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Is Anonymity Bad?

Introduction

With the invention of the Internet, tons of things have come out that allow people to visit with each other with anonymity. As some examples, we have video games and random chats. There are many more examples as well, but they all bring to question one thing: is anonymity a bad thing? Through this article I want to look at the effects that anonymity has had (and continues to have) and help better understand what it is and what is both good and bad about it. I will be looking at it as objectively as possible, although it is hard to completely remove all bias, so be aware of that.

First Thoughts: Why Be Anonymous?

I think far too many people misunderstand what being anonymous is really here for. All too often we hear it as being that “if you want to be anonymous, that is because you have something to hide.” First of all, do we not all have things we do not want out in the public? It could be things we like or dislike, things we have done in the past, etc. Everyone has something they would rather keep to themselves or those closest to them, regardless as to whether or not it would get them in to any type of legal or social trouble. The fact is that we do not want everything to be known by everyone.

The thought that anonymity is only needed by people who are doing wrong is in itself false. It is a complete misunderstanding as to what it all means, and what benefits the anonymous nature of conversation and actions can bring to the table that otherwise would not be present. Also, please keep in mind that when we use the term “anonymous,” we do not mean just situations in which you are hidden behind text or a voice. There are real life situations where you are, for all intents and purposes, anonymous as well. While someone may know what you look like, if they do not know you then that really does not mean too much.

First Case: Taxi Cab Confessions

We all love to hear about these, but generally do not want to be the one that has their information shared with the public. Some confessions are due to people that have been drinking or are on drugs (where their social inhibition is lowered) and others do it because they really need to vent and have nobody else that they feel comfortable with talking to about things. The consensus in this case is that the taxi cab driver will be a good listener and sometimes give some great advice, but that they will never be seen again and therefore you have no worries about your secrets (whether they are fears or anything else) being spread to others within your social circle.

I think this is best related to anonymous chats online because the other person knows only what you want them to know. If you want to share details about yourself, they will know them. If you do not, they will not. Of course, people often leave traces to their real identity online, just like they do when talking to people in real life. If you are not careful, the anonymity means absolutely nothing; too much information will always lead to your identity being found.

Taxi cab confessions are a big example of how not all secrets are things that could get people in to trouble. For example, you will hear stories about people who just do not like someone but put up with them anyways, or are having jitters about their future wedding. Some people may want or not want a promotion at their job for various reasons. And some may just want to talk about normal things that are not even secrets, just to get a second opinion. There are many times you would probably rather talk to a third party that is not part of the equation to get input on something, just because you want a stranger's opinion. For example, family and friends are probably going to be much more apt to support you even when they know better, just because they do not want to hurt your feelings. Strangers, on the other hand, will usually be more open and honest because they do not have the same attachment.

Second Case: Anonymous Chat Rooms

Anonymous chat rooms (the type that have you as “you” and the other person as “stranger” and similar ones) are another area where people open up a lot more than they would around people they know. The anonymous nature of this means that you can say things you otherwise would not, without having to worry about any repercussions as a result. Much like the taxi cab confessions, you can get a stranger's input and opinions on things, but the chat rooms take it a step further: they do not even know what you look like or anything. All they know you as is “stranger.”

I used to be amazed at what kind of things people would say through the chats, but then it brings to mind two things: you do not know them and they do not know you, and you do not even know if what they are saying is the truth anyways. They could say something that seems completely off the wall, and it definitely could be. Because of this, many people take what is said online with a grain of salt. This can either be a good or a bad thing, although I generally think it sways more towards good because it means that if you accidentally say something you did not mean to (you got “in the moment”) people are less likely to let that bother them too much.

The thing to remember is that although these chat rooms do not give you details about each other, if you do give out your details that kills the entire purpose of it. Even if you do not think you are giving out enough information to really matter, sometimes people are able to relate things together and come up with an identity. When people have enough time on their hands, it is amazing what can be done!

Third Case: Video Games

A lot of people are probably going to disagree with my view that MMORPG's are worse than FPS's when it comes to how people act when they feel that they have anonymity, but after playing many different games this is what I have come to believe. While FPS games deal with a lot of actual chatting between players that may be young or immature, you can always mute them. In MMO's, however, it is done in the chat room itself and muting everyone is really not an option.

So when we are looking at these games, there is always one thing that happens: people feed off each other. This is inevitable; it is going to happen in every game. Even if there are moderators (or “game masters”) that keep up with the activity and deal with it constantly, things are going to happen! Of course, we do end up in a situation of “well, what is immature, really?” After all, we all have our own ideas of what is fun and what would be classified as being childish. Regardless, pretty much everyone has a limit and that limit will be hit in MMO's… multiple times.

What leads the games to be much worse than other areas, though? There are actually two things:

  • There is a community aspect
  • Games are based on competition

I want to hit on each of these separately now to help better understand their effects.

Communities in Games

When you are playing an online game, you are joining a community. In a sense, this can be considered as like an extended family. Everyone that is on your server (or your game as a whole, if there are no servers) is part of your new family. These are the people you deal with on a daily basis, help, get help from and otherwise take part in the game with.

This leads us to a situation that I like to call “social comfort.” Compare how you act when you are around your friends at home versus how you act when you are out in a public setting. The chances are that the two are very different for you. When you are with your friends you have that comfort in being yourself. When you are not with them and are around strangers instead, you are probably a bit more held back or reclusive. This is because you can not guess as to what others will think of you or your actions, and people just do not like to risk being socially outcast. I like to consider myself as a social chameleon. Basically when I mix in with different groups I start to adapt to their mentality and behavior and I fit in well. This helps be one of the group, and if I drop off in to another group later I adapt to them as well.

But how is all of this related to the games? Well, because people react in the same way, although to a slightly different extent. Most of the people in video games, rather than associating strangers as strangers (like they would in real life) treat everyone as if they are friends. This instantly opens the door for acting “as yourself,” you might say, and causes people to not hold back like they normally would. We can actually see this all the time by looking at people. Often times people will claim that they act different in their game than they do in real life, but that is because of the stranger vs friend social aspect. In the real world they most likely would end up acting different but just because they would be interacting with strangers.

Games Are Based On Competition

Video games, especially MMO's, are based on competition. Even if you are playing a game where the players are not really against one another, that does not remove competition. It could be players racing to see who levels the fastest or kills a mob the fastest. It could be a race to get the biggest guild. There are countless ways in which players compete with one another. And as we know, competition is known to bring out the worst in people.

The reason why competition can get bad is because people hate to lose. You can argue that you do not care all day long, but when it really comes down to it, our feelings (or ego) end up getting hurt when we do not win something. Sure, we can brush it off, but that feeling of failure can linger for quite a while. Trying to argue otherwise is just a sign of denial. And none of this is bad, either; this is what pushes us to be better and learn from our mistakes. While going through this may not feel good or seem like a good thing, it is just a part of life. And in the majority of cases, we are able to feel happy for those that did win. After all, that means they were better this time, and it just means we have to work harder to compete next time.

In games, though, things start to get a little bit worse (or much worse). With competitions in real life we can see the effects we have on other people. If we hurt their feelings, we can see that and it causes remorse. In games, none of this is really present. As someone once put it, “you are nothing but bodies of text.” There is no real feeling that everyone else in a game is a real person with real feelings. We get so caught up with them that it is not even something we take in to consideration. Instead, we look at it as just being that we were beat, and we want to take it out on the others; especially those who won.

We see this constantly in games. PvP games (where players are directly competing against one another) are the worst for this kind of behavior. It is impossible to even try to explain how bad things get; you just have to experience it for yourself to see. It is this reason that PvP servers are often attributed with being the “sludge” of the gaming world. People can really destroy your happiness in games if you go there and allow them to. Note that I am not saying that these people are “bad” or anything; different people play for different reasons. It is more of a realization that what you will likely go through here is not what you think, and by the time you realize it, it may be too late. For players that are in to that competitive game style and love the trash talking, these servers are the perfect match. They allow players that enjoy that to have their own home with other similar people. It is not good or bad, it is just different, much like going to a role playing server is different.

Moving on to PvE games and servers, the same mentality is still often present, though it is not usually as bad because while players can throw around hatred when they get upset, they do not have as much of an effect on everyone else. You do still have to deal with the elitists (not those who want to be the best, but those who are “pretentious”) here, but you can avoid them pretty easily by just not hanging out around them. Even so, players will go out of their way to destroy the game for everyone else, for one reason or another. These people we call “trolls.”

The Age of Trolls

We actually experience trolls in many areas of life, but they are most prevalent in games. The term “trolling” comes from the fishing term, meaning to throw out some bait in the hopes that something will latch on to it. Trolling within games works the same way; something is said in the hopes that someone or multiple people will end up getting upset. Sometimes this is used to help bring some life in to chat (upset people do communicate, and chats can die off quite often) and sometimes it is just to see how people react or to make people mad.

Trolls are often related to the anonymity factor with the impression that they act the way that they do because nobody knows who they are. The theory behind it is that people will troll when they have no fears of people finding out what their identity is. But this is really not that true. In the majority of cases, people troll simply because they are bored or find it entertaining. I would also argue that it has nothing to do with maturity (or the lack thereof); people like to have fun. What I may think is a funny joke others might or might not as well. It is just a difference in how we perceive things, and I never fault anyone for thinking that something is funny because I know there are things I do that they would disagree with as well. It is part of being human!

Final Case: Bitcoins

The last case I want to look at is Bitcoins, or crypto currencies in general. When I am talking about this we are really looking at a different type of anonymity than the previous cases, because with these currencies we are not dealing so much with how people react to one another, but rather the actual actions that are taken. This is a very important thing to distinguish because while they both fall under the same term, they are both very different animals.

Bitcoins for Good and Bad

Bitcoins are used for both good and bad, by people who are law abiding citizens and those that are criminals. Really, it is no different than any other currency in this sense. Just because we attribute anonymity to Bitcoins does not mean they should automatically be associated with criminal behavior. And just because some criminals use them does not mean that they are all used for nefarious purposes. After all, that would be like claiming that because criminals use USD that means all USD is only used by criminals. It is far from being the truth.

This negative stigma is still attached to the Bitcoin scene, even though there are many well known people invested at this point. It is going to be one of the hardest things to break out of, though, solely because of the fact that it is “anonymous.”

Why Do We Care About Anonymity With Bitcoins?

So why is it that we care about this anonymity with Bitcoins, anyways? There is really just one reason: what we do with our earned money should be our own business and not anyone else's. If I save up $8 an hour and come up with enough over many years to buy a $100,000 car, that should be my choice. I should not have to live in fear that I will be arrested solely because I am better at managing my finances than a lot of other people. In a real sense, it is as if we are being forced to live our lives like everyone else, throwing away money and such, solely because if we do not do that we will be unable to spend our money anyways because we will have to do a full accounting of it. This is beyond ridiculous.

I completely get that some people do bad things with it, but as the system works right now it is as if we are all automatically criminals. If you earn $60,000 a year you can legitimately put aside half a million dollars or so every ten years. I know of people who live on less than $15,000 a year, so if they were to be paid that much, they would have $45,000 a year to throw at whatever they want. In five years they could buy a nice Ferrari with cash. But what would happen? The government would be all over them to evaluate every financial choice they have ever made to ensure that their money came from legitimate sources. And if there was something that the government felt was “off,” regardless as to if it was or not, it would all be taken away just like that. And at that point all the saving up the person did would have been completely wasted because now they do not have the money, they do not have the things they could have been buying with it, and now they are on the government's radar. We should not be living our lives with this type of fear.

Bitcoins allow the ability to make these types of transfers without having to report absolutely everything. I personally am all for doing things legally; for example, paying taxes on income (including that from Bitcoins). I am not for skirting the laws or doing what I feel is the right thing to do. I am not, however, for having to constantly watch my back for the fear that out of nowhere I can lose everything, despite following every law to a t. For me, Bitcoin gives that sense of safety net; the feeling that we can finally go without that same worrying. It is nothing to do with committing crimes, but rather being able to do what should be our right to begin with.

Another reason Bitcoins are a great thing to me is because, well, your anonymity when using them can sometimes serve as a form of protection. For example, you can do business deals with people without having to disclose all of your personal information. You can create a logo for someone's website without having to give your real name or address (which would happen via Paypal) or anything else. The only thing they would know is your user name on whatever site it was from and your Bitcoin address, which is public anyways. While sharing your email address usually is not going to cause any problems, there is still the sense of having the ability to choose who gets your information and who does not, and I think that is pretty valuable for those that are more wary. It all reminds me of when we are younger and we are told all about “stranger danger.” Most strangers are not going to be a problem, but you still never know until it is too late!

Conclusion

Anonymity on the Internet has brought about a lot of changes to how people act. In some cases this can be bad, and in others it can be great. I will always fight for the fact, though, that it is more positive than negative. While we do have some problems associated with it, the simple fact is that the benefits more than outweigh the negatives. As long as this continues to be the case, I will continue to support it, and I do not see anything changing any time soon!

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