Anonymous Cowards
The power of online anonymity has turned reputation and privacy
on their heads. Before the Internet, everyday conversations were held
face-to-face. Natural social cues guided conversation, reducing the
risk of misunderstanding and limiting hostility. Gossipers and at-
tackers could be identified and ostracized if they went too far. Social
norms deterred people from prying too deep into each others affairs.
People who spread wrong information could be located and cor-
rected. And the threat of libel lawsuits deterred the mass media from
spreading outrageous lies to large audiences.
But, online, anonymity rules. Thanks to the technology of the In-
ternet, most people don a veil of anonymity when they go online.
People post, read, share, talk, link, and sometimes even buy and sell
anonymously. Online, it is often impossible to know if the person
youre chatting with is half a block or half a world away. The owner
of a website might be your neighbor, or it might be someone in Azer-
62 Wild West 2.0
baijan. The person spreading company secrets through a blog could
be the mailroom clerk, the CEO’s child, or even the CEO herself—
and, lest you think it unlikely for a CEO to be posting anonymously,
the CEO of a major supermarket chain was recently caught writing
anonymous comments online in an attempt to lower the stock price
of a rival.
Anonymity Is Limited in the Physical World
The ability to interact anonymously online is a sharp break from the
offline, face-to-face world. Most people walk around with their faces
uncovered. They drive in cars with visible license plate numbers and
pay with credit cards embossed with their names. They go to school,
show up to work, and attend church alongside other people who
know their real names.
In social settings, the vast majority of people identify themselves
truthfully by giving their real names—the use of pseudonyms is rare
enough as to seem absurd in all but the most privacy-sensitive settings,
such as in therapy or support groups for stigmatizing conditions.
Even if some of everyday life seems anonymous, it is anonymous
only as long as it is inconsequential. Many everyday interactions have
an illusion of anonymity, especially in urban areas: a cash purchase
from a retail shop does not leave a paper trail, and the participants are
unlikely to know each others names. But the transaction is anony-
mous only because it is routine. If the transaction were to ever become
important (for example, if the buyer passed counterfeit currency or
tried to rob the store), the illusion of anonymity would quickly dis-
appear. The police could quickly use fingerprints, DNA, and security
camera footage to try to track down the individual responsible. Even
a simple WANTED” poster with a sketch of the perpetrator might
be enough to lead to an arrest. And there is always the chance that a
friend or neighbor might see any transaction, instantly destroying the
illusion of anonymity—for example, the risk that the title character in

Get Wild West 2.0: How to Protect and Restore Your Online Reputation on the Untamed Social Frontier now with O’Reilly online learning.

O’Reilly members experience live online training, plus books, videos, and digital content from 200+ publishers.