What’s Your Username?

Online Anonymity
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Challenged by Diomedes on the battlefield of Troy, Glaucus, in the glorious custom of the ancient epic, declares his identity with eloquent thunder before engaging in combat with an enemy he respects enough to offer an introduction of himself.

Nothing could be further in attitude—that is, further from honor and courtesy—than the nameless, but no less thunderous, Internet troll.

We all know him—the commentor who rattles off irrelevant, disparaging, vulgar, or below-the-belt degradations under the cowardly security of a false username. While anonymity may be prudent at times for online protection against oppressive regimes, search engine indexing, professional profiling, and ad tracking, it seems (to this author) that anonymity is not vital on the typical Catholic forum. What’s more, neither is it conducive to authentic Catholic exchange. In fact, the “online disinhibition effect,” as it is called, tends to be antithetical to any meaningful dialogue between brothers and sisters in Christ.

Anonymity is considered by many a foundational hallmark of the Internet, a sine qua non of the online experience—or, at least, a central and seductive element in the so-called freedom of virtual reality. Pseudonymous philosophy is structured around standards of personal privacy and intrepid interaction, and while that may have been more applicable in the past than it is today, the fact is that online anonymity has become more damaging and desultory than enrichingly or prudentially defensive. In many ways, it is our ring of Gyges or Jekyll’s conscience-killing drug, allowing evil to be perpetrated without suffering negative consequences to one’s reputation.

As anyone who has succumbed to road rage knows, for instance, anonymity—that separation preventing one person from actually coming into personal contact with another—encourages people to think and speak without proper regard for others, or even for the truth. There can be a visceral tendency to act inappropriately when there is no actual encounter, when there is a shield or a barrier, when you don’t have to stand by your words by affixing your person to them in relation to another person.

The effect of such incognito slurs and slanders and would-be whistleblowing, from the dismissive to the defamatory, must affect our sense of decency and propriety—a natural result of disconnection and the unnatural illusion of control that the Internet bestows. There is a sinister and unrestrained quality in the username pseudonym that brings out the worst in people and leans toward the self-asserting and self-important vices of virtual reality. An honest approach in communication should involve using one’s name openly, and studies show (as does common sense and common experience) that people tend to be more courteous and circumspect when they do. 

Some call mean-spirited, indiscriminate, combox claptrap “free speech,” but is it freedom to assume the liberty of speech without personal responsibility or repercussion? No—this is mere license, and it is fraught with dangerous fires, for freedom can only be defined as an ability to act within what is good and moral and just. As the world wakes up to the probability that the Internet is not exactly the platform of free speech that it was widely presumed to be, that aspect of purported freedom, username anonymity, is absolutely worth addressing by the Catholic online community.

The Internet promotes a consequence-free mentality and activity, and Catholics ought to spurn these and their occasions whenever possible. There is a lure to hide behind online anonymity, which is chief among the debasing pitfalls of the online experience—we can be who we want, and do what we want, and say what we want, assuming an illusion of invulnerability and untouchable-ness. We can lash out, pontificate, and just be plain rude and get away with it, as if reality really were virtual. 

Taking responsibility for what you say, on the other hand, involves affixing your name to it and associating your personhood with what you say. Using your name, your identity, when communicating involves taking a certain amount of liability for what you say, even if only psychologically. One might say that it is a mystery connected with the power of the Name. On the contrary, speaking anonymously, or behind a pseudonym or a moniker, can give a sense of safety that entices one to speak one’s mind beyond the bounds of charity.

When there is no accountability, the temptation to give in to “BS” can also be strong, a further moral danger lurking for the anonymous poster. According to Princeton professor Harry G. Frankfurt’s popular theory of BS, BSers are simply unconcerned with truth, making them even more inimical to truth than liars, who at least acknowledge truth insofar as they intend to conceal it. The BSer is content to live in a linguistic la-la land, in a condition of commanding talk that is boldly indifferent to truth, and with the objective to make himself the object of attention or admiration, even if it be under a false name. 

And so, the pseudonymous BSer blathers and pontificates without regard for truth or falsehood, so long as he occupies the spotlight and seizes celebrity opportunity through dis-informational overload and instantaneous publication. The trolling condemners and defamers of the worldwide web, are, unfortunately, quite full of just such “bull.” They very often have no idea what they’re talking about, and they don’t care. They don’t have to answer for what they say to any degree whatsoever, they simply give in to the impulse to attack, absolved by a mask.

Again, while there may be cases where anonymity is necessary for protection or prudence, the typical public forum or Catholic combox is no place where using one’s Christian name poses a threat. In fact, using it lends itself to more authenticity and charity in conversation, expression, and exchange of ideas. The nastiest commentators are almost always disguised, which, in these cases, divulges bad will and a wish to be removed from responsibility in saying whatever they please—an attitude that obviously has no place on a Catholic platform.

The greatest responsibility we all share is the one we bear for one another, for the welfare of the world, the good of our neighbors. As Dostoevsky wrote in Demons, “In sinning, each man sins against all, and each man is at least partly guilt for another’s sin. There is no isolated sin.” There is no isolated sin. What one does under a false name or secret identity in their basement can still rend the Body of Christ. The privacy of a pseudonym does not render sin private. There is no such thing as a private sin. 

We should, therefore, bear ourselves with sincerity and honesty online so that we can bear the responsibility of treating others with kindness, respect, patience, and charity even when the opportunity beckons to dig and deny and even denigrate. As Catholics, we are devoted to the truth and we should signal that devotion by the truth of our names, just as O.E. Parker in Flannery O’Connor’s story could not take up the grace of God before he surrendered to it through the utterance of his baptismal name, Obadiah Elihue. And speaking of truth, anonymity and its propensities have introduced a world of salt grains that render information unreliable and truth hard to find.

The striking thing about Glaucus and Diomedes is that, after identifying themselves to each other in the thick of war, they realize that their families were once allied, and so they vow friendship with one another. I wonder how many disagreements would yield wholesome fruit if only they were had under real names instead of pseudonymous usernames? At the end of the day, it is far more Catholic and far more courageous to pursue the truth under truthful auspices, and to behave in a civil, forthright manner in a public forum as one would in a public place. 

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]

Sean Fitzpatrick

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Sean Fitzpatrick is a senior contributor to Crisis and serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a Catholic boarding school for boys in Pennsylvania.

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