Some time ago, Dawn Felagund made an interesting post about “outting” on the internet. Specifically she was writing about Violentacrez, a Reddit member who had (at the time Dawn wrote her article) recently been outted. Violentacrez is obviously not his real name, but some internet users had figured out who he was and revealed that real identity.
At first glance that sounds a bit iffy. Why not let Violentacrez enjoy his anonymity? For one thing, Violentacrez is one of the biggest trolls on the internet. As Dawn describes it,
The article tells the story of a troll on the social media site Reddit who established the site’s skeevy side, which led to its explosion in popularity, by setting up forums for such noble purposes as posting sexualized photos of underage girls, sharing stalker photos of women’s breasts and butts taken on the street (without the women’s knowledge, of course), and celebrating things like violence against women, racism, and Hitler. “I just like riling people up in my spare time,” says the troll, who posted under the handle Violentacrez.
Now, I’m a Tolkien fanfic writer. That means I take characters from the Tolkien books and Jackson movies and write new stories about them. Often I do quite heavy-duty philosophical work, such as (for example) the tension between faith and reason or the problem of evil. Sometimes it’s just character building or humor or fluff. I’ve also written about gender and sexuality and the way that plays out in a world where dynastic concerns are usually present. Sometimes I write about homosexuality, or the pressure a woman might face to be wedded, bedded, and properly bred. I’m also a grad student and that means in the near future I’ll be on the job market. While I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve written, it’s also not necessarily the first thing I want hiring committees to learn about me.
So I’m sensitive to the need for anonymity. There was a time when setting boundaries between what I wrote and did online and who could see it felt important. I’m sure there are other people who feel similarly. The internet is great at letting people talk about things they wouldn’t maybe feel comfortable talking about in their offline life. Sometimes it saves years of wasted life. (I’m thinking of the Slate story several months back, where Hasidic Jews used the internet to figure out they really did not want to be part of their community before leaving meant losing their children and jobs.) Sometimes it means a fuller, more authentic kind of life all around.
And sometimes it just means realizing you’re not as alone as you may initially believe – on this point I’m thinking of the way progressive Christian blogs helped me realize that I could be a Christian without having to agree on the Religious Right on cultural issues, or the way I have seen my atheist friends find community online. These are certainly good things, and many of them rely on anonymity, to a degree. Would I have been confident enough to admit I didn’t think homosexuality was per se sinful or abortion was murder, if that statement could turn up on an internet search? Probably not. But I’m definitely a better person for saying that than I would be otherwise, I think.
So what’s the difference? Why do I get my anonymity but VIolentacrez doesn’t? I think there’s a significant distinction at work here. The things I did and said anonymously weren’t immoral, just unpopular or socially awkward. Let’s say someone is a lesbian teen living in South Dakota. She wants to connect with other gay internet users, perhaps on advice or just for support from people who may have experienced similar discrimination. Maybe she just wants the reminder that other people are like her. I’m all in favor of her reaching out and finding a community, but I can also understand why she would want to do this without risking her family finding out she was gay through a Google search.
Violentacrez, on the other hand, isn’t just doing something that was frowned upon or would lead to awkward conversations with people. His actions were wrong. And it’s completely appropriate that they had real-world consequences. (I believe he lost his job, or at least had a hard talk with his employer?) Personally, I think the internet needs to find a better balance between anonymity and permanency. I mean, while I support the freedom anonymity is allowed, so much of the time people set up new accounts because they want to say hurtful, unproductive things they would never say otherwise. Just read the comments section of a blog entry or article at a major site. Just read YouTube comments sometime. Or don’t. Your psyche will probably thank you for it.
I was reminded of this by an interesting Jezebel story where teens made some pretty awful racist comments in the aftermath of Obama’s elections. Lots of people were doing that (see above comment re: comparative anonymity) but these kids used their real name. Since these kids also talked about their participation in high school athletics, Jezebel authors were able to contact the kids’ principals and asked them whether these comments jived with the schools’ ethos and policies on social media usage, and if not, why not?
I’m honestly not sure what to make of this one. On the one hand those comments were vile, and some of the kids are getting close to adulthood. I suspect that while they may actually have picked up some racist attitudes, the expression of those attitudes has more to do with immaturity than anything. It does seem a little petty to first get the kids in trouble and then publicly humiliate them on a major website. Since these kids are athletes and in some sense represent their school (and sign a contract saying they’ll act well all the time as part of that participation), the censoring of tweets doesn’t bother me so much. And this is certainly the kind of thing that is reprehensible for its own sake. But is this kind of outting okay?
My instinct is that outting people over racist comments made online is absolutely acceptable – but. In this particular case we’re talking about teenagers who have a relatively low profile (and weren’t, technically speaking, actually outted if their RL name was on their account). Because of that I think the better approach is to treat this as a teachable moment and actually help the kid realize that once you put something on the internet it’s there forever. Also, you know, confront the racism. It’s possible to respect someone, particularly an elected leader, without agreeing with him. I hated those ape cartoons of Bush Jr. when he was in office and I hate the racial undertones you see with Obama even more. If the kid really does believe these comments are true that needs addressing in the worst way. If he just thought he was being cool, that probably requires a talk or too as well.
What do you think? Where do you draw the line between normal fandom or other internet communities that actually use anonymity well, and people like Violentacrez? What are the dangers of anonymity, and how do we handle them?