I have been using the Internet long enough to have seen its gradual metamorphosis from its crude but beautiful original form into what the cool kids perceive it as today. The difference in perception between the old and new generation of users provides an insight into how profoundly the Internet has evolved. In fact, 'changed' is a better way to describe it, because deeming it an evolution of sorts would not only be inaccurate, but naive as well—a fact that will be clear as we delve further.
An old-school ritual
Ask an old-schooler to describe the Internet and he will compare it to an encyclopaedia. On the contrary, those born on this side of the millennium are most likely to term it as interactive television. To understand what causes this perceptual schism, you may want to head over to a quaint corner of this very website, where a slice of the old-school Internet stays hidden away behind a hyperlink. I mean the Tech2 Forum by that.
Once there, you will notice three fundamental differences between the forum and the website:
- The fact that it is text heavy, with a greater focus on information than images and videos.
- The forum users exhibit above-average levels of knowledge and awareness of tech issues than a regular reader of the main website.
- Unlike Tech2, the content here is completely user generated. The focus is more on creating and sharing information than just passively consuming it.
You could say that the comments section under the articles on the main website is a forum of sorts as well. However, spend a bit more time on the real forums and you'll notice a fundamental difference between these two. Unlike the comments section where everyone uses their real identities, Tech2 Forum users invariably hide behind an arbitrary handle. What gives? Why are these seemingly intelligent breed of Internet users so reluctant to reveal themselves?
It's not who you are, but what you have to say that matters
What's the deal with anonymity?
An average user, by now, might wonder exactly what's so frightening about exposing yourself on the Internet. Well, they don't use a pseudonym because they are afraid, but because this happens to be a norm across all forums. However, there's a genuine reason behind it, and very few really understand why it's done. To know why, a history lesson is in order, so bear with me on this one.
Long before social networking and video sharing websites came along, the Internet was a collection of forums, bulletin boards, USENET, or any other means of sharing and disseminating information. Even before its genesis as Internet, it was a gargantuan network created by scientists, engineers and academics as a means to collaborate on research projects. Somewhere along the line, the bright minds on this burgeoning network decided to keep its content free from the prejudices of name, rank, status and other trappings of the human nature in order to judge ideas on pure merit than on preconceived notions.
This move had an effect as profound as the separation of God and the State had on the American socio-political milieu. Still don't get what makes Internet anonymity the Promethean fire of this generation? Well, consider the handle "wuodland" belonging to a random Tech2 Forum user. What does it tell you about him? Nothing at all. In fact, I'm not even sure if it's a guy. I can't tell his nationality, colour, caste, creed, physical appearance, or social status—none of which has any bearing on his opinions, but these things nonetheless tend to colour our perception of what he has to say.
For all we know we know, wuodland could be a prodigious 8-year-old kid, or even a highly sophisticated sentient AI hooked up to the Internet. The truth is: it's hard for anyone to take a bot or a kid seriously despite the relevance of its arguments. However, it is because wuodland doesn't reveal anything about himself, we are forced to take his words on merit. You see, anonymity has more to do with upholding objectivity and protecting freedom of speech than just being a ruse to ensure safety.
A dark mirror
This concept isn't merely restricted to how others perceive you, but it has even deeper existential ramifications in the way you perceive yourself. The answer to understanding this lies in Jungian Archetypes. As per Carl Gustav Jung's take on the human psyche, the Self is an archetypal symbol of our conscious being, which in turn is a collection of several archetypes. The Persona is the archetype defining the facade that we put up for the society. Every single decision that you take is tempered by the social norms and regulations. In real life, you never can afford to do what your heart desires, because your actions have to stay within the confines of the law and what's socially acceptable.
However, when you resort to anonymity, you transcend all these societal norms and regulations. It is only on the Internet that you are truly free of being judged. It is, in fact, the best means to discover your Shadow archetype—a part of your consciousness that manifests itself when you are truly free of consequences. In short, your true inner self. The Internet isn't a mirror of your Persona, but a reflection of your Shadow. The image you see may not be what you had expected or hoped for, but the idea is to see it for yourself no matter how distorted the reflection may be.
That is precisely why I never reveal my identity online. Even the Facebook ID that I post from in the comments section has been created to fulfil a professional requirement. My identity on the Internet will always be inconsequential for me and unknown to others. You see, it's not who you are, but what you have to say that matters.
None of the people I know in real life are in my online contacts, and neither do I want to meet up with my online acquaintances. Doing so gives me the freedom to be objective while sharing ideas and information. To be honest, I prefer to be truthful on the Internet than just being nice for the sake of it.
Keep the flame burning
As large corporations and Internet entities seek greater means to monetise this bastard child of technology and expression, they have been trying to profile and put a tag on you as a commodity. The onus lies on you to keep this last remaining flame of fearless expression burning. Because, when you use your real name and invite the same people for whom you maintain a facade in real life—what's the difference really? Why be on the Internet at all then?!
The Internet wasn't meant to build up your social standing. It's an anonymous medium that lets you transcend the prejudices and censorship of the real world to express your true, unabashed thoughts. Anonymity is a gift. It's a shame to squander it away by revealing your identity on the one medium that lets you get away with it.