Online anonymity

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

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This entry was posted in CCR exchange: Student Research, Networked Rhetoric: Section 2, Stanford Networked Rhetorics class. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Online anonymity

  1. Pingback: Researching Networked Culture | The Cross-Cultural Rhetoric Blog

  2. wendylinlu says:

    Hey Paolo,

    This is a very well-written blog post. It is interesting to relate anonymity to deliberate methods to achieve it, such as the “mixing networks, remailers, proxies, and routers” you mentioned. I had never thought of anonymity in that since; usually creating fake accounts to post controversial comments comes to mind. I think that you can use the quantitative data to compare the portion of Internet users who engage in the methods mentioned in the article to the percentage of users who practice anonymous BEHAVIORS, or behaviors that they would not typically engage in if directly connected to their name.

    -wendy

  3. amartinsu13 says:

    You have a great topic: interesting to your audience and easy to find primary research. While reading the blog I was thinking “this source doesn’t really seem like it will be that useful to his argument about behavior,” and then you addressed that question yourself. Overall, this was a solid blog post, addressing every issue that the reader could potentially come up with. The only thing I can think of that was lacking was that you didn’t mention what websites you are using to do primary research on the varying levels of anonymity and user’s behavior. I assume 4chan as an example of completely anonymous, but what about semi-anonmymous (maybe forums)?

  4. phildelrosario says:

    Hey Paolo,

    Quite an interesting find of a source you have there. I find it really good that you keep yourself grounded and realistic about how you’ll use the source, but I do agree that it would make a great addition to your presentation because of its immense logos capabilities. I’m excited in seeing your topic evolve and mutate as you go along your research. Keep looking out for material like this that lets you expand on anonymity beyond the “common sense” that you mention.

  5. hspinks says:

    I remember when you told Phil and me about your topic in our small group way back when, and you compared talking online to wearing the Ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic. My interest was certainly piqued back then, but now, I’m even more excited to hear the results of your research. The ramifications of online anonymity seem far too fuzzy to attach numbers to, so I am excited to see the quantitative data for the project.

    Overall, a very nicely written blogpost – feels very personal without being informal.

  6. scolvin13 says:

    Hi Paolo,

    Nice work! I’m sorry that this source isn’t more significant to your research question, but you still conveyed a lot of enthusiasm for the data it provided. I’m really intrigued by the question of defining ‘anonymity,’ as I hadn’t thought about how the Internet may have shifted the definition. I would also be interested to hear if you plan to do any research into the Internet’s stolen identity problem– fake Twitter accounts for celebrities, for instance.

    Overall, I think you did a very enthusiastic job, although at times it felt slightly informal– perhaps better implemented in a presentation than a written project?

    Good luck.

  7. alexacrandall says:

    Hey Paolo,

    I think your topic is extremely interesting and is a question whose relevance cannot be denied. I like that you are addressing the question not only of how much anonymity users are provided with, but also how much anonymity they are aware of during their interactions online.
    That said, I think your blog post was good in that it reflected an informal tone that matched the arena of your comment well (your arena being online). I would be careful proof-reading and still remembering that you want to maintain maybe little bit more of an aura of authority on your topic. But, as I said, for a blog post, it worked well.
    Good luck with your research!

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