The real problem with anonymity

The banal anonymity of evil.

Cory Doctorow
5 min readMar 4, 2024

--

A group of corporate executives seated behind a boardroom table. In the center of the table is a poop emoji, radiating stinklines and flies, perched atop a squashed Tinyletter logo. Their papers and faces are smeared with shit. A sign on the wall bears the Intuit logo. The CEO is wearing a Guy Fawkes mask.

I’m on tour with my new, nationally bestselling novel The Bezzle! Catch me in TUCSON (Mar 9–10), then San Francisco (Mar 13), and more!

A yellow rectangle. On the left, in blue, are the words ‘Cory Doctorow.’ On the right, in black, is ‘The Bezzle.’ Between them is the motif from the cover of *The Bezzle*: an escheresque impossible triangle. The center of the triangle is a barred, smaller triangle that imprisons a silhouetted male figure in a suit. Two other male silhouettes in suits run alongside the top edges of the triangle.

According to “the greater internet fuckwad theory,” the ills of the internet can be traced to anonymity:

Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad

https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/greater-internet-fuckwad-theory

This isn’t merely wrong, it’s dangerously wrong. The idea that forcing people to identify themselves online will improve discourse is demonstrably untrue. Facebook famously adopted its “real names” policy because Mark Zuckerberg claimed to believe that “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity”:

https://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2010/05/14/facebook-and-radical-transparency-a-rant.html

In service to this claimed belief, Zuckerberg kicked off the “nym wars,” turning himself into the sole arbiter of what each person’s true name was, with predictably tragicomic consequences:

https://www.kalzumeus.com/2010/06/17/falsehoods-programmers-believe-about-names/

Facebook is, famously, one of the internet’s most polluted reservoirs of toxic interpersonal conduct. That’s not despite the fact that people have to use their “real” names to participate there, but because of it. After all, the people who are most vulnerable to bullying and harassment are the ones who choose pseudonyms or anonymity so that they can speak freely. Forcing people to use their “real names” means that the most powerful bullies speak with impunity, and their victims are faced with the choice of retreat or being targeted offline.

This can be a matter of life and death. Cambodian dictator Hun Sen uses Facebook’s real names policy to force dissidents to unmask themselves, which exposes them to arbitrary detention, torture, and extrajudicial killing. For members of the Cambodian diaspora, the choice is to unmask themselves or expose their family back home to retaliation:

https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/meghara/facebook-cambodia-democracy

Some of the biggest internet fuckwads I’ve ever met — and I’ve met some big ones! — were utterly unashamed about using their real names. Some of the nicest people I know online have never told me their offline names. Greater internet fuckwad theory is just plain wrong.

But that doesn’t mean that anonymity is totally harmless. There is a category of person who reliably uses a certain, specific kind of anonymity to do vicious things that inflicts serious harm on whole swathes of people: corporate bullies.

Take Tinyletter. Tinyletter is a beloved newsletter app that was created to help people who just wanted to talk to others, without a thought to going viral or getting rich. It was sold to Mailchimp, which was sold to Intuit, who killed it:

https://www.theverge.com/24085737/tinyletter-mailchimp-shut-down-email-newsletters

Tinyletter was a perfect little gem of a service. It cost almost nothing to run, and made an enormous number of peoples’ lives better every day. Shutting it down was an act of corporate depravity by some faceless Intuit manager who woke up one day and said “Fuck all those people. Just fuck them.”

No one knows who that person was. That person will never have to look those people in the eyes — those people whose lives were made poorer for that Intuit executive’s indifference. That person is the greater fuckwad, and that fuckwaddery depends on their anonymity.

Or take Pixsy, a corporate shakedown outfit that helps copyleft trolls trick people into making tiny errors in Creative Commons attributions and then intimidates them into handing over thousands of dollars:

https://pluralistic.net/2022/01/24/a-bug-in-early-creative-commons-licenses-has-enabled-a-new-breed-of-superpredator/

Copyleft trolling is an absolutely depraved practice, a petty grift practiced by greedy fuckwads who are completely indifferent to the harm they cause — even if it means bankrupting volunteer-run nonprofits for a buck:

https://pluralistic.net/2023/04/02/commafuckers-versus-the-commons/

Pixsy claims that it is proud of its work “defending artists’ rights,” but when I named the personnel who signed their names to these profoundly unethical legal threats, Pixsy CEO Kain Jones threatened to sue me:

https://pluralistic.net/2022/02/13/an-open-letter-to-pixsy-ceo-kain-jones-who-keeps-sending-me-legal-threats/

The expectation of corporate anonymity runs deep and the press is surprisingly complicit. I once spent weeks working on an investigative story about a multinational corporation’s practices. I spent hours on the phone with the company’s VP of communications, over the course of many calls. When we were done, they said, “Now, of course, you can’t name me in the article. All of that has to be attributed to ‘a spokesperson.’”

I was baffled. Nothing this person said was a secret. They weren’t blowing the whistle. They weren’t leaking secrets. They were a corporate official, telling me the official corporate line. But they wouldn’t sign their name to it.

I wrote an article about for the Guardian. It was the only Guardian column any of my editors there ever rejected, in more than a decade of writing for them:

https://memex.craphound.com/2012/05/14/anodyne-anonymity/

Given the press’s deference to this anodyne anonymity, it’s no wonder that official spokespeople expect this kind of anonymity. I routinely receive emails from corporate spokespeople disputing my characterization of their employer’s conduct, but insisting that I not attribute their dubious — and often blatantly false — statements to them by name.

These are the greater corporate fuckwads, who commit their sins from behind a veil of anonymity. That brand of bloodless viciousness, depravity and fraud absolutely depends on anonymity.

Mark Zuckerberg claimed that “multiple identities” enabled bad behavior — as though it was somehow healthy for people to relate to their bosses, lovers, parents, toddlers and barbers in exactly the same way. Zuckerberg’s motivation was utterly transparent: having “multiple identities” doesn’t mean you “lack integrity” — it just makes it harder to target you for ads.

But Zuckerberg couldn’t enshittify Facebook on his own. For that, he relies on a legion of anonymous Facebook managers. Some of these people undoubtably speak up for Facebook users’ interests when their colleagues propose putting them in harm’s way for the sake of some arbitrary KPI. But the ones who are making those mean little decisions? They absolutely rely on anonymity to do their dirty work.

White type on a dark grey background reading ‘Cory Doctorow novel collection book bundle.’ Also: the Tor Books logo.

Name your price for 18 of my DRM-free ebooks and support the Electronic Frontier Foundation with the Humble Cory Doctorow Bundle.

If you’d like an essay-formatted version of this post to read or share, here’s a link to it on pluralistic.net, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog:

https://pluralistic.net/2024/03/04/greater-corporate-fuckward-theory/#counterintuit-ive

--

--