Forum 4 – Anonymity

For this week’s forum discussion lets jump right the use of anonymity online. Here are two completely different opposite ends of the spectrum concerning anonymity. But they both raise lots of great questions that are important to consider.

For a first example consider the case of Gay Girl in Damascus blogger, Syrian-American lesbian Amina Abdallah Arraf. If you haven’t read about this story, here’s is the background of what was uncovered about Arraf over the last week.

Arraf is actually American graduate student Tom MacMaster who suggested that he

“had initially created Amina, his Arab lesbian character, as ‘a handle’ he would use when he wanted to contribute comments to online discussions. His aim, he said was to use the character to present “a perspective that doesn’t often get heard on the Middle East and that was also a challenge for me, as somebody who has aspirations as a novelist, to write in a voice of a character who is absolutely not me.”

MacMaster said that no one was hurt by his anonymity and use of a pseudonym. Another view is that MacMaster could have caused great harm to activists in Syria and that it could “discredit future efforts to build person-to-person links and to raise awareness.”

That last quote was from Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor of sociology at U of Maryland. Tufekci brings this concern from activists up but then goes on to suggest this question:

“(I)s Amina Araf the Panda of the Middle East Uprising? An eloquent, gay, out, dissident, attractive young woman who hits pretty much every note which appeals to broader Western publics?”

Did the West get sucked in? What does this mean for anonymity?

For example two, take the (completely different) case of @mayoremanuel, a fake and anonymous Twitter account created by Dan Sinker, a j-prof at Columbia Univ. in Chicago, to cover Rahm Emanuel’s run for mayor of Chicago.

@Mayoremanuel was funny to follow, but there is something else there as well in Sinker’s use of anonymity, journalism, storytelling and election coverage.

Here’s how Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic described Sinker’s @mayoremanuel:

“The profane, brilliant stream of tweets not only may be the most entertaining feed ever created, but it pushed the boundaries of the medium, making Twitter feel less like a humble platform for updating your status and more like a place where literature could happen.”

Questions to consider: Is there bad anonymity and good anonymity? Is there really anonymity on the Internet at all? What is anonymity’s place in online journalism? Does anonymity erode the trust of the public journalism is designed to serve? Is anonymity vital to the future of journalism? Consider these two examples, is one good and one bad? Can it ever be that black and white? What does either of these cases suggest about verification of information in the social web?

Read Tufecki’s compelling piece here. And read Madrigal’s fascinating take on @mayoremanuel here. Then weigh in with your thoughts in the comments below.

[photo: night86mare/Flickr)