Pluralistic: The real problem with anonymity (04 Mar 2024)

Today's links

A group of corporate executives seated behind a boardroom table. In the center of the table is a poop emoji, radiating stinklines and flies, perched atop a squashed Tinyletter logo. Their papers and faces are smeared with shit. A sign on the wall bears the Intuit logo. The CEO is wearing a Guy Fawkes mask.

The real problem with anonymity (permalink)

According to "the greater internet fuckwad theory," the ills of the internet can be traced to anonymity:

Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad

This isn't merely wrong, it's dangerously wrong. The idea that forcing people to identify themselves online will improve discourse is demonstrably untrue. Facebook famously adopted its "real names" policy because Mark Zuckerberg claimed to believe that "Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity":

In service to this claimed belief, Zuckerberg kicked off the "nym wars," turning himself into the sole arbiter of what each person's true name was, with predictably tragicomic consequences:

Facebook is, famously, one of the internet's most polluted reservoirs of toxic interpersonal conduct. That's not despite the fact that people have to use their "real" names to participate there, but because of it. After all, the people who are most vulnerable to bullying and harassment are the ones who choose pseudonyms or anonymity so that they can speak freely. Forcing people to use their "real names" means that the most powerful bullies speak with impunity, and their victims are faced with the choice of retreat or being targeted offline.

This can be a matter of life and death. Cambodian dictator Hun Sen uses Facebook's real names policy to force dissidents to unmask themselves, which exposes them to arbitrary detention, torture, and extrajudicial killing. For members of the Cambodian diaspora, the choice is to unmask themselves or expose their family back home to retaliation:

Some of the biggest internet fuckwads I've ever met – and I've met some big ones! – were utterly unashamed about using their real names. Some of the nicest people I know online have never told me their offline names. Greater internet fuckwad theory is just plain wrong.

But that doesn't mean that anonymity is totally harmless. There is a category of person who reliably uses a certain, specific kind of anonymity to do vicious things that inflicts serious harm on whole swathes of people: corporate bullies.

Take Tinyletter. Tinyletter is a beloved newsletter app that was created to help people who just wanted to talk to others, without a thought to going viral or getting rich. It was sold to Mailchimp, which was sold to Intuit, who killed it:

Tinyletter was a perfect little gem of a service. It cost almost nothing to run, and made an enormous number of peoples' lives better every day. Shutting it down was an act of corporate depravity by some faceless Intuit manager who woke up one day and said "Fuck all those people. Just fuck them."

No one knows who that person was. That person will never have to look those people in the eyes – those people whose lives were made poorer for that Intuit executive's indifference. That person is the greater fuckwad, and that fuckwaddery depends on their anonymity.

Or take Pixsy, a corporate shakedown outfit that helps copyleft trolls trick people into making tiny errors in Creative Commons attributions and then intimidates them into handing over thousands of dollars:

Copyleft trolling is an absolutely depraved practice, a petty grift practiced by greedy fuckwads who are completely indifferent to the harm they cause – even if it means bankrupting volunteer-run nonprofits for a buck:

Pixsy claims that it is proud of its work "defending artists' rights," but when I named the personnel who signed their names to these profoundly unethical legal threats, Pixsy CEO Kain Jones threatened to sue me:

The expectation of corporate anonymity runs deep and the press is surprisingly complicit. I once spent weeks working on an investigative story about a multinational corporation's practices. I spent hours on the phone with the company's VP of communications, over the course of many calls. When we were done, they said, "Now, of course, you can't name me in the article. All of that has to be attributed to 'a spokesperson.'"

I was baffled. Nothing this person said was a secret. They weren't blowing the whistle. They weren't leaking secrets. They were a corporate official, telling me the official corporate line. But they wouldn't sign their name to it.

I wrote an article about this for the Guardian. It was the only Guardian column any of my editors there ever rejected, in more than a decade of writing for them:

Given the press's deference to this anodyne anonymity, it's no wonder that official spokespeople expect this kind of anonymity. I routinely receive emails from corporate spokespeople disputing my characterization of their employer's conduct, but insisting that I not attribute their dubious – and often blatantly false – statements to them by name.

These are the greater corporate fuckwads, who commit their sins from behind a veil of anonymity. That brand of bloodless viciousness, depravity and fraud absolutely depends on anonymity.

Mark Zuckerberg claimed that "multiple identities" enabled bad behavior – as though it was somehow healthy for people to relate to their bosses, lovers, parents, toddlers and barbers in exactly the same way. Zuckerberg's motivation was utterly transparent: having "multiple identities" doesn't mean you "lack integrity" – it just makes it harder to target you for ads.

But Zuckerberg couldn't enshittify Facebook on his own. For that, he relies on a legion of anonymous Facebook managers. Some of these people undoubtably speak up for Facebook users' interests when their colleagues propose putting them in harm's way for the sake of some arbitrary KPI. But the ones who are making those mean little decisions? They absolutely rely on anonymity to do their dirty work.

Hey look at this (permalink)

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This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago The Orkut Song

#15yrsago Doctors force patients to sign gag orders forbidding online reviews

#10yrsago Edward Snowden to speak at SXSW

#10yrsago Delhi police lost password for complaints portal in 2006, haven’t checked it since

#5yrsago London councils plan to slash benefit payments with an “anti-fraud” system known to have a 20% failure rate

#5yrsago History is made: petition opposing the EU’s #Article13 internet censorship plan draws more signatures than any petition in human history

#5yrsago The People’s Republic of Walmart: how late-stage capitalism gives way to early-stage fully automated luxury communism

#5yrsago BATHDOOM: A Doom level based on a terrible bathroom remodel

#1yrago They’re still trying to ban cryptography

Upcoming appearances (permalink)

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Recent appearances (permalink)

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Latest books (permalink)

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Upcoming books (permalink)

  • Picks and Shovels: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about the heroic era of the PC, Tor Books, February 2025

  • Unauthorized Bread: a graphic novel adapted from my novella about refugees, toasters and DRM, FirstSecond, 2025

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Waxy (

Currently writing:

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS JAN 2025

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

Latest podcast: The Majority of Censorship is Self-Censorship

This work – excluding any serialized fiction – is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

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