Aristotle on anonymity

Way back in 2006 I had a series of newsletters about anonymity. That's when I first tried to separate anonymity from privacy -- but they still keep getting confused to this day.

Way back in 2006 I had a series of newsletters about anonymity (see "How far can you remain totally anonymous online?"). That's when I first tried to separate anonymity from privacy -- but they still keep getting confused to this day. After that I pretty much left anonymity alone and concentrated on defining and refining privacy in various digital contexts.

If I thought at all about anonymity it was in a political or legal context: Could someone post opinions without fear of retribution by doing so anonymously, and what weight should be given to anonymous postings?

DISCUSSION: What is privacy, really?

Turns out, though, that there's another context for anonymity, one not viewed so positively and one I hadn't thought about because of my own context: 1) I've been married for 40 years and 2) I haven't hired someone in 20 years.

A recent New York Times column ("Digital Diary: Is Anonymity Dead?" showed me what I was missing.

Jenna Wortham wrote:

"Consider a recent conversation with a friend: She was excited about an upcoming date with a new guy. There was just one concern -- she couldn't find anything on him after a cursory Google search. No pictures on Flickr or even an ancient MySpace account. His Twitter messages were nondescript and his Facebook profile -- or at least what she thought was his -- was sparsely filled out and his picture was blurry."

The guy had a good job and, according to the girl, a good reputation -- but the lack of a solid Web presence made her uneasy.

Turns out that lots of people make a Web search of others all the time -- and Wortham notes: "... not being able to find anything on the Web about a potential employee, babysitter or romantic connection could be considered borderline suspicious."

Now what she's talking about is, at most, relative anonymity. As I noted five years ago:

"If you look up 'anonymity' at answers.com, you'll find some variations in definition:

• 'The quality or state of being unknown or unacknowledged.' (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)

• 'The quality or state of being obscure.' (Roget's II: The New Thesaurus, Third Edition)

As the security experts will tell you, there's a wide gap between 'unknown' and 'obscure'!"

The lesson to be learned? When we're implementing relative anonymity and privacy controls it's well to remember that too much might have a negative impact. An Aristotelian approach (the Doctrine of the Mean, "Moral virtues are states of character lying at the mean between extremes of excess and deficiency") might be best.

Learn more about this topic

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