Recently, the New York Times ran an article entitled, "The Trolls Among Us." Trolls are people who purposefully disrupt online communities, forums, and discussion groups. Wired ran a similar article earlier this year entitled, "Mutilated Furries, Flying Phalluses: Put the Blame on Griefers, the Sociopaths of the Virtual World." Griefers are people who act in willfully antisocial behaviors seen in multiplayer games like Ultima Online and first-person shooters like Counter-Strike (fragging your own teammates, for instance, or repeatedly killing a player many levels below you). In the real, non-virtual world, we call these people A**holes.
Both Griefers and Trolls are relatively harmless when destroying their friends in a video game, but they become subject to legal ramifications when they begin to participate in cyber-bullying and cyber-harrassment. For example, Trolls once flooded the Epilepsy Foundation's forums with flashing images and links to animated color fields, leading at least one photosensitive user to claim that she had a seizure. In the non-virtual world, someone who intentionally ran into the a group of epileptic patients with flashing light displays attached to their clothing would more than likely be arrested. However, in the virtual world of cyberspace, the Trolls and Griefers work under a cloud of anonymity.
Anonymity is the source of the problem...and a double-edged sword. Anonymity is an essential feature in fostering honest, critical discussion of hot-button issues within online forums. At the same time, it protects the identity of those who wish to commit cyber-crimes. Anonymity is quite possibly one of the most important elements to consider as we continue to construct a virtual community on the world wide web.
Kevin Kelly wrote on this topic two years ago, and his essay is worth examining today. He wrote:
Anonymity is like a rare earth metal. These rare elements are an absolutely necessary ingredient in keeping a cell alive, but the amount needed is a mere hard-to-measure trace. In larger does these heavy metals are some of the most toxic substances known to a life. They kill. Take cadmium. Essential for life in very minute amounts; toxic in any significant amount.
Anonymity is the same. As a trace element in vanishing small doses, it's good for the system by enabling the occasional whistleblower, confessional, or persecuted dissent in a tyrannical regime. But if anonymity is present in any significant quantity, it will poison the system, even a half-rotten system.
I believe anonymity is essential. It is vital to a healthy society and market. Without the option of anonymity I believe a society would be less than optimal. Indeed I would fight vigorously to keep the option of being anonymous as an essential part of any society. It is both humane and wise.
At the same time I think there can be too much anonymity at work. When it becomes a default option it poisons the community -- like a rare-earth metal. My argument is not against anonymity but against too much of it.
How much is too much?
How little is too little?