August 24, 2009

After Anonymity

Most online annoyances are anonymous. Email spammers, twitter spammers, trolls, splogs, script kiddies, scammers—they’re all anonymous. And most good writers (of text and of software) operate under their own names, if only so they can easily get paid. But anonymous and psuedonymous people are being squeezed out of the online ecosystem. Is that going to change the world?

Anonymity is harder to get

A while ago, I was testing out a new Blogger page. Blogger used to be simple—you signed up, you typed, you posted. Now they require a CAPTCHA.

I created a new reddit account. Again, a CAPTCHA (and a rate-limit, and a pretty aggressive automatic moderation system).

Which makes me wonder: if you create a new Gmail account, how likely is it that you’ll make it through the average spam filter. Most of the new accounts created are probably going to sell viagra, anyway, so why would Google bother setting their initial reputation to anything but the lowest of the low?

Anonymity is harder to keep

Even as it’s harder and harder to start a new fake identity, it’s getting harder to keep an old one. As more information is saved, sorted, and searched, psuedonymous writers get outed, and disappear. Someone creating a fake identity needs to be exceedingly careful: the best way to do it is to have a fake identity that does nothing related to anything the real-name identity is interested in, which is not exactly easy.

No one who gives people an audience—email providers, blogging hosters, and search engines—has any interest in allowing anonymity. The average anonymous identity will cause net harm to the network, and the helpful psuedonyms like _why are more or less impossible to identify in advance.

At the same time, having an online identity tied to your real name is getting more and more common. Google, for example, is giving schools free email and online office apps. This gives users an established, Google- and University-sanctioned identity, and no good reason to abandon it.

Subcultures and speakeasies

Some places still allow lots of anonymity. Tumblr, for example, is designed to make it easy to start a blog, whether or not it’s tied to an existing identity (on Tumblr or otherwise). Tumblr is small, it’s growing—and Tumblr spam is growing faster.

How did they get away with being spam-block free for so long? Simple: the site was small, and it spread through word of mouth. A speakeasy doesn’t need a bouncer, because the only people who go there already know people who go there. It’s the simplest case of reputation management: instead of explicitly vouching for your credibility (by paying for something, sending emails that don’t get bounced as spam, writing blog posts that get linked by non-spam blogs), you implicitly vouch for your credibility by knowing the right people.

So…

Anonymity doesn’t scale. Psuedonymity doesn’t work. On the Internet, they’re going to know you’re a dog, after all.