Anonymity and Social Networking: A Response to Ashok Malik
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

(Editor’s note- Ashok Malik is a well-wisher of CRI and a commmentator whose association and guidance we deeply value)

As opposed to some of the half-hearted defenses of free speech heard recently, it was refreshing to see Mr. Ashok Malik defend free speech forcefully. Although nary a voice has been raised in support of hate-speech, it is important to realise that ‘hate’, ‘vulgarity’ and ‘offense’ are subjective qualities. To issue a call for inclusion of hate speech and offensive speech under the ambit of ‘free speech’ is an unpopular stance to take, but in the interest of intellectual honesty, it is one argument that needs be made. While some words are certainly unacceptable in formal modes of communication and broadcasting, it is understood that their use is rampant amongst the masses in informal modes of communication. In case you are not convinced, please look up ‘Dhoni with his friends at ranchi’, on youtube. Some may find such speech offensive, but it was perfectly acceptable in an informal setting between friends. Therefore it is much better to let communities evolve their own standards of what is acceptable behaviour.

A problem then arises, as the social modes of communication blur the lines between formal and informal methods of communication. Anonymity, or to be more precise, the distance between the two parties involved in an exchange tends to dehumanize the other party, and makes it easier to resort to abuse[1]. There have been several studies in recent years evaluating the utility of anonymity to the online ecosystem[2],[3].The broad consensus is that while disclosure of identity may enforce accountability, it also dissuades people from speaking up, or challenging status-quo. An individual disclosing her identity opens herself up to the criticism, judgment and in cases of political activism, to physical dangers and career hardships. One who is ready to disclose their identity in spite of all this is indeed more courageous than one who isn’t. However, if the likes of Paolo Cagliari, Francois-Marie Arouet, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Eric Arthur Blaire and many more, have assumed alter-identities in the past to enable them to produce works of such high quality, there is no shame in resorting to the same.

Mr. Malik has perhaps seen the use of communities like twitter at close quarters for dissemination of news and other information. But, he fails to understand that twitter itself as a platform was not designed with dissemination of news in mind. In fact, at its inception, twitter was lampooned as a platform for stalkers and attention seekers. It was launched as a medium to share ‘a short burst of inconsequential information’, and it is fair to say that its creators could not have foreseen the uses twitter is being put to. Social networking isn’t limited to twitter or Facebook either. Multiple communities like Livejournal, Orkut, Reddit, eHarmony, Bharatmatrimony, LinkedIn, Youtube, 4chan have evolved in the social networking arena to cater to different needs. Each one of these communities have set their own standards of acceptable behaviour and have active methods of self-regulation and moderators to cater to its participants. Similarly, the level of transparency needed in a formal business-based community like Linkedin or a dating/relationship-centric community like would be completely different from the near anonymity ensured on 4chan.

By comparing the social interactions online with free markets, Mr. Malik broke new ground in Indian intellectual thinking. However, he betrays a socialist bias in referring to these interactions as a zero-sum game. As in free-markets where trade creates wealth, interactions on social networking websites facilitate exchange of information and generate a net positive impact. Such platforms enable creators of content to directly interact with their clients giving valuable feedback in real-time. To match such a wealth of information in the absence of these platforms would require prohibitively expensive marketing studies. The customers benefit by the direct feedback as it results in better products and services. However, as in any other social interaction, more attention (both positive and negative) is directed at popular figures on such communities. In spite of instances of such distress, the fact that many public figures choose to participate in such communities with relish implies that benefits far outweigh the issues faced on such platforms.

Moreover, Implementation of ‘verifiable name’ based incentives becomes such a nightmare that the marginal cost far outweighs the marginal utility. While ‘eHarmony’ may see marketable utility in enforcing two-tier services of the kind Mr.Malik espouses, others like twitter certainly have no incentive to do the same. The beauty of free-markets however is that in case twitter actually makes a move in that direction, yet another service will spring up to take this market space to cater to those requiring more privacy, and I believe the executives at twitter know that.

[1] Mann.L, “The baiting crowd in episodes of threatened suicide,” Journal of Pers. Soc. Psychology, 1981.
[2] Lim, D.; et. al, ” The Value of Anonymity on the Internet,” Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Springer Berlin, 2011.
[3] Helms, S. C.;  2001. “Translating Privacy  Values with  Technology,” Boston  University  School, Journal  o f  Science  and  Technology  Law  7:  288-305