Anonymity Away!

I came across the name of an old (relatively speaking I suppose) friend on the internet recently. As is standard procedure for me these days, I proceeded to put their name into Google, and was pleasantly surprised to find out that they had not only numerous hits in various communities, but a small personal webpage that they controlled.

People whose personal web pages come up while searching for their real name are typically what I would deem first class citizens of the internet: there are links to their contributions in online discussions or work, and you can both contact them easily, and with some work and a decent amount of background knowledge, get a good idea of their presence on the internet. For certain groups of people, the academic and tech communities come to mind, having insignificant-to-no results on a Google search immediately generates skepticism: where are the journal articles, the mailing list postings, the bug reports? You do not see such people being able to take part effectively in the discussions on most respected forums or blogs, RealClimate being one example.
If Google can’t find anything they’ve done, the question begs itself, have they done anything? While clearly the answer is generally yes, and the fault lies in the information not being available on the internet for search engines to find, there are generally few reasons for someone to allow themselves to be completely invisible on the internet. If you do not project a presence on the internet in a mildly significant and traceable way, it is difficult to contribute meaningfully to online projects: with no ‘credentials’, it’s tough to be taken seriously.

For a few years now, there have been options for those who didn’t have the technical wherewithal or time to bother setting up their own webspace, Geocities and Angelfire come to mind. Even with these tools, it wasn’t necessarily a fun or trivial task to put up a mildly decent website, and accordingly, only a small percentage did. With the bubble inflating once more, myspace and facebook (now the 4th and 28th most popular English language websites in the world respectively) would seem to vault millions of users into this first class citizenship. Now minor internet celebrities have links to their facebook or myspace profiles, and I have even seen such links proferred as evidence in defending online personas from accusations of ‘sockpuppetry’. Presumably the mild amount of time invested in the profiles of social networks websites provides a reasonable way to ensure that a unique legitimate person is behind each account.

It will be interesting to see where online communities go, greater dependance on the verifiability of participants, something that governments and those with an interest in monitoring activity on the internet would love, or a turn back towards near anonymity and its associated benefits and pitfalls.

2 Responses to “Anonymity Away!”

  1. sieber says:

    If you’re not on the Internet, you’re nobody? And if you have lots of hits (aka Brad Pitt) then you’re somebody? Perhaps that’s the future. But it sounds pretty sterile to me. Think of all the things that can’t be googled, for example the pleasant meal you had with a friend. Or can even that be googled?

  2. liam says:

    Mmmm, I was more thinking along the lines of if you can’t be tracked online, it’s hard to be taken seriously online. I don’t think I want my pleasant meal with a friend to be taken seriously, googled, or recorded anyways.