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The pros and cons of the anonymous web Add to ...

Facebook is one of the few islands on the Internet where people are real.

At least, that's what a strategist from the world's largest online hangout told me recently while we discussed why Facebook thinks the site is a gold mine for businesses. If you think about it, his statement makes some sense. When users sign up for MySpace, eBay, and even Twitter, they often create a new persona. Whether they identify themselves as corvette1976 or @mapgirl49, they are essentially choosing to part with their true identities. Some choose to ditch any association to their real lives entirely. They live, surf, and play on the web under the cloak of complete anonymity.

Maybe that's one of the reasons why Facebook has become so popular. Of the half billion users on the social network, the vast majority of people identify themselves with their real information. Yes, I know, there are fake accounts, but most users see the allure of being genuine. Facebook, like comment sections on blogs, media sites and places like YouTube are essentially places in which one shares. Whether you're talking about photos or status updates or thoughts and opinions, without that stamp of authenticity that shared information loses credibility and impact.

But there are risks, too, of course. This is where privacy concerns come into play. People share details all of the time - birthdays, phone numbers, addresses, places of work - but don't take measure to protect or restrict that information.

On the other side of the argument there's the anonymous web, populated by free agents of sorts - free to surf where they want and say what they want without worry of discovery. For the most part, the allure here is the ability to lash out without fear of personal reprisal. It's also an avenue for people who want to engage in conversation and say what they feel, but for whatever reason do so without any personal association. Around the world, anonymity protects voices of dissent everywhere.

But anonymity presents a problem of sorts, especially when it comes to the issues of trust in online conversations. I'll be the first person to agree that all content-oriented sites should have comments, but I've often wondered if the folks who pollute good conversations would do that if their identity was out there for all to see. Sometimes, let's face it, things gets ugly. Take a look at YouTube comments and you'll quickly discover the troll-infested underbelly of the Internet. Regardless of the video, the section below the fold on this Google-owned site can contain dialogue of the most despicable sort - vitriol that few people would ever share if their real names appeared beside their words.

Personally, I think it feels good to stand behind what you say. When Facebook created Connect, a web tool that allows a site developer to integrate their site with Facebook, one of the things that I found enticing was that website admins now had a tool they could use to facilitate discussion among "real" individuals. While I'd love to recommend that forums, media sites and blogs use such a tool all the time, the consequences of such an action would exclude vast numbers of web users and reject the notion that there are sometimes legitimate reasons for anonymity.

I can't imagine an Internet where there's no venue for anonymous comments. But I do think it is time mainstream publications start encouraging participants to use their real names. One method, which I've seen implemented on a few blogs, is to hide anonymous comments and force users to open them with a mouse click (essentially giving anonymous comments less weight). Based on the fact some 500 million-odd people are already showing up as themselves on Facebook, I think there's a growing interest among web users in using their real names, too.

Follow on Twitter: @ambermac

 

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