Anonymity is Authenticity?

Chris Poole is among the 21 New Media Innovators recently profiled by New York Magazine.  They bestowed upon him the title of “Meme Generator” and provided this short bio:

Chris Poole (handle: “moot”) founded the anonymous message board 4Chan when he was just 15. It’s grown into the breeding ground for some of the web’s most pervasive memes, as well as some of its more ominous movements. In the last two years, Poole has raised more than $3 million in venture funding for a new image-centric site called Canvas, which is similar to but separate from 4chan, and he’s become an advocate for web privacy. At this year’s South by Southwest conference, for instance, he had this to say: “Zuckerberg’s totally wrong on anonymity being total cowardice. Anonymity is authenticity.”

It was that last line that caught my attention.  I’ve lately been wrestling with the relative virtues and vices of anonymity and personalization.  A while ago I argued that Zuckerberg was indeed wrong about identity, and self-servingly so.  I wasn’t interested in defending anonymity in that case, but rather the more natural gradual and contingent self-disclosure that characterizes ordinary human relationships.

In the past several days I’ve returned to the theme arguing first that Google+ through its Circles attempts to address Facebook’s “all friends are equal” model.  Then I suggested that the trend toward personalization and away from the anonymity of the early web better (but, imperfectly) fitted our social impulse and operated to some degree as what  sociologists call a mediating structure. I followed that up with a post commenting on Morozov’s lament for the loss of the early Internet’s communal character which, I suggested, sat uncomfortably with Morozov’s privileging of privacy over personalization.  Human communities don’t ordinarily function on those terms.  Oddly, I argued in the comment thread of that same post for the desirability of anonymity in some instances.

So now I come across Poole’s claim — “anonymity is authenticity” — and feel primed to comment.  My initial response is this:  If anonymity is authenticity, then it is a Pyrrhic authenticity.

There is a certain plausibility to Poole’s claim, it suggests that we are most ourselves when we know that we will not be made to answer for what we are doing or saying; that the public self is a restrained and inhibited, and thus not authentic, version of the true self.  It tracks with the point of the Ring of Gyges story in Plato’s Republic.  The ring made the owner invisible, and so the argument went, revealed the true character of the owner (or better, the superficiality of virtue).

But if it is a plausible account of the human condition, it is also an incomplete one.  It is a Pyrrhic authenticity because it eliminates the possibility of appearing authentically before others who acknowledge our presence.  It thus suggests that we are most ourselves at the point at which it does not really matter what we are.  Now one may adopt a Simon & Garfunkle, “I am a rock, I am an island” attitude at this juncture and insist that they don’t need the acknowledgement and recognition, to say nothing of the love and care, that comes from human relationships; if so, then this post is probably not the place to argue otherwise.  I’m going to count on the fact that most of us will rather resonate with Hannah Arendt when she writes, “To live an entirely private life means above all to be deprived of things essential to a truly human life: to be deprived of the reality that comes from being seen and heard by others.”

What good is it to finally be myself, if I am myself alone? Granted there may be some extraordinary circumstances when, in fact, remaining authentically oneself simultaneously requires a great solitude. Ordinarily, however, we answer to both a need to cultivate the inner self with a measure of independence, and to find fulfillment in meaningful relationships with and among others.

Even I feel that over the course of these posts I have been trying to hit a moving target.  This reflects the complexity of lived human experience.  It is a complexity that is hard to account for online when platforms and interfaces seek to reduce that complexity to either the indiscriminately social or the misanthropically private. We are complex creatures and the great danger is that we will end up reducing our complexity to fit the constraints of life mediated through one platform or another.

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