Accountability, Anonymity, and Privacy

October 26, 2011

I am currently reading Seth Godin’s Small is the New Big: and 183 other riffs, rants and remarkable business ideas.  I have previously read his book Tribes, and both contain short snippets focusing on how you can turn “how we’ve always done things” on its head.  You may not agree with all he writes, but it is thought-provoking, and yet another way to get yourself to think “outside the box.”

One of the sections he discusses is Accountability.  As a librarian, I am all for privacy and unhindered freedom of expression.  However, in the days of anonymity on the Internet, Godin makes a good point that “total privacy and a cloak of invisibility” make people become more selfish, coarse, and edit themself less.  He feels that it is too easy to hide, and I have personally seen that.  When I occasionally read my hometown newspaper, people often comment on the stories, mostly anonymously. Many are very judgmental and vindictive, to the point of advocating that people deserve to be killed or saying hurtful things about their family.  How many of these people would be willing to put the same comments down if they knew their neighbors, friends, family, and coworkers could identify them as the poster?  Are their better ways to say things without resorting to cruelty?

Due to anonymity, the Internet frees up the ability for us to be more expressive than we maybe would have been in the past.  But, Godin argues, will this work against the idea of personal responsibility? As Godin states, anonymity and privacy are not the same.  In fact, if you look the two terms up in the dictionary, anonymity is the act of being unnamed, whereas privacy means being personal and not openly expressed.  So although you are being anonymous, you are not being private, as you expressing an opinion openly.  Your personally responsibility is still there, even if we don’t know who you are.

Libraries can think about this in terms of what they allow for regarding commenting on their sites.  Perhaps, due to our traditional protection of privacy, we are wise to allow our patrons to be anonymous.  However, how do we interact and solve problems if we don’t know who is the source of the comment?  And, some people get creeped out if they feel that their library is “following” them on Twitter or Facebook.  How can we tap into providing better customer service in an honest way without invading the privacy of our patrons?  And, do we have policies that stress civil discourse, or does anything go?

I don’t have an answer–but I think it is a valid idea to consider in your own life how much privacy versus anonymity you need.  People should have enough confidence in their opinions and abilities to honestly express themselves without a cloak of invisibility.  If you do not have that confidence, then you need to research the topic enough to have an informed opinion.  Using and promoting your library and its online resources helps your community to become an informed public, enabling us to debate the issues as fellow human beings, without the vitriol and hurtful rhetoric that is seen so much in our daily lives.  Do you feel that you can comment using your true name and feelings, or do you lurk behind anonymity?  Would it benefit your library and community to be less anonymous and more open?

It will be interesting to see how accountability evolves as online communication and social networking become the norm.  I hope that we can find a good balance between privacy and openness. I am going to try to be more forthright and less anonymous, and be willing to accept differing opinions, and argue my point of view, while respecting and considering others.


One Response to “Accountability, Anonymity, and Privacy”

  1. Enjoyed every bit of your post.Much thanks again. Fantastic.

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