Monday, June 14, 2010

On Anonymity

When discussing anonymous identification, in this case pertaining to online communities and forums, there are a few different issues to take into account. A few I discussed previously, in my short look at usernames and names, what they mean to us, and if they are important to a community.

On the other hand, when people are allowed to be anonymous, they can disconnect themselves from a name, as well as from their own appearance and history. This shield from accountability can lead to behavior that builds a community, or destroys it. Unrelated to the strength of the community, the behavior of the community may lean toward socially accepted good or bad based on the allowance of anonymous identification.

Note that this discussion will not relate to whether humans are naturally good or bad (the answer is neither by the way), since we are discussing matured humans who have accepted society. The basic nature of humans does not relate to how they act once integrated into the world.

Law, or more specifically criminology, has beliefs on the effectiveness of laws based on how likely a law is to be enforced. While people should not jaywalk, people often do so anyway because they don't know anyone that has been punished for jaywalking. The proliferation of music downloads, and torrenting, are also considered related to the likely-hood of being punished. While punishment related to music arrest have become more common in the news, it is usually punishment for those who run the websites or programs that download the music, not the downloaders themselves.

This idea reflects on society in general. While every culture reflects its ideas of unacceptable behavior on every child, a person may decide that they will take part in that unacceptable behavior if there is no fear of being punished. This is how people start smoking, cursing, watching porn, using racially charged words, etc. A child who knows their parents won't punish them if they skip school, has a high likely-hood of skipping more often.

We also know that as humans, we like to move with the crowd. From music, to art, to TV shows, to food, we like to do something if other people are doing it as well. The ancient phrase “If ____ jumped off a bridge, would you too?” is based on this very thing. When faced with the choice of acting like those we are often around, or following some greater rule of society, nature says to follow the crowd. If everyone looks one way, you look there too. If everyone starts running, you don't ask questions, you just get out of there!

So we know now that names are important for identification, accountability, and punishment. We also know that without the fear of punishment, humans may partake of behavior that they know is socially unacceptable. Finally, we know that humans like to act as a crowd, following what others are doing if they find enough people are doing it.

In relation to anonymous identification, communities that allow it, of course the primary case being Christopher Poole's, are a risky environment.

There are situations where people do good things when anonymous, blood donors, toy drives and other donations show that people can do great things when given the chance to do something without getting credit. Of course, these situations are also framed so that the one input that people can give, is good things. The movement of the crowd in this case is toward helping others, and since this framework is established there is no risk that unacceptable behavior will come out it.

When not given a structure, humans acting anonymously are a bit more random. Christopher Poole recently gave a presentation at the TED2010 conference, discussing some of the acts 4chan has accomplished. Saving a cat nicknamed Dusty was one, the resurgence of singer Rick Astley was another. The memetic spread of 4chan has greatly influenced the internet, this is undeniable. Lots of known memes, repeatable phrases and/or images, have either started or grown to full power on 4chan's pages. So has a lot of images of graphic violence, racist imagery and phrases, and mass piracy.

In the case of a site like that, where many posters discuss things with one another while many are completely anonymous, it does not take much for people to become negative, or purposely antagonize one another. The only consequence are breaking the hard rules of the community, anything short of that is accepted and therefore happens often. Trolling one another, purposely antagonizing someone in order to see their reaction or ruin their conversation, is not only common but a part of the culture.

Why this happens may relate to the earlier issues discussed. People are capable of acting good when anonymous, and if this happens then it is possible that others will see this and decide that they should also act good. When acting good though, there is no risk involved. On the other hand, an online community is the perfect place to act in ways that society usually does not allow or accept, because there is no risk for punishment. So when one person discovers this, and decides that they want to antagonize someone, or spill discriminating words for no reason, or show graphic imagery for no reason other than to shock someone; others see this, realize they can do likewise, and partake in the actions of the crowd.

An anonymous community has the capability to be very useful for the same reasons it is risky. It is also a place where people need not risk being judged based on past instigations or comments, each of their ideas can be identified and judged based on the comments merits. In a place where an arbiter made sure comments and rebuttals were relevant and informed, this would be a boon for frank discussion where people were not afraid to say the things everyone did not want to hear. Without these things, there is no reason to take a comment seriously, when it may be more fun for one of hundreds of people to troll the person's stance instead, giving falsified or unsubstantiated replies instead.

When looking at anonymous as a framework for an online community, there are a lot of issues, but a lot of possibility for gain. Though people may have the capability to do good things, or get a lot done, this often doesn't happen when it may seem more enjoyable or refreshing to antagonize one another instead. This is not a reason to abandon the internet as a place of community though.

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Lord Uertu: Part 1 (Rough Draft)

The task here is one I take far too lightly, to recreate the image of god. I will use the little 'g' here to limit my offense, since no matter how you look at it, this is simply fictional. I will try to do everything with purpose, from names to actions to words, so know that this is not simply idle blasphemy. For those of you that enjoy idle blasphemy, I guess you can appreciate this too. Though this, the first part, is rather bland. But it is necessary, like the opening cinematic to an adventure game.

There was chaos to begin. A swirling void of blackness without end, no order to be spoken of with no one to speak of it. No mortal creatures stirred, no bodies moved, there was only the void and its occupant.

Within that endless darkness there stood one hard light, emanating piercing warmth through the vast nothingness. That light came from power divine, that went where it pleased, did what it pleased. That light was Uertu, majesty without origin. Uertu's light shined from his domain, a Crystal Haven in the dark of chaos. From there, the gem-hued walls spread Uertu's light to every corner he wished it, split back chaos with its very presence. Yet there was still only him.

Despite Uertu's great power, there was no one to know it. No one drew benefit from his vast light, which concerned him. Standing over chaos, there was nothing but his light, and its dark. For all his light, there was still much more darkness.

Seeing this, Uertu spoke, “What is Uertu with no one to know him? If I am good, then let there be beings to know me as good.”

The light grew bright, peeling back the folds of chaos as Uertu began his work. With great grace came the matter, and with great energy it became the cosmos we know. Chaos cradled it, that unwanted dark held out by Uertu's great energy.

Within the cosmos sped bodies, molten, frozen, hurtling and spinning, all centered on the Crystal Haven.

Then one of such bodies out of many was chosen, for its shape and size pleased him, and Uertu rested above it. To Uertu, creating life was a small task, but to create future subjects took forethought. So others were brought before him, his own children.

When his many children came before him, Uertu spoke again, “Know that now I create life, with purpose. These beings will live, love, and lose to learn of me. I wish that they will seek me, and through seeking their Lord they will gain entrance to the Crystal Haven. To such as them my power will be infinite, my knowledge will be infallible, my actions will be everything. Through their trials on this rock, let them be tested for worthiness, and let you test them my children.”

Uertu pointed out three of his children, “You Meret, let them act for you without knowing what you wish of them my son. They will risk death and the eternity of chaos in hopes of your rewards. You Morallite, They will seek you, want you, yet never know you. Hide among them my daughter and be the untouchable treasure. Lastly you Iustys, chiseled from the stone, let them beg for you, yet fear you. They will not want the touch of your hand, yet seek your mighty fist.”

The three children understood, and this pleased Lord Uertu. Then life was created. First the plants came , sprouts of lush life that colored the world. Then came the creatures of all sorts, smallest first to biggest. Then time passed, as Uertu's subjects were not among these.

With ages passed, Man appeared, and Uertu's children went to them. The trial of life was to enter its first chapter.

Next Chapter: Enter King Kno's Ledge, and Meret

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

On Usernames

On the topic of usernames, the first thing to consider is names in general. While it is of no use to think of names at a time before written record, it is important to think about the meaning and tradition built up around them. In some cultures your name comes directly from the names of your parents, in others it is given to you from an endless list of possibilities. Old fashioned Indonesian names are simply one name, while other cultures can produce more than five for one person. They may also have a greater meaning, belonging to the hopes parents have for their child, or omens witnessed around the time of birth. Names can simply relate to visual things, star, flower. They can also be concepts, like hope.

Names also traditionally hold power. Someone's true name allows magical influence over, or may call its eye upon you. While this idea is much older than the Christian faith, this is the reason why the Jewish people withhold the name of their lord, and don't write it somewhere that can be erased. Those who know your name are close to you sympathetically, they can have influence over you. Without the need for magic or faith, this is true on a base level. Names work as identification for accusation, commendation, all close human acts. When we do not wish to be moved by someone, to stay completely detached, we purposely neglect to learn their name. Those we have not learned the name of, we cannot truly know.

From just this we know a lot about names. Names can mean a lot just in their words, or mean very little. Words can relate to the world, or something greater than the world. Names can identify you as part of a culture. They can be long or short. Most of all, names have power.

This all applies to usernames as well, the monikers people self-apply for use online or within specific services. A username may relate to physical concepts like places or things, or to metaphysical concepts. Often usernames can identify you as part of a culture, 'azn' being shorthand for a generalization its users often hate to have aimed at them; they are Asian and want us to know. Usernames may have length longer than actually required, gaining decoration and numbers like 'xXcoolguyXx' or 'diamondprohere23' that may have no bearing on the name itself.

One thing that cannot be denied though is that usernames have power. Like any name, it allows for one to identify another, for the sake of admonishment or praise. The username will allow one to be singled out. Usernames and the identification with them can also lead to popularity, say the right things at the right places and people will remember you.

Yet a username is not a true name. Should they still be respected? One name is under another name meant only for virtual purposes. That username may only exist at that one place, or carry over to many others. It is possible then that when that username is being used, the person beneath is acting differently than they normally would. While their username can be held accountable for these actions, sometimes they (the person) cannot be. Several usernames all referring to one person is problematic for accountability, a basic piece of order.

Still, if that username can be punished, putting one internet troll to rest regardless of the repercussions for the true name behind it, the username has served its purpose. Within the community that username belongs to, the power of that name has been used. Even if the person behind the username was creating a false persona for that community, that person runs the risk of being punished based on the actions of that username. Therefore a username is very serious business, as serious as the internet itself even. Even if the content of a username seems like a joke, or the person behind the username seems less than serious, the username and person should be treated as just that. The username has meaning and power for that person, it may relate to history or concepts that they judged adequate to represent them. If they were in bad judgement based on the name alone, that is their choice, and they shall have to live with that choice.

This idea, of usernames representing the person as they exist within communities on the internet, gives way to discussion on the veil between user and community. The behavior created by anonymity is worth a look all by itself.

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