Helen Nissenbaum of New York University has a bright idea about privacy law on the Internet. If a user intends to share information with someone, then our privacy is respected. If a user intends to share with someone and that someone shares it with someone else we did not intend, then privacy is disrespected. If our sharing is sold to another, the violation is worse.
Her common sense view is drawn from our offline experience. Gossip is pernicious. Eavesdropping is devious. Nobody likes to be bought and sold. So let’s translate that online.
We can relate to the privacy uproar with Facebook, Google, and others who sell our privacy for their advertisement revenue. But, on another level, our privacy is growing less respected in our online discussions, even in Christian circles.
Many online publications, including Sojourners and Christianity Today have opted to change their comment system to require a login. To comment on the Wall Street Journal you need to notify them with your real name before they grant permission. These protocols, among other things, help quell indecent behavior in the comments, like name calling and bad attitudes. If your name is public, the reasoning goes, then you’ll better guard your reputation. Public opinion checks bad behavior.
On these sites, a commenter can no longer call themselves “Concerned Reader” and make a comment. They must come right out and say who they are.
Maybe giving your name and picture, like the TSA line at the airport, changes attitudes. I visited Sojourners recently and saw a controversial article and read the comments. The comments were appreciative of the article. I wanted to provoke the conversation with another perspective but didn’t want to identify myself. I saw no need, on a small post, to cause a fallout if someone didn’t like it and wanted to blackball me. I’ve been burned before by political buffaloes and try to avoid it.
If we apply Nissenbaum’s good sense, I want to stand up for anonymity online. Not only am I against selling my information to third parties, but also sharing my identity to lurkers of online discussions. There’s good reason for it.
Must we remove the gift of privacy from good people because bad people lack good manners?
On Facebook, my profile is not public. And people have thanked me for creating a safe place to discuss on my wall without their parents, peers, co-workers, boss, reading it. Imagine someone sharing a story of abuse from their family, stories that the public must be aware of, but not wanting to malign the person they are talking about. Authors conceal identities often. Sometimes they have pen names so that the stories can be told without retribution from the abuser. I’ve unfriended people because they were unsafe to other Facebook friends.
Tom Clark at the Guardian says anonymity in journalistic editorials is important so that the discussion is about the topic rather than the assumed motives of the author.
Online discussions need not be about the person making the comment, but about the topic. Yet, in evangelicalism, we live in a culture that failed to consider opinions opposed to our own (conservative and liberal, alike). Our discourse is sloppy. We protect our ideas by throwing red herrings, listening poorly and attacking the other person. We wrote Coffee Shop Conversations to address some of these issues. Several evangelical scholars who have lost their jobs in the last few years because others didn’t like what their professorial scholarship uncovered. The congregation (or the mob), sadly, is often not friendly to those outside the lines.
In the past seven years at Soulation, I have encountered countless people who, in order to participate, must have anonymity. Some will lose their jobs. Some will have to leave mission organizations. Some will receive so much heartache from their family, they are better off continuing to hide their struggles. All of them want to grow, but growing in community, especially online community, is not permitted. The online waters are safe to reveal their souls, but unsafe to reveal their identities.
Yet these are the ones we want in the discussion. They make it lively, enfleshed, meaningful, rich, rugged and push our understanding forward. We don’t merely need readers to say “Thanks for that article.” We want readers to push back, share their stories, tell us like they see it without fear or sugarcoating.
Anonymity is a good thing as long as uninvited guests are at the digital party. And if sites have trouble with mean people making comments, why not do a revolutionary thing (as we do): have the author and moderator join the discussion. We don’t get nasty and mean spirited comments (less than 1 percent), largely because we’ve worked hard to foster a community that cares about goodness, truth, and beauty. Humans in general are ready to engage in the hard areas if they feel safe and respected, not dismissed, for their opinion.
As long as it’s possible and within my power, we will allow for anonymous comments at Soulation, across our publishing platforms. If you have a Gravatar account and wish to be unseen, do not associate it with your commenting email address. At MyFaithHurdle and Ask! LIVE we will additionally secure your privacy with your hard questions.
When all is said and done, may we each have courage to say our names when they come to lop off our heads for standing up for what is Good and True and Beautiful and Loving and God’s in the world. In the meanwhile, let’s focus on the content of our discussions and learn from each other without an identity pat-down first.