Here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, why do so many online commentators refuse to reveal their real names to hide behind some moniker such as ‘Anonymous’? To find out why, I went to America’s foremost conservative website, ImaginativeConservative.org, because of its high intellectual content, lively repartee and an audience so small that I could track down its nameless contributors.
Suzie: Winston Elliott III, as founder, editor and the inspiration driving The Imaginative Conservative, who are these anonymous commentators online?
Winston: Well, Suzie, the first time I suspected my wife, Barbara, but she’s a good speller and she always makes sense so I had to rule her out. I guess I don’t know.
Suzie: Doesn’t an email address sometimes betray an identity?
Winston: Not really. If someone’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, it means that there are 855 other people with hotmail accounts who also call themselves ‘dogdirt.’ So, it’s hard to narrow down. Lots of our anonymous contributors use that email address, but with different numbers of course.
Suzie: Might the anonymous critics fear retribution?
Winston: Over what? Articles about Tolkien and Christianity? Who’d go after them? Atheist hobbits? Or maybe someone fears that the Founding Fathers are still alive and have nasty lawyers? For a while I thought that maybe the nameless commentators were all senior government officials with such high levels of security-clearances that they were not permitted to reveal their identities, but then I read a lot of the comments: even the US Government can’t be that screwed up. I ruled out people who stock shelves at WalMart because their bosses probably don’t read our website even if they wanted to retaliate, and every time that I visit WalMart the stock assistants are too busy dropping trousers, scanning their backsides and emailing it out on their cell-phones. We haven’t had any of those sent in. Yet.
Suzie: The trail of anonymity led me deep into the pasturelands of Michigan, where a frequent contributor, Professor John Willson, has recently retired from Hillsdale College. Dr. Willson, besides being a respected historian, a renowned public speaker and a beloved teacher, have you ever tracked down an anonymous website contributor just to get even?
John: Come on! Don’t be silly.
Suzie: Even some mendacious clot as thick as ten laminated toilet-seats? Weren’t you ever tempted?
John: Look, Suzie, I’m only human, okay? Do I get irked by people too cowardly to sign their own names? Yeah, so what. But get even? Maybe I thought about it once or twice. Okay, maybe three or four times. It wouldn’t be hard, you know. Hire some pimple-faced IT major who doesn’t know his Huizinga from his hard-drive, get him to call up his syphilitic brother who works at an ISP and then track the computer registration code. Yes, and I do own John Randolph’s brass-barrelled, flintlock blunderbuss but that doesn’t mean that I load it, not with anything more lethal than rock-salt as a rule.
Suzie: So, why all this anonymity online?
John: Suzie, some of these young bed-wetters are so timid that they refuse to sign their own term-papers nowadays. I’d get anonymous exam answers. Sometimes I could puzzle out the author by his penmanship, and in the more extreme cases I could tell by sniffing the pages, but it really bothered me. I’d say that these correspondents lack the courage of their convictions, but I can’t really be certain that they have criminal records. Not all of them, anyway.
Suzie: Given The Imaginative Conservative’s parsimonious journalism travel budget I couldn’t visit Afghanistan, so I phoned a number given as a tip-off and over a bad connection to Kabul spoke to a frequent contributor who seems to call himself Nasty. Living in a country over-run by violent, radical-religious loons, was he aware of any vengeance planned against anonymous contributors to websites?
Nasty: Of course not. In Afghanistan anyone can write anything. Even if you are a non-believing, pork-eating, gin-swilling, subhuman, godless kaffir son of Shaitan – that’s just what we call them, nothing personal – anything goes so long as you’re male of course. Communities need some kind of standards after all. Please speak louder, my neighbor’s blowing himself up.
Suzie: Do you believe that any Taliban contribute to The Imaginative Conservative, discouraging contributors from using their real names? Contributors who might be, say, even leftwing and congenitally disabled mentally?
Nasty: Suzie, The Imaginative Conservative’s usual contributors all seem to be sweet-tempered, reflective, religious people; many of them Christians and quite a few of them Catholics. Speaking only for myself, I try to write only what seems consistent with the teachings of those great Catholics whom I continue to re-read and admire: Torquemada, for example.
Suzie: I tracked down an anonymous source who said that he knew another anonymous source who regularly contributes anonymous comments to the journal. He said that I could call him Anonymous, and I asked him why his anonymous friend, also called Anonymous, insisted on anonymity.
Anon: Well, like, you know, my friend didn’t used to be called Anonymous but his teacher writes for TIC and gave him a really lousy grade on a term paper so now he signs everything as Anonymous. He doesn’t want any more bad grades from Brad.
Suzie: The teacher is named Brad?
Anon: Did I say that? No, the teacher’s name is also Anonymous. It’s a common name around here. It’s Italian or Dutch or something. Like, whatever.
Suzie: And so you, Anonymous, were told by your friend, Anonymous, that the teacher named Anonymous graded him down because of some criticism that he wrote on the website, but not anonymously of course?
Anon: Not exactly. My friend wrote on his term-paper that Tupac Shakur was one of America’s Founding Fathers. You know, the guys who like signed the Declaration of Constitution and sold slaves to the Redcoats: the kind of innocent mistake that anyone could make. My friend said he only got as high a grade as a D-minus because he spelled his own name correctly, but now he like signs his papers and exams as Anonymous. It’s a lot safer. You can’t, you know, take too many chances with your grades if you want a multi-million-dollar salary in investment banking, like.
Suzie: So the anonymous online mystery continues. This is The Imaginative Conservative’s roving culture correspondent, Suzanne Creamcheese, keeping you up to date on every single change in The Permanent Things. Good night!