1/13/2009

Discussion: Anonymity Online

About two weeks ago, I outlined my research plan and discussed the different forms of "autobiographical writing" online. I ended the post writing that "tomorrow" I'll discuss the other key concept I'm examining: anonymity. As it were, this terrible thing called final exams rolled around... first it was giving final exams to the poor elementary kids I teach taught English to this past semester, now it's the poor university age kid (me) who needs to survive his own week of exams. But, amidst the horror, there 'ought to be room to procrastinate constructively and copy down the outline I've already handwritten explaining my understanding of this topic. EDIT: and now that failed too... it's been another couple of days... -insert awkward laughter-

Well, the last time I talked about my research with my framing question about "autobiography and anonymity online in China", I discussed the term "autobiography". In this post, I'll discuss the term "anonymity." First of all, what is a good definition of anonymity? Well, anonymity is the state of being anonymous. From the Greek anonmos, a = without; nonmos = name, lacking name. Anonymous as I'm thinking about it here is usually defined along the lines of "having an unknown or withheld authorship or agency". Authorship is an interesting issue, particularly due to Foucault's essay "What is an Author?" which while very hard to follow (this summary might be useful) leads us into some rather relevant questions about the meaning of authorship. What is the relationship between a text and the author? To be horrifyingly simplistic, we could say that Foucault sees that in the how we consider literature, we can consider the role of the author is to act as a conduit for the representation of certain ideas that exist within their society. Foucault also posits, the rather memorable thought about the "death of the author", a lens for which us to think of the author as more than just an individual. I would think that the "death of the author" is not that dissimilar to a state of anonymity, of course, Foucault is asking us to imagine the great authors as though they were anonymous, on the internet, our authors are not "the greats" but they are conveniently already anonymous, giving us the ability to skip right to considering them for the picture of society which they can give us.

I would state a fact I don't care to verify with numbers: a minority of well-known online writers are anonymous, but a majority of online writers are anonymous. I would also note that all well-known online writers are bloggers. For most successful bloggers, the blogging medium acts as a self-promotion device. The ordinary online writer however, uses blogs and forums alike to "vent information" onto the internet. Anonymity for the ordinary the person means the freedom to be honest in expressing opinions and feelings.

BUT (I write in big scary letters and circle a few times in my notes) what happens when the readers choose to intrude on your anonymity. And that is a, if not the, central issue on the Chinese online world right now. China had a very predicatable 2008. The normal disasters, protests, counterprotests and finally the long expected and fully scripted Olympics... but no one expected the emergence of the Human Flesh Searches. The Human Flesh Searches have hunted down the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful in mass pursuits that not only highlight how much of our personal information can be garnered through the internet, but also how tenuous the anonymity we cling to really is.

Why do Human Flesh Searchers seek to unmask the identity of the authors or subjects of their targeted searches? Skepticism, anger and/or a call to action cause readers to wish they knew the author's identity. Identity is context, which in turn lends verifiability to any knowledge claim. Is the internet a contextless space? At times, it may seem so spontaneous, but I firmly believe that the internet is a part of the physical world, as much as a book or a table might be, as such blog posts and comments on forums and blogs alike do not simply spontaneously "pop" into existance. They come from somewhere, and there is a certain hunger that us ordinary folks feel to know who is communicating that opinion to us, or who that is holding that placard.

Human Flesh Searches come out of this hunger for context that is quite understandable, but a very fundamental fear that observers of this phenonma have is how they have so often transformed into Witch Hunts, which we can clichely compare to the Cultural Revolution, which I'd prefer not to go into. Rather let's focus our attention on this oh so important notion of real world repurcussions for online action. Certainly, this Human Flesh Search phenonma is going to forever complicate the way in which we think about anonymity in China.

Who are we writing to when we write online? I know the readers of this blog must number in the handful, dozens maybe. Though perhaps I could account for future readers, but even that seems a little self-indulgent. For the most part, I am writing for myself. Of course, my identity is out in the open. In my earlier post I discussed diary writing versus online writing as two distinct forms of autobiographical writing. An anonymous author of a blog or forum post about their own life is writing a diary in the sense that the act of writing does not unmask them in connection with the story they are writing about. It is still private for them. But simultaneously many people are free to read it and come to their own conclusions about the work, just as takes place with any published work. Now whereto is the author?

If he were alive today, I expect that Foucault would have a very big smile on his face.

1 comment:

redbean said...
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