Saturday, June 18, 2005

Wanker of the Day

Brian Conley.

Apparently the owner of Knoxville's Metro Pulse alt-weekly is the thinnest skinned man in the universe, responding to mild criticism on South Knox Bubba's blog by writing this rather intimidating (and illuminating) email to him, leading SKB to out himself.

Anonymity allows people the freedom to speak without fear of reprisals in other elements of your life. On the internet, where every little comment can potentially hang around forever, it allows people to communicate views without worrying about what current/future employers or customers may think of them. People do get fired/not hired for this kind of stuff. Without anonymity many people would not be able to talk politics on the internets. It allows people to separate their personal political/religious/whatever views from their personal/professional lives otherwise. It's truly a gift.

I was fortunate that I was able to be anonymous for as long as I was without ever being outed. There is certainly no right to anonymity, and I revealed enough personal information over time that one person was able to figure it out (they were kind enough to keep that particular scoop to themselves).

The accusation here is that SKB "abused" his anonymity. Anonymity can be abused if it's being used as a cover for illegal activities or actionable speech (libel). In both cases anonymity provides little cover - one subpoena to your ISP or web hosting company and it's all over. Anonymity could also be abused by posing as an "outsider" of some sort when you're actually an insider, or if you use it to mask some sort of hidden personal agenda or financial interest. To the extent that anonymity prevents knowing if those apply it can be criticized.

People divide their lives all of the time. Sally the business owner can to some degree separate herself from Sally the parent and Sally the activist. The ability to keep aspects separate is generally respected by people who are not assholes. On the internet, anonymity, while not strictly necessary, is close to being required to maintain that in the age of Google (not all people feel the need). Non-internet personal activities can be separated from your professional life simply by not socializing with colleagues. But, internet activities are always google-able.

Andrew Sullivan once said it wasn't fair that I was anonymous because it meant he couldn't go after me personally. Strange comment, I thought. I suppose being anonymous protected me from being accused of personal hypocrisy - say, if I were criticizing adultery while engaging in it myself or some other form of gross personal hypocrisy.

But, on the internet I was "Atrios" as SKB was "South Knox Bubba." Additional details about my personal life are almost entirely irrelevant, which is all knowing my real name would give you. And, once this blog had a certain prominence my reputation could rise and fall as "Atrios" separate from other aspects of my life. Being anonymous certainly didn't protect me from criticism.

After achieving enough prominence I couldn't have really complained if, say, Salon had outed me. It would have been a legitimate story I suppose, although it would still be poor editorial judgment. Now, if I really was Sidney Blumenthal or something like that then it would truly be a story - again the insider posing as outsider issue - but a story which is "who is Atrios? Oh, just some guy" isn't really much of a story.

Certainly at some point anonymity is unsustainable - towards the end I went to a few public events and did radio appearances and I certainly could no longer have any expectation of maintaining it, though I hoped that people would keep quiet until my professional situation changed.

But, this situation isn't about the right or expectations of anonymity, it's about a power imbalance between the owner of a local newspaper and some guy with a blog, and that newspaper owner using anonymity as means of intimidation. What a fucking wanker.