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the network engineer fears the backhoe, and the systems engineer fears the network engineer

SETEC ASTRONOMY

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This morning I learned about Secret via Tom Limoncelli’s Twitter. I’m not at all sure how I feel about this service.

As I understand it, the motivation behind this service is that people self-censor too aggressively when posting online, and so Secret offers a platform with many of the benefits of other social network platforms, but with pervasive anonymity. I understand the concern that people are keeping their real thoughts to themselves due to fear of the real-world consequences of their expressing controversial views; however, I tend to think that more often than not this is a good thing.

To be clear: I support strong pseudonymity in online discourse. I don’t like Facebook’s and Google Plus’ “real name” policies; I want to be able to interact with others online without them necessarily knowing where I work and where I live, and I want that for others as well. I also think that privacy and security in one-to-one communications is an indispensable component of the sort of world I want to live in, and I believe in the value of technologies that make this sort of communication possible (OpenPGP, Tor, CAcert, OTR Telegram, to name a few).

I feel differently when it comes to one-to-many communications, however. My introduction to online communities (I suppose I’m dating myself here) happened in places like LambdaMOO, Slashdot and Kuro5hin (no link, the site’s gone completely to shit, don’t say I didn’t warn you). Over time I started thinking about pseudonymity in terms of “strong” and “weak” pseudonymity; by this I mean that a communications platform that offers strong pseudonymity is one where a user’s identifiers (username, “handle”, profile picture etc.) have no enforced connection with that user’s real-world information, but remain consistent over time within the context of that communications platform, i.e. if I see a post from user “TheRealSlimShady” today, it’s reasonably straightforward for me to determine that that user was posting yesterday as “DoctorWorm” using only information provided by the communications platform. A communications platform that offers weak pseudonymity, on the other hand, is one where a user can change their identifiers at any time, and where the platform provides no mechanism for connecting one version of a user’s persona with another (as opposed to a communications platform that offers anonymity, in which users have no identifiers).

My experience is that weak pseudonymity and anonymity are corrosive to communities. When people feel confident that their words cannot be traced back to them, they treat each other horribly; apparently the temptation to hurt, to belittle, to defame, to tear down is too much for people to resist in the absence of any concern that others may hold them accountable for their actions. I’m not even talking about formal sanctions of any sort, or quantifiable reputation systems, or banning; I just mean that if you get ready to write a vitriolic public takedown of someone you don’t like, and then you stay your hand because you’re worried that your friends will think less of you when they read it tomorrow, then I would argue that that’s a beneficial societal self-regulation mechanism at work, and that a world with fewer vitriolic public takedowns is a good one to live in.

But what about striking blows against injustice? Am I saying that it’s wrong to speak out, to use the bully pulpit of easily accessible Web publishing to advocate for what you think is right and good? On the contrary; I’m arguing that if, for example, you think (as I do) that Theodore Beale is a waste of good oxygen, you should say so, and then take the consequences. If your friends will be shocked and appalled to learn that you hold this view, then maybe you need different friends.

But then again, I say this from a position of tremendous privilege. I have the luxury of not worrying that expressing this view will get me blacklisted in the social circles I care about, or bring me consequences in my professional life, or induce someone to throw a brick through my window. When I think of the sort of “controversial” topics I want to post about, I come up with stuff like wanting to talk with our product teams about Betsy Haibel’s The Fantasy and Abuse of the Manipulable User, and I worry that I’m going to get the side-eye from colleagues for using the term “rape culture”, not that I’m going to get fired.

Fundamentally, I don’t have a lot of skin in the game, which makes me feel like I have no business giving anyone a hard time for being unwilling to sign their name to to their activism, especially if they’ve got a lot less of a safety net than I do. So I guess it comes down to this: if you’re choosing between posting on Secret and not posting at all, I’d rather you have a voice than be voiceless.

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