about anonymity.

There’s a lot to be said for onymity. When we look at the right to vote, we need to bear in mind that the voter is not anonymous. Even the dead of Cook County had names.  It is the vote that is anonymous, not the voter.

Onymity could help us solve many problems, from chat room predators to spam originators and everything in between. As we get better at onymity we may get better at preventing identity theft and all its consequences.

Every time we build systems to enshrine anonymity we pay a price. Sometimes it is worth stepping back and checking that the price is worth paying.

10 thoughts on “On behaving onymously”

  1. Anonymity is useful when the power dynamics are skewed, “collective intelligence” can be banked upon to override misuse of anonymity and misuse of power by people in authority is a bigger threat than misuse of anonymity by the weaker side. Eg. An upward appraisal in a company. In an election, politicians in India are known to punish constituencies that have voted against them( votes are individually anonymous, but collectively onymous). Onymity might be good for contexts that have the systems in place to deal with misuse of power. Anonymity holds value otherwise. I think we need to judiciously choose based on the context.

  2. Prakash has hit an important nail on the head. I would like to amend it, however, with the observation that systems that deal with misuse of power, when they exist at all, are highly fragile. Taking this as an opportunity for an architectural metaphor, the conclusion we should draw is that such systems need buttressing, which provides me with the perfect excuse to return to the theme I have been developing. I have two such buttresses in mind:

    In the social world we have the buttress of morality, using the word in the Kantian sense I discussed in an earlier comment:


    However, the social world buttress needs the additional support of a more institutionalized buttress; and that is the institution of government. Before JP jumps on me (again), I should make it clear that I do not feel that the governmental institutions of the “physical world” can be easily mapped into cyberspace. This is why I try to appeal to the more abstract concept of “governance,” in the hope of stimulating conversation over which aspects of the concept SHOULD be so mapped.

    My other recurring theme has been that the safety of cyberspace should be one of our highest priorities (if not THE highest priority). I belief that one of the greatest threats to safety (again, if not THE greatest threat) is the misuse of power. If we can counter that threat on both social and institutional grounds, I think we shall have made a major move towards advancing the safety of cyberspace.

  3. JP, I’ve been reading your blog for a while (and even linked to it from DesiPundit) and I am finally de-lurking myself!

    I couldn’t agree with you more. While I see the value of anonymity in a situation where is a power imbalance, I struggle to see the benefits in online social interactions. I grew up in Madras and it feels much smaller than Calcutta. The problem online is that what is gossip in the offline world can turn much more malicious online with fewer consequences because of anonymity.

    If you are commenting on a blog or interacting in a chat room – what is the point of anonymity? The only time I’ve seen it used is for nefarious purposes. Maybe the way to start moving in the right direction is for each “space” to state it’s rules. I blog to get to know people and to learn from them. The hidden, anonymous attacks add nothing to my life.

  4. Agreed JP but the real problem is that anonymous attacks tend to go unpunished for reasons unconnected to the anonymity. The most disconcerting thing about recent events has not been the inevitable witch-hunt or the clamour for ignorable codes of conduct, but the fact that threats which breach existing laws are not punished according to those laws.

  5. Interesting you should say that. Why do you suppose this happens? I thought we lived in ultra-litigious times, so I am perplexed.

  6. JP, until John answers I feel free to speculate! I think the question is not how litigious the “real world” is but the extent to which one can have any kind of executive authority in cyberspace. After all, there are a variety of ways in which, even if intentionally anonymous, one is subject to law enforcement in the physical world. The whole reason I keep beating my governance drum is that the Internet has now matured to a point where its population can no longer deny the value of some form of executive, even if they do not agree on what the powers of that executive should be!

  7. Stephen, this is like looking for leader cells in slime mould. Self-governance is at the heart of the Web. So is its scale-free nature. How then can you use scale as an argument to introduce some form of executive governance?

    Whenever I hear or see stuff like this, I don’t run around saying Na Na Na I’m not Listening. Instead, I go re-read the bits and bobs I have collected about the life of Jon Postel, “Postie”.

  8. It is interesting that you should invoke the spirit of Jon Postel, JP, since I worked with him at ISI. (We did not work on the same project. He was doing network protocols, and I was involved with artificial intelligence. However, I once met with him about whether one could harness AI to answer questions about TCP/IP. He was one of my best sources for learning about the limitations of AI in the real world!) ISI was a very casual place; but Jon would have been the first to admit that there were times when some form of executive authority had more pragmatic value than self-governance. Some of that was just a matter of the money coming from a REAL government; but there were other things, like sharing responsibility for the bagel brunch set out every Friday morning, that just could not be left strictly to self-governance (at least if you wanted to avoid a lab full of hostility induced by empty stomachs). My guess is that Jon had enough life experiences to understand the nature of scale in both work and leisure. I would not be surprised if, were he alive today, he would label the “scale-free nature” of the Internet as ideology, rather than practice; and he would not be averse to rolling his own brand of governance to deal with pathologies of conduct.

Let me know what you think