Anonymity didn't use to have a bad name

Anonymity didn't use to have a bad name

Writer anonymity is the online norm when people post comments on articles, blogs and social media. Last week, a loose group of hackers calling themselves the Anonymous Collective compromised several local websites. Their work is as their name suggests: anonymous.

In fact, for the last 500 years or more, authors have signed off, sometimes with pride, sometimes in shame, in that fashion. Anonymity, it turns out, has a chequered history.

These days, online comments are anonymous and pseudonymous by default, online identities being easily masked or concealed.

Those in favour of anonymity say it allows for a freer exchange of ideas, shielding people from retribution wrought by the authorities or reprisals by bystanders. Unencumbered opinions can thus be expressed freely and frankly under its cover.

But anonymity can also promote a lack of accountability, especially online. Harsh words, incendiary talk, innuendoes or falsehoods can hurt their targets more online than in print. Online postings have a global reach, are searchable and can exist in perpetuity in cached form even if the post is deleted from a webpage.

While there may be some tendency to see author anonymity in the online environment as the wearing of a mask - akin to a burglar or robber who is up to no good - it actually has roots in a very honourable tradition.

This is not immediately evident today because writings in the print media - newspaper columns and magazine stories, academic articles and books of all kinds - almost invariably carry the names of the publisher and author by default. Yet this was not always the case. The Anonymous Renaissance (University of Chicago Press, 2003) describes in detail how the advent of the printing press changed the culture of early modern England.

The author, Dr Marcy North, notes that people tend to link anonymous writing with mediaeval times, that is, before the advent of the printing press. In fact, she notes, the print culture that emerged in Tudor-Stuart England did not see the end of anonymous authorship. Instead, as a literary device, it persisted well into the mid-19th century, when newspapers flourished and writer bylines became the norm.

But the latter came about only after intense debate about the merits of bylined writing versus continued anonymity in journalism. Bylines promoted greater responsibility for the written word, some argued. Conversely, anonymity hampered free markets as consumers were deprived of relevant information about the product: Nameless writers and editors might produce a substandard product as they were not personally identifiable as associated with the end product.

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