I am nobody: Anonymity on the Internet

| February 19, 2009
What does ranch dressing taste like? How does Edgar Allen Poe create suspense in The Tell-Tale Heart? Am I a pedophile?

It's not everyday that questions as disparate as these come together - unless you're on AnonTalk.com.

AnonTalk: From the inane to the insane

The website is a free, anonymous, text-only bulletin board that allows users to pose questions, answer questions, or make comments about almost anything. There are posts about grammar woes, sex advice, baking tips and where to find child pornography.

AnonTalk was created about 10 months ago. The system operator declined in an e-mail interview to reveal his or her name, age, gender or place of residence. So let's call this person Sysop, and let's choose a gender for Sysop: male.

On the site's FAQ page, Sysop wrote that he started the website because other bulletin boards were fraught with technical problems and censorship. He described himself as "just a guy fed up with all the bullshit and the suffocating censorship going on around the Internet." He said he "wanted a place where you can actually have serious discussions about controversial topics in an anonymous environment."

Users are not required to register or login, and all posts receive a randomly generated, 32-character "name" consisting of letters and numbers. In this way, a user's identity is obscured.

The idea of an anonymous bulletin board is nothing new. What makes AnonTalk unique is that Sysop allows discussion of topics that would be deemed taboo anywhere else. On the website, "'positive' discussions about and related to pedophilia are allowed, which is not the case in almost every other place," wrote Sysop.

Posts related to pedophilia and child porn abound on AnonTalk. Alongside the name of any thread on the home page is a column of statistics indicating how many replies are in the thread and how many visits the thread has received. Any topic pertaining to sex has a large number of visits. Any topic pertaining to child porn or pedophilia catapults to the top of the popularity list.

Most of the pro-pedophile threads also contain anti-pedophile comments, though. Some AnonTalk users have even developed a filter that removes any posts pertaining to pedophilia and child pornography.

The site is a petri dish for the study of anonymity and free speech. AnonTalk's anonymity gives users the freedom to discuss potentially embarrassing quandaries like loneliness and STDs. While it's not always a comfortable reading experience, AnonTalk is a fascinating insight into the recesses of human thought that are usually left inside the cranium.

And, of course, there's a bit of celebrity trashing, a smattering of politics and the occasional high-schooler looking for help on an English essay.

Oh, and AnonTalk's answer to the first question? "Salty milk and coins."

Shock culture

Message boards like AnonTalk let users write things they'd likely never say aloud. Things that might even get them arrested if said in public.

There are dozens of boards like AnonTalk, many with explicit pictures to match the explicit discussions. These boards are called 'chans' - short for 'channel.'

4chan is the largest one, with almost 200 million posts in the five years since it was launched.

One of the most active boards on 4chan is '/b/' where anonymous users regularly push the limits of decency, and sometimes even legality.

For them, it's a game.

It's a subculture of madness that gets exponentially more offensive as users try to outdo each other. Nothing is off limits. Every mainstream taboo is turned on its head and embraced.

Psychologist John Suler believes people feel less inhibited online. "Out spills rude language and harsh criticisms, anger, hatred, even threats. Or people explore the dark underworld of the Internet, places of pornography and violence, places they would never visit in the real world," he writes in his online article Psychology of Cyberspace.

4chan might seem like a shocking place to people who parachute into the culture, but not everyone is worried about it.

"It's not as nefarious as it may appear," said Leslie Doucet, an instructor at Queen's University who studied message boards and the people who use them. She believes it's generally good kids posting bad things.

"It's a way of reappropriating things that have been off limit for them in their own lives," said Doucet.

A taboo regularly broken on 4chan is pedophilia. It's often referred to jokingly. One 4chan icon is 'Pedobear.' He's a cartoon bear that usually pops up in message threads that have naked pictures of underage girls.

Doucet explained, "Pedobear doesn't stand for pro-pedophile. Pedobear was taken on as an icon after the original anonymous group helped the RCMP track down a known pedophile on the Internet."

Channers have also reappropriated the word 'fag.' New users are called ‘newfags,' veteran users are 'oldfags,' and so on.

Doucet explained that channers are "reappropriating fag to be a term of endearment rather than a putdown."

But 4chan language is often misinterpreted by those who take the black humour and straight-faced sarcasm seriously.

When some 4chan users, who called themselves Anonymous, took on the Church of Scientology, the mainstream media jumped on the story. It was shocked by what it found on 4chan, calling it an "Internet hate machine."

The voice of none is stronger than the voice of one

Kyle Klinefelter has a beef with the Church of Scientology.

The 18-year-old from Michigan said the religion has so consumed his uncle's life that he hasn't heard from him in six years.

Klinefelter's frustration with the church led him to "Anonymous," a loose association of people who frequent websites like 4chan.

Anonymous eschews definition. But essentially, it's a group of people who band together for purposes as varied as the content on the chans.

Members of Anonymous have made headlines for hacking Sarah Palin's e-mail, tricking Oprah into believing they were a group of organized child abusers and, most famously, declaring war on Scientology.

Lacking an identity, Anonymous launched web attacks and public demonstrations against the church -- which has a reputation for suing its critics -- without fear of reprisal.

"Anonymity allowed them to open up a discourse that absolutely, mainstream media was terrified to have," said Jesse Brown, host of the CBC's Search Engine.

Search Engine followed Anonymous over a series of episodes.

Initially, Brown was dismissive of the group, going so far as to call them "clowns" on air.

But he revised his position after seeing the group's first public demonstration in Toronto.

It was part of a day of protest that saw more than 7,000 peaceful demonstrators gather outside Scientology headquarters in 100 cities worldwide. Despite the group's chaos on the chans, Brown found the level of organization at the protest striking. "It was interesting to watch them, because no one is above anyone else in Anonymous," said Brown. "But some people took on roles of writing these guides of what to do and what not to do."

These aren't battle-hardened protesters. "It's young, 19, 20-somethings, male and female," said Leslie Doucet. She has also attended the demonstrations. Many of the protesters told her it was the first time they'd ever participated in anything like it.

"I think it's life-changing for them," she said.

But just because they're Anonymous doesn't mean the church won't fight back.

"[The church] has taken some of Anonymous to court. It has sent accusatory letters to some participants . . . accusing them of being terrorists," said Doucet.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Whether it's using AnonTalk to ask what ranch dressing tastes like, or hacking into Sarah Palin's e-mail under the auspices of Anonymous, motivations to be anonymous online are plenty.

But what are the consequences of anonymity?

Dr. David Davenport, an expert at Bilkent University in Turkey, said anonymous communication can undermine democracy. While he doesn't think we should worry about the group Anonymous, he cautions that the concept of a loose association of anonymous individuals is a problem.

"Even if they do nothing wrong, there is no guarantee that similar groups in the future will be law-abiding," he said.

Dr. Jennifer Reiss disagrees. The psychologist from Vancouver who works with criminals said that free speech is equally important as accountability. She said "shaking the foundations" of society by pulling practical jokes anonymously or by posting on the chans can be positive. Reiss believes it allows for freedom of the press and challenges people to think.

But she also believes anonymity can become harmful. "If and when it starts threatening people directly, then it crosses the line," she said.

Davenport draws a more stringent line. "Allowing individuals to hide behind a cloak of anonymity, whether online or off-line, is a mistake." When we can't hold people accountable for their actions, there is undoubtedly an increased risk of unlawful behaviour, he said.

Reiss said the risk has to do with the group, not the individual. "There's a risk in terms of people banding together and believing in something and then going as a group to do something that they wouldn't normally do as an individual."

But Reiss recognizes that anonymity can be beneficial. "We must also be mindful about blocking people's ability to express themselves and air ideas and thoughts that might be useful," she said.

Being anonymous can also help people discover their true identity, especially during adolescence, when we are prone to explore various identities. Anonymity can make this exploration easier. "It gives you a freedom to be something that you aren't at school, or at home, and that can be really beneficial," said Reiss, "but it can also be dangerous."

It's the danger that Davenport is focused on. He cites copyright infringement, computer viruses, cyber-stalking and identity theft as potential results of online anonymity. It also has the potential to corrupt. "One important factor, often forgotten by proponents of anonymous communications, is that those in positions of power could also use the cloak of anonymity to their own ends," he said.

'Footprints in the snow:' technology as cloak and curse

Anonymous cyber thieves and thugs may not be as threatening as they seem. While technology hides identities, it can also reveal them.

The average citizen is largely unaware of how available their personal information is online. David Fewer, staff counsel at the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC), said most Canadians aren't very anonymous at all. "Information networks are set up to leave footprints in the snow," said Fewer, who added that "unless people take steps to preserve their identities online, then it's very easy for third parties to identify them."

Technology exploits private information when people surf the Internet and send e-mails. Advertisements are quickly matched to sites visited and words searched through search engines like Google. The popular social networking site Facebook even aligns advertisements based on minor changes within a person's profile.

Fewer points out that organizations are increasingly interested in gathering personal information for commercial use. While technology is making targeted marketing easier, it's also allowing citizens to maintain their anonymity with privacy-enhancing software. Though, as Fewer added, "You have to take proactive steps to preserve that anonymity."

The Onion Router (TOR) is one of those steps. It's a free online service that allows its users to communicate anonymously on the Internet. The software sends encrypted information from router to router - or node to node - around the world before reaching its final destination. This prevents anyone from discovering the original IP address. Aside from sending e-mails, TOR is also commonly used for Internet Relay Chat (IRC), instant messaging and web browsing.

Shava Nerad, the former executive director of TOR, said she most commonly uses the software at coffee shops that offer free Internet. "Those wireless connections are completely unencrypted, and there are a huge number of sites online that will ask you for a username and password," she said. "That information will go right across the wireless network completely unencrypted."

That's just one example of how anonymity can be betrayed. Nerad said there are versions of the PDF reader from Adobe that will send a user's IP address to the server in which the PDF is stored. The same thing can happen with javascript or flash, Nerad said. "It's not supposed to do that. It's not really acceptable. But they don't really care."

 

Frances Willick, Chris Mitchell, John Paul Hogan, Emily Beers and Todd Devlin are students in the MA Journalism Program at the University of Western Ontario.

Who R U? An Exploration of Identity at the Edge of Tech, is a collaborative feature series created by the students of the 2008 Online Journalism class at the University of Western Ontario, Instructed by Wayne MacPhail. The series looks at how technology is changing our identities and our idea of identity. Each of the nine episodes includes a feature article, a podcast (part of the rabble podcast network) and a video segment on rabbletv. We'll feature one episode a week, each Thursday here on rabble.ca. Hope you enjoy Who R U? We welcome your feedback, as do the great students who produced the series. Thanks to all of them for sharing their work with the rabble audience.

 

 

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