Fezzik: Why do you wear a mask? Were you burned by acid, or something like that?Westley: Oh no. It’s just they’re terribly comfortable. I think everyone will be wearing them in the future.
–The Princess Bride (1987)
Jon Weisman, a New York Times editor, quit Twitter earlier this week (at least temporarily), primarily in response to anti-Semitic attacks.
My own experience is that it’s much easier to shrug off online criticism or insults if they are directed towards a pseudonym than towards your real name, let alone your family. It’s not surprising that many journalists find it infuriating that trolls can create anonymous accounts and tweet nonstop abuse at them, with no real means of payback, and we hear a fair amount of ire directed towards anonymity in general.
And yet, a number of the people I respect most online stay anonymous, partly because it protects them from abuse but mostly because the freedom to express certain views is conditional on not losing your job for it.
I’ve wondered sometimes if there is a distorting effect to pseudonymity. In the same way as you are not necessarily less yourself when you are with your family or friends than when you are by yourself, is the freedom to construct and air your views without the constraint of how the people you care about might react to those views necessarily healthy, or helpful? I don’t know.
And yet, over the last few years, the internet went from a place I felt perfectly comfortable discussing politics under my real name or in forums like Facebook to one I did not. Partly that was due to shifts in my views, though that chilling effect was as much cause as effect of those shifts. Partly it is just the nature of shifting technology, where our casual conversations exist in a searchable archive the whole world can see.
I haven’t been especially careful to conceal my identity (which is of no interest anyways), so if discovered, I can only say this:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended—
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearnèd luck
Now to ’scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long.
Else the Puck a liar call.
So good night unto you all.
Give me your hands if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 5