The Evolution of Anonymity in the Internet Age

As a child of the ’90s, I was growing up in one of the largest transitional periods in human history. The Internet Age was upon us.

I was born and raised in a small community in rural Alabama. The country. The backwoods. To give you an idea of how small the place was, my entire school (grades K-12) had around 800 students. While I was fortunate enough that my family could afford to travel for vacation almost every year, I mostly lived a sheltered life.

I rode bikes down the dirt road and explored neighbors’ hunting lands with my best friend in the summer. We’d get up at dawn, grab some provisions, and cycle out for the day’s adventure. We’d race old lawnmowers, build unstable treehouses, and swim in what were likely snake-infested creeks. We’d camp out under the stars. Our parents never asked where we were. As long as we showed up for supper and took a bath a few times each week to scrub the dirt off, we were generally left up to our own imaginations.

There was another aspect of growing up in the ’90s, and that was video games. At 16, I spent most of the summer in the fields picking watermelons or throwing bales of hay onto a trailer. It was hard work, but it kept me supplied with whatever video games I wanted. When not out in the wild, my best friend and I would be glued to a 19-inch television playing the Nintendo 64 (and later the Sega Dreamcast).

I lived in this somewhat country-bumpkin bubble with no idea of the outside world.

Then came the explosion of the internet. My family never had a computer at home. That left me to access this wonderful new thing during school hours or at a friend’s house.

Like pretty much every teen boy I knew at the time, the best use of the internet was logging into adult chatrooms and hoping to chat with a woman. Yeah, the average teenage boy wasn’t doing anything productive with the internet, even in the ’90s. Big surprise there. This isn’t groundbreaking news, folks. Move along.

There were other uses of chatrooms, such as finding other gamers. That’s where my original love of the internet began. I could talk to people across the world about Nintendo and Sega games. I even started getting pen-pals where we would exchange weekly emails.

At the time, there was this common saying among adults, “You don’t know who you’re talking to on that thing. It could be a fat, 40-year-old man living in his parents’ basement.” Hey, why you throwin’ shade at heavyset men? Just tell me it could be a psycho.

My parents drilled this lesson into my brain. School teachers did the same. Like my peers at the time, I was required to use a pseudonym when going online. The thought of using a real name was almost unheard of. As teens, we’d joke about the basement-dwelling bogeyman who our parents and teachers warned us against. It was all a game to us despite there being legitimate fears, particularly now that I have 20 years of hindsight at my disposal.

That’s where I came up with my username of greenshady, by the way. One day I may even tell what it means. One day. For now, I’ll keep all of you who have asked about it over the years guessing.

I used that username for years because there was always this little voice in the back of my mind telling me to remain anonymous.

Anonymity in the Age of Transparency

I’m not exactly sure at what point attitudes toward anonymity changed. Social networks likely played a huge role transitioning us from silly screen names to using our real-life names on the internet. Otherwise, it’d be harder for our real-life friends to find us on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere.

This prevailing attitude toward anonymity didn’t limit itself to social networks. More and more, people shunned the idea of anonymous posts or comments on blogs and elsewhere.

There’s likely some form of stardom attached to using real names as well. Everyone is just one video, one blog post, or one tweetstorm away from their 15 minutes in the spotlight.

Even within the WordPress community over the years, I’ve witnessed a shift toward automatically disliking anonymous comments. The prevailing idea is that a person’s contribution to a discussion has less worth if it’s hidden behind the veil of anonymity, that one’s opinions are invalid if they cannot be backed up by a real name.

It opens the person to attack not based on their ideas but on how they choose to present themselves online. This is a part of the culture that is unhealthy.

In a time when you can effectively be shut out from the modern-day public square for making one wrong statement, anonymity is more important than ever for some. Often, there’s no recourse for missteps after you’ve been taken down by the angry horde over a lapse in judgment. Once your name has been hauled through the mud and back again, there’s little you can do about it.

That little voice in the back of my mind, the one carefully crafted by my parents and teachers, is a reminder that a simpler period during the Internet Age once existed.

There are other pockets of the internet where the pseudonym has persisted. One area is in gaming. You’d be the oddball if using a real name in an online multiplayer match. I suppose “Brett” or “Molly” doesn’t strike fear in the hearts of enemies. The entire culture of online gaming is built upon anonymity, which is at odds with much of the internet world today. Frankly, I find it oddly satisfying.

I do wonder whether a real name online is important for civil discourse. Quite often, online personas are much different than their real-life counterparts. I mean, have you seen the numerous alpha-male groups on social networks made up of men who all think they’re the leaders of the pack? Hmmm…maybe there was some truth to that basement-dweller theory, after all. Thanks for the heads up, Mom and Dad.

The point is that an online persona, even attached to a real name, is still a persona. It’s not much different than a fake user handle.

I’d wager that the need to see a person’s real name has more to do with knowing exactly who to shun for controversial ideas rather than attaching some sort of validity to it. Usernames can be altered. You’re pretty much stuck with your real name, and mishaps follow your real name around.

As we were reviewing the Tavern’s comment policy last week, one point I brought up is that I believe we should allow anonymous comments. A large reason for this is that people should feel safe to communicate their thoughts within the community. While I won’t get into the specifics of internal discussions, I do hope that it’s something we officially remove from the policy.

Being in favor of anonymity does not mean being in favor of personal attacks or handing over a license to use a vulgar term as a username. It’s about protecting people’s ability to speak freely without fear of becoming an outcast within the community for an unpopular opinion.

Sometimes anonymity provides people the freedom they need to effectively discuss ideas. More importantly, it allows them to be a part of the community in a way that they choose.

Are We Moving back?

With the European Union, Japan, Australia, and other countries passing stricter privacy laws, there’s a growing movement to protect privacy across the world. While this movement has focused more on large corporations and what they do with personal data, there’s an underlying fear that’s likely been there from the beginning.

People are coming to the realization that we gave up too much.

We handed over our names. And, once we handed over our names, it was a slippery slope to handing over everything else about ourselves. If you dig deep enough you can find the names of all my cats and when they were all born.

I’m not sure how I feel about that. I’m in too deep at this point.

My parents from 20 years ago would not have liked the idea too much. My dad just uses YouTube to watch videos on building stuff for the most part today (it took years to stop him sending me email chains), but my stepmom is right there along with everyone else on social networks.

It’s odd to look back on the past 20 years to see how some of our initial fears surrounding anonymity have transformed. In another 20 years, we’ll all be back to using pseudonyms again. Call me out on it if I’m wrong. I do wonder if we’ll look back at this time and think everyone was crazy for using their real names.

I welcome your anonymous comments on this post. Just don’t use “wanker” for your handle.


19 responses to “The Evolution of Anonymity in the Internet Age”

  1. Sorry, I’m all for Privacy, but when you comment on a public blog, you should state your name and your post be judged by what you say. If you’re afraid to post something because you think it may affect you adversely, then simply don’t post. Contact the writer or other posters privately and make your argument. But letting anonymity back in will certainly spur on the nasty web that we’re trying to push to the shadows.

    • I disagree. Nobody should be forced to use their real name on every public platform.

      If you’re afraid to post something because you think it may affect you adversely, then simply don’t post.


      So you should remain silent instead? Not all people think alike, share the same values or have the same culture. Some people live in countries were their opinions, if not stated anonymous, can get them killed.

      Interactions and dynamics online are very different than in real life, but may have major concequences in real life. I can recommend the book “So you have been publicly shamed” by Jon Ronson (there also is a TED talk online about this). Jon illustrates perfectly how the internet and online attitudes have changed and how it can destroy people in real life.

      But letting anonymity back in will certainly spur on the nasty web that we’re trying to push to the shadows.

      I can see how anonymous trolls can be misused in all sorts of forms. I would not worry for them on platforms such as WPTavern though. House rules and moderation should tackle this.

      • Having worked in digital media for 30-years through AOL in beta to WP Tavern today, I have watched media companies struggle with the troll armies unleashed by allowing anonymous posts in comments.

        You bring up the fact that people can be killed for their opinion.
        Obviously, I’m sympathetic to the plight of others who live in far away lands who cannot speak out or share their views in fear of retribution.
        That is something we fortunately don’t have to face here in the United States of America…for now unless some rude and obnoxious politicians want to take that away because they are afraid of criticism. But that’s the point. On Twitter, we can see what an asshole Trump is. If he were able to post what he does anonymously, he could say and do just about anything. He could troll you and me for weeks and push us offline.

        This has been debated over and over, but media companies have come to the conclusion that a. It is too costly and time consuming to manage trolls online, because it’s never ending, b. If you have something to say, then you should qualify your statement with your identity, and c. you lose something in the conversation when people are allowed to say what they think without care or concern for others who do identify themselves.

        Look, you can opine all you want about how people in other countries can get killed for what they say online, but that’s what WhatsApp and 4chan and 8chan are for. There are places on the Internet where you can be anonymous if you want. But WP Tavern should not be that place. Because if you can’t stand behind your words here, then your words have less weight in the WordPress community. But you could certainly create an entirely new persona and post as you will anyway. You can figure out how to create anonymity. It may not be as easy, but it can be done. And, at the end if the day, there is a record somewhere tied to the email address you control that will tie you back to your words.

        There is no easy answer. Go ask the New York Times, who fought this battle, what they think. They require real names and so shouldn’t WP Tavern. No one wants troll wars of anonymous bots and fools infiltrating the discussion and disrupting the discourse. It’s unfortunate like needs to be this way, but giving people that long leash has shown over and over again the abyss that befalls the in-line community once you allow anonymity.

        It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is.

    • Why are anonymous comments automatically associated with trolls I wonder?

      Also, in the not too distant past the owners of WP Tavern have been known to differently treat people commenting using their real name and saying something opposite of what said owners want(ed) to hear.

      I know (of) several people, myself included, who have opted not to use their real name, because of the possible consequences.

      Why would my opinion be valued less, just because I choose to remain anonymous? Since I have that choice, why not exercise it?

      Last but not least you bring up the country where you live in, but I wonder what that has to do with it, because although WP Tavern is a US registered site, I can assure you that its readers are a global audience.

      • William,

        It’s proven time and time again that anonymity elicits trolling. If you have ever worked for a media company and confronted this issue, you will understand it from that perspective. If not, you’re only seeing it from the participants view.

        I clearly understand the dynamics of free speech here in the U.S. and limits to that speech elsewhere. But I don’t live there, I live here, and that’s my first priority. Not that I don’t want to discourage others to have their right to their opinion, but when you have anonymity you can take liberties you wouldn’t normally take and do things you wouldn’t normally do if you had to do it under your real name. That’s why people sometimes wear masks at protests, because they don’t want their identities revealed for the reasons you state. If they want to wear a mask and protest peacefully, that’s a shame and I wish no one had to succumb to that pressure. But if they do wear a mask and break windows and through Molotov cocktails, then that’s not right.

        I would love to be able to say to you, “sure, let’s them them all post anonymously.” And if everyone were able to, there would be no indication for anyone to measure the validity or the truthfulness of that statement.

        Nowhere in society is there a safe place to post anything anyway. Wherever you post, it’s going to be hard for you to do it anonymously unless you always log in as someone else. Even then, if that person is questioned and they say they shared their user/pass with you you’re going to be found out.

        You can scrape the bottom of the barrel and few people may ever be caught, but that’s because they were able to completely avoid tracking in every way.

        But let’s get back to WP Tavern. The site emanates from the U.S. and must follow U.S. established law. Most company lawyers would be loathe to allow anonymous posts because of liability concerns. Most Moderators of this forum and others are not professionally trained moderators. They most likely wouldn’t know where the line is between something that should be removed or not and someone with anonymity could sue a company for removing posts without a clearly explicit policy limiting that person’s right to speak. So enabling non-anonymity, while disabling some peoples right to speak freely behind a fake likeness or image, causes all sorts of problems that are more easily handled by enforcing a visible public image.

        I have seen time and time again online trolls disrupt conversations, threaten others, and otherwise diminish the conversation. Once you allow it, people can’t seem to behave themselves and others shouldn’t be subjected to linguistic violence by keyboard. They have as much right to know who is trolling them then the trolls have in harassment and bullying.

  2. I had no problems with aliases and cartoon avatars on blogs and forums while people were nice on the internet. I had one, I was present in forum and post and never revealed my real name. I remember those days. It didn’t matter much if the user named “Rockstar123” was 10 or 30 years old, male, female or from any religion. Even behind those fake identities, people were generally nice to each other.

    This does not happen anymore. People are nasty on the internet, especially anonymous. This is why, at least for my sites and social media interactions, I require a name (you can never be sure it is real) but at least it’s something.

    Can we go back when the internet was a better place?

  3. A better comment policy would be to stop censoring random people (like myself) for having controversial opinions. Your article assumes that users are afraid to mention controversial opinions, but I would argue that most users are not afraid of this, especially in the WordPress community where everyone has different agendas.

    Last week, Sarah deleted one of my comments because she said it sounded like a “personal attack.” This is very interesting, since many controversial and even insulting comments are regularly published here at WP Tavern when posted by certain individuals… this is of course your choice, as a property of Audrey Capital. But assuming your mission statement is in good faith, and you really do want to create a website for open discussions, such decisions are self-defeating and expose a rather bitter sort of hypocrisy.

    Encouraging anonymity in a community that’s rife with consumer fraud, fake reviews, spam, affiliate links, and secret quid-pro-quo deals is a very bad idea, frankly…

    Enabling users to update/edit comments is a better idea, alongside requiring real names. This allows people to fix their wording, change their mind, or so forth while still being honest about who they are and what they think, without worrying about permanency.

    • This reply of mine will now be audited, like all my others lately, but I challenge the moderators to explain [publicly] why I am on the watch list, when others — far more outspoken than I — are not. It appears to me to be a form of censorship.

  4. Being in favor of anonymity does not mean being in favor of personal attacks or handing over a license to use a vulgar term as a username. It’s about protecting people’s ability to speak freely without fear of becoming an outcast within the community for an unpopular opinion.

    I can see your argument here, and I think that anonymity can be a powerful way to protect those who might be subject to retribution. I think whistleblowers’ identities should be kept confidential, for example; I also think that incident reporting systems that allow anonymous reports of abusive behavior can be very beneficial.

    My immediate concern about welcoming anonymous comments on a news blog (that it emboldens people to say cruel/bigoted things) is probably not realistic if the comments policy is enforced.

    But that’s where I get stuck: the idea that anonymity will allow powerful people to avoid the repercussions of bad behavior, rather than help less-powerful people speak truth to power. Common practice seems to favor the former. If your intent is to facilitate the latter, and it works, then I’m all for it.

  5. Perhaps this movement of anonymous –> known happened together with the notion that internet = public square. If you want to express yourself in the public square discussion, you will not be wearing a V for Vendetta mask, at least people would recognize your face.

    In my own life I make a decision whether I want to participate on certain site/network/discussion in public square fashion or not.

    Taking this discussion to the WordPress world, I heard some stories of retaliation when people would raise their voice against the establishment. It’s encouraging to see people like Morten and others speaking up not only using their name, but from the stage.

  6. I am for it, the use of Anonymous comments that is. If we learned anything from social media’s various attempts at name policies, demanding people use “real names” is a privileged position. Granted it’s the owners sites, so the choice is theirs. But in general I am in favor, the same way I am in favor of a stated comment policy.

  7. Justin, it’s a very Stimulant post. Food for thought, really.

    While I’m older than you and I’m from a medium sized Italy town, my journey with internet and the web was similar to yours.
    I was at the college when the web started to be “a thing”, we had only access to it at school or at the public library.
    I didn’t was involved in online gaming but I was following the indipendent and alternative music scene and I was (am) playing in an band: exploring the web searching on altavista using mosaic for others band, looking for venues, the firsts virtual connections with our real fan spread along the country, the first band’s website, “hosted free thanks to Geocities”.
    At the time, anonymity or at least pseudonyms was the rule: it was not intended to hide ourselves from others, I think it was more a consequence of an unconscious thinking: “online I’m not the real me, I’m the projection of me on the web, I’m a person’s, I’m that nickname”. And, frankly it was also a game, a joke, it was funny to have an online nickname.
    I don’t know if it was better o worse, it was different.
    I think that all changed with the advent of social networks, and all the “personal branding” – “promote yourself” thing: now there is really no point to be “hidden” behind an username: at the contrary now the mantra is that you have to “be yourself” in the name of transparency, accountability, authority, and “self-promotion”… It’s all right, no problem, I too followed that path but, as you write, along the way I gave out a lot more than my real name…
    While we was loosing our pseudonyms on the Net, we lost some innocence (levity, nativity) too.

  8. I still don’t use my real name out in the World Wide Web, though I use it on Facebook. I want my friends to find me easily on Facebook, but I don’t want creepy trolls looking me up (has happened recently). That desire for anonymity and safety has stayed with me since the days of AOL.

  9. The thing that people always overlook in the debate about whether anonymity should be banned is that from a site administrator perspective, you’re not talking about a real name policy. You are actually talking about a technical means of identity verification and validation. To eliminate the fraction of anonymous abuse, you would be requiring all users to prove who they are, and to make the site administrators responsible for implementing those systems.

    In my work, I’m currently heavily involved in rebutting the UK’s quite awful plan to “make the internet a safe place for children” by requiring all internet usage to be age-gated. This means that all users, no matter who they are, and no matter what content they would be looking at (even WP blogs), would be required to prove their age through age verification data, such as a passport or a credit card. This would be done on a site-by-site basis, not at the ISP or browser level. It would be entirely the responsibility of site owners to implement these systems on their own time and money, which (as the draft plan was written) would effectively make site administrators the holders of outsourced databases of all the internet usage of the entire UK population linked to specific individuals, in addition to their credit card details or passport. How would you like that info sitting on your WP database?

    For what it’s worth, the only companies which have these mechanisms in place ready to deploy are in the adult web industry, and it goes without saying a lot of community members wouldn’t feel very comfortable outsourcing their site visitors’ identities and internet usage to them. There has always been the option to perhaps use a comment account linked to a social media handle, but then you are (to use the most obvious example) handing control over your visitors’ data as well as their opinions to Facebook, which is how the open web dies by a thousand comments.

    And you know what I’m going to say here: the engagement I’m doing on this draft plan is on behalf of the companies that want to stop this “but the children!” backdoor to privatised surveillance and care enough to show up to the fight. WP and open source projects which are going to be hit hard by it – it’s us who are going to be expected to code these systems for free, folks – are completely absent from the dialogue.

    When you talk about ending anonymity, you need to think about what you are asking for technically. Because it’s going to be your responsibility to set it up and hold that data.

  10. I still find this attitude is prevalent amongst young people when using platforms which allow it. If you hop on things like Discord, you will find most of the younger folk don’t use their real name. They all have humorous handles, usually filled with emoji’s.

    • Ryan, it would definitely bass ackwards, wouldn’t it, if we were all to start doing everything the young do?

      With the passing of the years comes experience, and knowledge, which oftentimes puts you in the position of not making the same mistakes you made when you were young, and were learning — what works and what doesn’t — by doing.

      • Sometimes yes. Although in the case of IT, I think the younger folk are much more clued up than the rest of us.

        I often hear of suggestions that teachers teach kids about online safety, and I’m sitting here thinking that perhaps the kids should be teaching the teacher about online safety.

  11. Life above the API tends to mean anonymity — there’s not a lot of (real, personal) social media use among elites. It’s about privacy, not being easily reached outside inner circle networks, which tend to be pretty traditional in how they work and communicate.

    Brian Eno predicted long ago that we’d have to create fake personas and inject personal disinformation into the world to keep from being targetted by niche marketing too accurately, but mere privacy and maybe insulation from influence campaigns we can’t refuse seem to be how it’s shaking out.

    @greenshady I’m really enjoying your writing here. Very much so! :-)

    • Good thought — a browser plugin that goes on the offensive instead of trying to hide the actual metadata, and deliberately throws out totally useless garbage for the trackers to consume. In fact, invites them to consume it and choke on what they steal. :D


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