The end of anonymous?

When we first drafted our social media policy, one of the more controversial points was that we suggested that no employee should be anonymous online. We got pretty strong feedback around this, most of which centred on a need for people to be able to use online to discuss some topics that they might not want to their colleagues to find out about, illness being one example cited.

All of which made sense and of course there is no way, or indeed desire, to be totally prescriptive when it comes to an employee’s online activity. That said we did stress that there is no such thing as being anonymous online. A point which has been beautifully proven in two distinct ways this week with the self-outing of Belle du Jour, erstwhile London call girl and sex blogger, and the resignation of a school worker in St Louis, USA.

At first the revealing of Belle, or Dr Brooke Magnanti, seems fairly straightforward. After maintaining her anonymity successfully for several years, she came forward as she believed an ex-boyfriend was about to spill the beans. The really interesting bit is that her cover could’ve been blown six years ago by a savvy fellow  blogger, known only as Darren. When Belle first appeared on the UK blog scene it was rather small, and he quickly realised that the quality of blogging was such that it couldn’t be a the work of a newbie. He knew, and had met, many UK bloggers and one morning it hit him that it could be Magnanti He then spent a few months collecting circumstantial evidence which persuaded him it was and then, he didn’t go to the press. Rather he did something else which was quite marvellous. He created a googlewhack, the only page on the entire interwebz to feature both ‘Belle du Jour’ and ‘Dr Brooke Magnanti’, and checked out who visited this site. Last week when he realised that someone from the UK paper, the Daily Mail, was on the snoop, he contacted Magnanti through twitter and tipped her off. This in turn allowed Magnanti to control her own revealing, making it far less sensational and neutering much of the newsability of the entire story.

For me, this restores my faith in humanity. Darren could have made money from this but instead he set himself up as a protector of Magnanti’s right to be anonymous. Unlike the story from St Louis, which makes one shake ones head in despair. Last Friday the St Louis Post Dispatch posted an article about unusual foods and ask for comments on the craziest thing readers had ever eaten. One commentator was rather base with his one word reply and it was promptly deleted. He then posted it again and this time the site’s social media editor, Kurt Greenbaum, noticed that the email alert from WordPress included the name of a local school, so he called them. The school’s IT director then turned detective, they confronted an employee about it and he resigned.

Greenbaum cross-posted from his own blog a post cheerfully entitled, ‘Post a vulgar comment while you’re at work, lose your job’. I particularly like this statement from Greenbaum in the post:

I’m not identifying the guy who posted the comment because, obviously, I don’t know who it was. I’m not identifying the school because, frankly, it’s not important to the story and I have no interest in embarrassing the people there.

Which to my mind says that if he did know who it was, he would not hesitate in revealing who it was. Nice.

Unsurprisingly it has attracted many comments, including one with the obligatory Nazi reference, and the vast majority of them are against his actions.

So where does this leave us?

Well, safe in the assurance that there is no such thing as anonymity and there probably never was. That Belle managed to remain a secret was down to Darren not being a Greenbaum, the fact that a man in St Louis now has no job is down to Greenbaum not being a Darren. I know that it could be argued that the nameless poster was the master of his own destiny, he didn’t have to post what he did during work hours but the entire situation is full of morally grey areas. Would Greenbaum have flagged it to the local Police dept or garden centre if the poster’s IP resolved to those places of work? Possibly not, but who knows for sure?

As Benjamin Franklin once said, ‘Three men may keep a secret, but only if two of them are dead.’ In trying to maintain your anonymity online you’re trusting your secret to  roughly 1.67 billion other people, and not all of them are Darren.

Also posted on Clicking & Screaming

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