Virtual Communities, Anonymity, and the Risks of Self-Disclosure

In the beginning Cold War-era engineers created the Internet and then utopian, hippy enthusiasts rescued the Internet and gave it to the world. Regrettably, spammers, venture capitalists, marketers, and corporations entered into the garden of digital delights and a communitarian paradise devolved into a virtual mall.

This, more or less, is the storyline of Evgeny Morozov’s very brief history of the Internet, “Two Decades of the Web: A Utopia No More” in Prospect. The author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, in case it wasn’t clear from the two titles, is not exactly optimistic about the direction the Internet has taken. The plot of his short overview of Internet history moves from early promise to eventual decline; it is a tale of utopian hopes disciplined by unfortunate realities.

Morozov’s history takes the idea of “virtual community” as its theme and features a set of Internet “cheerleaders” – Stuart Brand, Kevin Kelly, John Perry Barlow, and the Wired crowd – as its tragic protagonists. Tragic because their high-minded, lofty ideals were undercut, in Morozov’s telling, by an accompanying naiveté that left Paradise unguarded against the corporate snakes. “These men,” according to Morozov, “emphasised the importance of community and shared experiences; they viewed humans as essentially good, influenced by rational deliberation, and tending towards co-operation. Anti-Hobbesian at heart, they viewed the state and its institutions as an obstacle to be overcome—and what better way to transcend them than via cyberspace?”

This anarchist/libertarian proclivity exposed the online community to dangers trivial and grave:

Perhaps the mismatch between digital ideals and reality can be ascribed to the naivety of the technology pundits. But the real problem was that the internet’s early visionaries never translated their aspirations for a shared cyberspace into a set of concrete principles on which online regulation could be constructed. It’s as if they wanted to build an exemplary city on the hill, but never bothered to spell out how to keep it exemplary once it started growing.

The law of entropy took over from there. The allusion to a city on a hill recalls the Puritan experiment in pious self-government that never quite managed to pass on its vision to the next generation. Pursuing the analogy, Morozov fills the role of the preachers who evolved the jeremiad – a genre of sermon identified by historian Perry Miller that denounced the community’s departure from its founding principles and called for repentance and renewal. Morozov’s commentary fits the genre neatly, and that is not at all to detract from the value of his critique.

The connection to the Puritans is worth pursuing even further, but we have to see beyond the typical tropes with which they are associated, those that lend color to the term puritanical, for just a moment. The Puritans loom large in most tellings of early American history and their influence has long been both celebrated and lamented. In one respect, though, they are out of step with the subsequent evolution of American culture. The rugged individualism that came to dominate the American psyche would have been an unwelcome anomaly within the deeply communitarian ethos of the early Puritan settlers. John Winthrop’s sermon aboard the Arbella in which we find the “city on a hill” imagery is fundamentally a communitarian tract urging self-restraint, self-sacrifice, mercy, justice, and generosity for the good of the community. Shared sacrifice, shared risk, shared resources, shared lives – out of such was community forged.

With this in mind we can begin to sound out a tension within Morozov’s account. In his view, personalization and the loss of privacy are among the chief temptations that ultimately lead to the fall of the digital community. So for example, he notes with displeasure: “The logical end of this ever-increasing personalisation is of each user having his or her own online experience. This is a far cry from the early vision of the internet as a communal space.” And further on we read that, “For many internet users, empowerment was an illusion. They may think they enjoy free access to cool services, but in reality, they are paying for that access with their privacy.”

Yet, certain constructions of privacy and an aversion to personalization sit uneasily alongside of a communitarian ideal. Pressed to their extremes privacy and depersonalization converge in anonymity, and it was, in fact, the anonymity of the early Internet that thrilled theorist with the possibilities for experimentation with identity and its construction. Unfortunately, the early digital communitarian ideal was tied to this vision of privacy/anonymity, and you are not likely to have anything like a community in any strong sense on those terms, at least not in a way that answers to the human social impulse. Social media has provided something like an experience of community precisely because it has been tied to personalization (all of its attendant problems notwithstanding).

Maybe the real problem with the early internet was its commitment to anonymity. Personalization, not regulation, may have curbed the sorts of behaviors and developments that Morozov laments. The unbridled pursuit of self-interest which is always the enemy of community, virtual or otherwise, is abetted by the lack of accountability engendered by anonymity. This is a lesson at least as old as the Ring of Gyges story told by Plato. Community, and the fully human life it enables, is on the other hand built upon the risk of self-disclosure. A point not lost on Hannah Arendt when she noted that, “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.” And, she later adds, “Action without a name, a ‘who’ attached to it, is meaningless …”

Admittedly, community is an amorphous and abstract concept and the pursuit of its virtual analogue may be finally incoherent. What’s more, anonymity is in certain circumstances clearly desirable, and commodified personalization is undoubtedly problematic. Finally, there are clearly important and necessary forms of privacy which must be protected. With these qualifications noted, it remains the case that any kind of online community, if it is to serve as a mediating structure that allows for social interaction on a scale somewhere between the anonymity of total seclusion and that of mass society, needs to be built on some degree of measured self-disclosure and consistency of identity.

This entails all sorts of risks and even sacrifices which means that what we may need is less of a jeremiad and more Winthrop-esque vision setting.


Article first published as Virtual Communities, Anonymity, and the Risks of Self-Disclosure on Blogcritics.