Ditching online anonymity could actually make us better people

Remember when people looked around them as they walked on the street? When mitts and gloves didn’t need fingerless options for texting?
A renewed commitment to being upfront and honest with people, rather than hiding behind a pseudonym online, is sorely needed in the world, Winnipeg writer Joanne Seiff says. (Shutterstock)

Remember when people looked around them as they walked on the street? When mitts and gloves didn't need fingerless options for texting?

Call me old-fashioned, but sometimes I miss the physically present, interpersonal contact that folks were forced into — back in the days when technology hadn't made even basic interactions with our neighbours into digital exchanges.

I reflected on this when thinking about those "events" we schedule online. Lots of people click on the RSVP button and say they will attend, but when the moment of face-to-face interaction arrives? There aren't nearly as many who show up as we'd hoped.

Sometimes an acquaintance asks in passing if I'm attending that school function or another event. When I smile and say, "I'll be there!" I'm making a commitment. If someone gets sick and I can't make it, I would make an effort to explain and apologize. Is a commitment made via an online invitation any different, and if so, why?

Shut down

With amorphous terrorist threats, we can be absolutely shut down by anonymous internet activity. When the Los Angeles school system decides that an email is sufficiently threatening to cancel classes far and wide, that can have serious repercussions.

The moment I heard about the L. A. schools, I remembered when I was in high school in Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. In those days, the bomb threats were made by phone, but since my public school's population included the children of government officials, politicians and diplomats, the threats were real. 

We stood outdoors in the sunshine, evacuated to a tennis court, away from the school building.  Hanging out with my friends didn't seem all bad, and some of the kids drifted away entirely, walking home instead.

If we ditch the anonymity, show up when we say we're going to, and act decently towards one another, it might not matter if we do it online or in person.- Source

It felt like a big block party, pulled off by a prankster, but every now and then, it wasn't a joke.  In one case, the bomb threats subsided immediately after some of the diplomats' kids were pulled out of public school and sent to a more secure private school instead.

I'd bet that all over L.A., there were working parents frantically trying to find childcare as they faced having to skip a day of work unexpectedly. The anonymous threat can wreak havoc on us all.  

Anonymity has such power that part of the public signature of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh is using this fear of the unknown. What should we call them? Who are the masked terrorists who carry out such horrible attacks? Our attention is drawn to that which feels most threatening, what we don't understand.

Closing comments

At home, commenting on the CBC's website in reference to indigenous peoples has been temporarily stopped, due to the severity of racist and inappropriate comments. Niigaan Sinclair made the point that "Anonymity has to end" in the case of CBC commenting.

While Sinclair spoke particularly about stories that mention Aboriginal Peoples, the point he makes is relevant for all of us. Canadians like to joke about how polite people here are to one another and how often one might hear "Sorry!" on the street.
The University of Manitoba’s Niigaan Sinclair said if comments are turned on for CBC stories about indigenous people, people should have to use their real names.

Have we forgotten that our online personae are still representations of ourselves? That our upright behaviour, the way we would treat our classmates in the school yard or our colleagues at work, should also carry the same respectful tone online?

Perhaps it's time for a reminder. Anonymity, in person and online, has great power. People may use it to commit crime, shame, embarrass, bully and degrade others. The end result is nothing to be proud of — and confronting that is scary.

Why don't you use a user name online that matches your own? Do you say things using another name that you would never say in person?

When politicians, entertainers, educators or, for that matter, writers, put words into the public sphere, our names and reputations become public. When a column of mine ran with a photo, strangers approached me to talk about it when I was out in the community. The stranger would recognize me and comment on what I had written. Usually I had a second to react, say 'Thank you' or respond, and then the stranger was gone. Only very rarely, perhaps one time in 10, did the person actually introduce himself. Now, anonymity has even oozed into these direct encounters.

Honesty > anonymity

I heard my father's voice in my head, reading Dr. Seuss, whose funny rhymes communicate values we all need to remember. It is Horton, Dr. Seuss' elephant, who shows us what we might hope to be:

"I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant's faithful – 100 per cent."

Let's consider being faithful to each other. With straightforward honesty, we could treat each other kindly as real people do, with names, identities and lives. If we ditch the anonymity, show up when we say we're going to, and act decently towards one another, it might not matter if we do it online or in person. 

By choosing this road, we could, as Horton does, hatch a being that embodies us, with some of our finest qualities. That could represent us at our best — who we want to be. 

This might be metaphor, but in practical terms, if we're our best selves, we're being role models for our children, too. Wouldn't it be nice if we acknowledged each other with respect and showed others how to do it? Maybe a good start would be if we knew each other's names.

Joanne Seiff is the author of two books. She writes, designs and teaches in Winnipeg.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

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