There are good reasons why many of us choose anonymity, says Mumsnet's Justine Roberts – some of the best things the web does depend on it
When it comes to how desirable anonymity on the web is, there is a growing consensus – namely that it's not. In fact, most of the great and the good seem to be in agreement with Plato, who rather depressingly argued that "wherever anyone thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust".
Online anonymity can be vital to people experiencing domestic violence or thoughts of suicide, says Justine Roberts
The internet, so the argument goes, is essentially uncivilised: a Wild West culture, redeemable only if we force everyone to identify themselves. So says Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook's marketing director and sister of co-creator Mark, who recently called for an end to online anonymity. "People behave a lot better when they have their real names down," she said.
The Advertising Standards Authority seems to agree, having ruled that TripAdvisor can no longer claim that all its reviews are "honest, real or trusted," prompting Charles Starmer-Smith, the Telegraph's travel news editor, to demand that "TripAdvisor anonymity must end".
Parliament seems to be moving towards a similar conclusion. The joint committee of MPs and peers that have been scrutinising the draft defamation bill released a report last October that included measures against online anonymity as a key part of proposals. In it they said:
"We expect and wish to promote a cultural shift towards a general recognition that unidentified postings are not to be treated as true, reliable or trustworthy. The desired outcome to be achieved — albeit not immediately — should be that they are ignored or not regarded as credible unless the author is willing to justify or defend what they have written by disclosing his or her identity."
But is anonymous content as worthless as all the above would have us believe? Is it reasonable for the government to promote a culture that devalues anonymity online as inherently dodgy in the eyes of right-minded folk as well as the law?
Here's the thing, far from being worse, I would argue that online user-generated content can be and is often better for being anonymous. Without the freedom to express thoughts and ideas and to organise anonymously online, would the Arab spring have come about? William Hague recently acknowledged the crucial role that internet-enabled speech played in the Arab spring. The freedom to comment anonymously online gave individuals the courage to share experiences of oppression safely.
Aside from this, there is a powerful utility defence. TripAdvisor's 50 million visitors a month must feel there's something to be said for anonymous advice or they wouldn't visit in such numbers. And even more crucially than getting the skinny on a Cornish B&B, anonymity allows people to speak freely about their problems.
Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than on Mumsnet, which I run, where users post under variety of weird and wonderful nicknames. Those nicknames allow them to be utterly honest in the way they could never be at the school gate – to reveal innermost concerns that they could not express in real life.
Take a scenario of someone contemplating suicide, who is concerned about talking about her feelings for fear of being identified in real life and the potential repercussions for family and career. As one user replied to another in such a situation: "You are safe here. Anonymous and all that shit. You. Are. Safe." Surely it would not be in the public interest, for example, if a woman being abused by her husband felt she could not seek help confidentially?
On Mumsnet, sadly, domestic violence is an all-too-familiar theme. Over the past two months there have been 83 discussion threads on the subject. As one user said on one of those to a victim of abuse:
"You say that you don't talk much in real life about your experiences of emotional abuse – this is where Mumsnet comes into its own, as people feel freer to open up here, anonymously, about what's going on and to figure it out, and there is a fantastic bunch of women who have been through the same thing – and sometimes it is even a person's only access to support and even ultimately friends."
Anonymity also helps people give honest advice. Do you really want to tell someone the reason their child is overweight is probably because they feed them crisps and fizzy drinks all day under your real name, or is it easier to be honest (and ultimately more useful) under a pseudonym? What's more, experienced professionals will freely give advice to thousands of others without fear that their real-life identities will be exposed. The ability to both ask and advise anonymously is at the very core of Mumsnet's utility and popularity.
Another Facebook high-flyer, chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, spoke this week about a growing trend away from anonymity and towards identity: "What we do online and on our mobile devices is increasingly about who we are. We are our real identities online." There are powerful forces pushing towards a less anonymous web. The more companies like Facebook and Google know about us, the more they can tailor their services to us and charge for highly targeted advertising.
Sure, there are parts of our online lives where it suits us better to use our real identities too, but we should resist those who argue that an end to anonymity would make for a better web. There are good reasons why many of us choose it and some of the best things the web does depend on it.