This post was written by Paolo Gabriel, a student in the Stanford’s Winter 2011 Networked Rhetoric class; it was designed to focus in on a particular source or research experience related to his project on social media and digital culture . See a more detailed overview of this assignment.
Currently listening to: Zeds Dead – Dark Side Dub
(comic originally created by Peter Steiner, published in The New Yorker, July 5, 1993)
As more and more people use integrated online social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and (now) Google, I feel like we have comfortably shifted into an online experience where the norm is to think, It’s pretty easy for people to track what I’m doing online. But remember those days when online interactions went hand in hand with anonymity? I do. As a user of the internet user since the late 90s, I want to point out that while online social interactions have made a more public shift with Web 2.0, the anonymous culture that began during the dawn of the internet is still alive, stirring together a complex gradient of user behaviors and generated content across the web.
How we can define and further generalize this complexity is the goal of my current research project. Through my Networked Rhetoric class, I am studying a collection of academic articles tying behavior with anonymity on and offline. Parallel to that, I am also conducting field research on popular websites of varying levels of anonymity, observing any patterns their users display when interacting and generating content. Through my work, I hope to find some concrete relationships between how much anonymity a user is granted (and is aware of) and how they behave themselves, providing samples that go beyond my generation’s “common sense.”
The text I am currently reading is actually somewhat of an outlier amongst my other materials. But it is really interesting, which is why I want to share it with all of you. Titled “On Anonymity in an Electronic Society: A Survey of Anonymous Communication Systems,” this article by Matthew Edman and Bülent Yener was published in ACM Computing Surveys in 2009. What makes this paper stand out is that it is a quantitative study of the various systems behind keeping users anonymous. To start, it sticks with a pre-internet definition of anonymity as “the state of being not identifiable within a set of subjects…” and builds its study around the definition. While I agree with the definition, it also makes me consider whether our idea of anonymity should be adjusted more to the internet. But that is a question not addressed by this article, so I will put if off for some other time.
What the survey does have, however, are numerous quantitative results that describe mixing networks, remailers, proxies, and routers; all of these are various means through which a user’s information can be passed through to retain anonymity online. And they tie some of these to more applicable examples, like trying to mail a letter that is difficult to trace back to you. The best part about this article, however, is that it provides equations – yes, equations – that describe the complication of some of these systems.
Before I get too caught up talking about this article, I need to take a step back. Unfortunately, as awesome as this study is, it makes up an almost insignificant portion of my research objective. It describes the ways one can be made anonymous online, but it says nothing about an anonymous user’s behavior. So how will I use this article? The quantitive data that it provides cannot be ignored. Furthermore, I side with the definitions and explanations that Edman and Yener use for anonymity online. Hopefully, I can use this article to lay the foundation for my introduction of anonymity online, on top of which I can lay down my applicable findings with confidence. I am still in the process of finding this information, so it’s back to the field for me. Here’s to finding some really exciting conclusions.
– Paolo Gabriel, Stanford University ’13