The web has been buzzing over the past several months due to the unmasking of some well-known internet trolls. A large portion of the online community has thrown up their hands in a collective sigh of relief, but a sizable number are enraged – by bringing the names of these people to light, real life identities have been comprised and people’s lives have been altered for the worse. And in the name of privacy, people have picked up their virtual boxing gloves and started winding up the good old one-two punch.
Yet it seems that this anger stems from the internet’s greatest fallacy, one the internet itself has long encouraged: the notion that the world wide web is somehow private in the first place.
“Don't tell anyone your name,” my mother said to me in my early teens. “I heard about these people in chat rooms on the news. Don't tell them your name, or where you live, or how old you are, or what school you go to. Don't tell them anything about you.” And I rolled my eyes and promised I wouldn't because I had never intended to in the first place. Trust me to be a little safer than that.
Fast-forward several years. In college, I joined an online text-based RPG and had a blast. I made friends and we all talked frequently outside the game, emailing each other at length about any number of topics. While we were assured by our moderators that there was never any pressure to share more information about ourselves than made us comfortable, it wasn't long before we all knew each others' names, where we were writing from, and what we did on a day to day basis.
My mother was horrified. “Be careful. You don't know who these people are.”
“Mom,” I assured her, “I really do. It's pretty easy to spot crazy most places on the internet.”
This is not a sad story where I end up stalked and have to change my name and move to another state, bemoaning my lack of foresight. The people I met via this game are real people. They are real, wonderful people who I am very lucky to know. Some of them I'm still in touch with. Some of them I've met in person. No axe murders occurred.
Yet we do guard our privacy on the internet – viciously, in some cases. We are particular about who can view our Facebook accounts, Twitter feeds, who can have our email addresses. I was warned to take caution when I graduated from college; if there were any pictures of me on Facebook sporting a suspicious red plastic cup, I should remove them immediately. In fact, I should remove any pictures that made me look weird at all. Prospective employers might check, or they might get someone to friend me and unearth my whole dirty history. Nothing was safe in this new age of technology. And, in a way, they were right.
Anyone can screen capture your tweets, even if your account is private. Anyone can accidentally forward a very private email to someone you know. Anyone can enter your name into a search engine and likely find out more about your life than you ever knew was available for public access.
Some people are thriving in this age of information. They use the personal nature of the web to market themselves as creators, writers, entrepreneurs, authorities on a variety of subjects. They use the internet and make friends, like I did. They offer up their real names and real information about their lives, and they do it without fear. But there are still many people who have populated the internet with alternate personas. They create avatars and fake names and sometimes even fake opinions. And that supposed anonymity emboldens them to do and say things that they would never express in polite company, to harass others and promote content of a violent or horrific nature. It isn't that every pseudonym on the internet is harboring a troll, but it is the perfect place for a troll to hide. And some don't even bother to go that far – it is so common to see others act without remorse or sensitivity toward faceless users online, that there are those who have no problem being downright abusive to people they have never met, comfortable in a virtual culture that provides no retribution for their actions.
When Anita Sarkesian created a Kickstarter to take a look at female tropes in video games for her series Feminist Frequency, many were enthused… and many were not. She was subjected to an onslaught of hate speech from several channels on the internet, her profile on Wikipedia altered with pornographic images. And then one man chose to create a game that allowed people to “punch” her until her picture appeared bloodied and bruised. A women tracked him down (it was relatively easy, since his handles were the same across several websites) and found his Twitter account. She tweeted at the company he was sending a resume to, showing them the game he had created, and let others know that he was responsible. The young man in question received a deluge of criticism from Twitter, and several articles were written on the story. This resulted in a cry of “bullying,” the suggestion that this man's life was being destroyed for expressing his opinion. He closed his Twitter account shortly thereafter.
Gawker very recently unmasked one of the biggest trolls in Reddit's history. The man, who was known to many under the username “Violentacrez,” has now been given a real name and a face, and was fired from his job as a result. The activities this man enjoyed as one of the site's volunteer moderators are too numerous and abhorrent to begin listing, but yet again, people were outraged. It is still being shouted down as “vigilantism,” when, if a similar piece had been published offline, it would probably be chalked up to “investigative journalism.” Reddit went so far as to block all Gawker links from the website, stating that the group had violated one of the primary foundations of Reddit's platform – the right to anonymity.
But how anonymous are we, really? If we make every effort to keep our true names off the internet, if we buy a multitude of security platforms, if we friend-lock every social media site we belong to?
Enter “locate IP address” into Google and the first page of results offers a site where you can find someone's location by entering their IP address. There are YouTube videos that tell you how to find the IP addresses of anyone you email. There are pages that will look up photos of a person based on the name you give them; it's probably only a matter of time before Google creates a function that can map your face in a photo and match it to others. I've looked up the names of family members and come up with local government documents that offer specific details on where they live. And if you've got a friend with some tech savvy, they can likely come up with far more information than I could on one go.
Sounds awful, doesn't it?
Would you believe me if I told you that it's not necessarily a bad thing? Recently, a man who had been brutally harassed by an internet troll for three full years used this technology to find the person who had made his life hell, day to day. That troll, shockingly, turned out to be the son of a family friend. He was able to meet with this teenaged boy and, by talking with him and his parents, led him to understand the effect his abuse had, and (hopefully) helped him. That boy has the chance to make changes in his life before he goes too far down an incredibly destructive road.
So perhaps this “invasion of privacy” uproar is moot. At the end of the day, whether the current methods of dealing with these problems are right or wrong is an argument that can play out into the ether; it doesn't change how things will actually function now and going forward. You are not anonymous. What you say and do on the internet is being heard loud and clear, by more people than you might ever suspect. If you cannot stand by those activities and convictions “IRL,” then perhaps you've picked the wrong place to hang your hat. The internet is not where you hide – it's where you are found.
Online culture is one of the greatest new frontiers that humanity has produced. It is changing how we communicate and who we can communicate with every minute. And with any luck, one day, it will no longer be rife with the trolling, hate speak, and intimidation that continues to muddy the waters of such an extraordinary meeting ground.
Image by OpenSourceWay used through Creative Commons license.