Names, Nyms, Addresses and Reputations: The Experience of Anonymity in the Wired World



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Names, Nyms, Addresses and Reputations:

The Experience of Anonymity in the Wired World

Peter West, University of Western Ontario12

Jacquelyn Burkell, University of Western Ontario3
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Names, Nyms, Addresses, and Reputations:

The Experience of Anonymity in the Wired World



Abstract

The anonymity of the Internet looms large in the public consciousness, at least in part due to the positive and negative behavioural effects that are entailed. Behaviour, however, is driven by internal feelings rather than external conditions, and to understand the impact of online anonymity we must therefore understand the subjective experience of the condition. This paper presents preliminary results of a qualitative study exploring this issue.

“The anonymity of the Internet” is a phrase we encounter regularly, even daily, in the press, invoked in discussions of freedom of expression, privacy, self-expression, interpersonal hostility, addiction, and even crime (Carey, Burkell, and Thornton, in preparation). As a culture, we maintain a concern not only with protection (or establishment) of online anonymity, but also with the behavioural consequences of online anonymity as it currently exists (Carey, Burkell and Thornton, in preparation; Singer, 1996). Technologically sophisticated Internet users, however, are aware that identity protection online is largely a myth. It is becoming part of the public consciousness that Internet users leave a variety of information trails that can, individually or in concert, be used to establish identity (Marx, 1999; Nissenbaum, 1999; Wallace, 1999), and many users know that even when special precautions such as anonymous remailers are used to provide identity protection, the condition can be compromised under legal or other duress. We are faced, therefore, with a seeming paradox: if true anonymity is rarely and quite possibly never achieved online, why are we so concerned with the consequences?

Some insight, perhaps, lies in the multifaceted meaning of the term. The word anonymous was first used by sixteenth century English literary circles to indicate unknown authorship, and soon thereafter became a pseudonym for authors who did not wish to reveal their identity (Ferry, 2002). The related term anonymity was invoked in the nineteenth century “to describe authors or their writings in the state of being anonymous, or of not being known by a name” (Ferry, 2002, p. 193). This most basic sense of anonymity is preserved in modern usage: readers are familiar with texts authored by ‘Anonymous’, journalists are familiar with anonymous or unnamed sources (Boeyink, 1990; Denham, 1997), witnesses are allowed to speak anonymously in some legal contexts (Leigh, 1996), and politicians take advantage of anonymity for various rhetorical purposes (Erickson and Fleuriet, 1991).

Although it literally means namelessness, anonymity is fundamentally about non-identifiability (Nissenbaum, 1999; Marx, 1999). Someone who is ‘anonymous’ is indeed un-named, but what matters is whether or not they can be named – and the former does not necessarily entail the latter. In fact, there are many contexts in which people have been identified despite withholding their name, as the history of the ‘anonymous’ author of Primary Colors shows. In this and other cases, a consistent pattern of language use connects an unattributed publication to one whose author is known, and by extension establishes the authorship of the ‘anonymous’ original (Foster, 2000). In other cases, the coordination of multiple traits identifies an individual (Marx, 1999; Wallace, 1999). This principle is the basis for the Statistics Canada confidentiality policy since the combination of demographic characteristics such as sex, age, occupation, city of residence and household living arrangement are often enough to uniquely identify an individual, the policy (Statistics Canada, 2004) precludes the release of census data for geographic regions with a population of less than 40 people. As these and other examples make clear, in the current cultural context identification can be achieved, and thus anonymity compromised, through the analysis and coordination of available information regarding characteristics and activities. Anonymity, therefore, is less a condition adopted (by withholding one’s name) than a condition granted or supported (perhaps fleetingly) within a particular social context.

In later literary traditions (Ferry, 2002) and in common usage, we see another sense of anonymity emerging: anonymity as indistinguishability. Thus, we talk about the “anonymity of modern life”, where each citizen is in many respects indistinguishable from the next. In an effort to disentangle ego from artistic endeavour, poets of the early to middle 1900s invoked anonymity in this sense, promoting it as an aesthetic ideal (Ferry, 2002). This notion of anonymity is also reflected in Georg Simmell’s perspectives on the metropolis and mental life (Wolff, 1950) in which he suggests that monetary transactions (which he claims to be the basis of modern life) are founded in a lack of individuality. Many (although not all) discussions of the psychological consequences anonymity relate to this meaning of the term, often through the construct of deindividuation (Festinger et al., 1952; Zimbardo 1969).

As the foregoing discussion makes clear, anonymity has many meanings. In the context of the Internet, it is likely that the concept will become even more nuanced, since on the Internet identity (and thus anonymity) is no longer irrevocably tied to our physical selves (Turkle, 1995). When we interact online, the possibilities for self-presentation go beyond those available in our face to face lives (Goffman, 1959): users are able to conceal aspects of themselves that would be manifestly evident in most traditional forms of contact (to whit, Peter Steiner’s (1993) oft-cited New Yorker cartoon: “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog”), and many develop multiple enduring pseudonymous identities, maintaining some degree of separation between these and their real-life (RL) selves (Turkle, 1995).

Anonymity matters in large part because it has behavioural consequences (Singer, 1996), and it is of even greater interest because these behavioural consequences are neither uniformly positive nor uniformly negative (Froomkin, 1996; Johnson, 1997). On the positive side, anonymity is thought to increase and improve participation in support groups (Kling et al., 1999; Marx, 1999), research (Bjarnason & Adalbjarnardottir, 2000), and the democratic process (Akdeniz, 2002). Informants, whistle-blowers, and witnesses are more likely to supply journalists and law enforcement agencies with information if they are protected through anonymity (Kling et al., 1999). At the same time, anonymity is thought to contribute to deindividuation (Festinger et al., 1952; Zimbardo 1969), reduce accountability, encourage anti-social and aggressive behaviour, and reduce commitment in interpersonal relationships (Marx, 1999). Anonymity is problematic when it allows criminals to escape from the consequences of their actions, when it calls into question the integrity of information, and “when it frees individuals to behave in undesirable and harmful ways…” (Johnson, 1997, p. 63-64).

One important point that is often missed in discussions of anonymity is that it is the experience of anonymity, and not the condition per se, that drives behaviour. Consider the following:

I remember those first crucial days of the school year when the new teacher didn’t know who I was. Anonymity was the perfect condition for every behavioral indiscretion. (Willams, 1988)

Although most readers would agree that the pupil in question was never truly anonymous, it is hard to deny the sense of freedom (based on felt anonymity) that he describes. At least in this case, what matters is not that Mr. Williams can be identified, but rather that he is not persistently aware that he can. It is this awareness of the ability of an observer to connect activities and identity that exerts behavioural effects.

If we are to understand the behavioural effects of online anonymity, we must first understand how the experience of anonymity is subjectively defined in this context: that is, we must understand what anonymity means to those interacting online. The research reported in this paper represents the initial steps of this exploration, using qualitative interviews to examine the definition of anonymity in the online context, with special attention given to the feeling of anonymity and its behavioural implications. The following discussion is based on a series of interview transcripts from the first stage of data collection. These preliminary findings offer interesting and sometimes surprising insights into how anonymity is understood in an online context.

Method

Data for exploratory research into the concept of anonymity was collected through a series of in-depth, semi-structured interviews conducted online. In addition to being asked for definitions of anonymity, participants were encouraged to share stories about times when they felt anonymous. The exploratory nature of this study makes it particularly well-suited to a qualitative research approach with an emphasis on flexibility, discovery, and fresh insight as opposed to a quantitative research design with more structured, predetermined, and formal methods of investigation (Bogdan & Biklen, 1982).

Qualitative interviews vary in structure and formality, and each format comes with advantages and disadvantages. Following Susan Snyder (1992) who interviewed college students about their constructions of love, the interviews conducted for this research project were semi-structured. Semi-structured interviews allowed “for the customization of the questions, depending on the subjects’ previous answers, their attitudes, and the trust that builds between the researcher and the participants” (Anderson & Kanuka, 2003). The initial interview guide for this project was based on pre-test interviews, but it continues to be constantly updated throughout the course of the study.

It was expected that understandings of anonymity would vary across participants and that individual participants would have more than one understanding of anonymity informed by the different online contexts in which they participate. Accordingly, first contact with research participants took place within the confines of four different online communities, each with its own unique standard of online anonymity and modes of presentation and representation. All of these communities foster and support friendly social interaction between members, including newcomers and outsiders. Since this research project fell within acceptable behavior on all of the sites, the researcher did not seek explicit permission to conduct research from any of the site administrators.

Potential subjects were approached directly in each of the online settings in order to solicit their participation. Participant sampling and selection was a matter of convenience; users who were online and receptive to introductions were asked to participate in the study. If they expressed interest in participation, potential subjects were asked to visit the project’s website (http://anonymity.netstudy.ca) and to click on the “sign up to participate” link. A letter of information and informed consent was then displayed as part of the sign-up process. Once participants completed the consent form, an online interview was scheduled at a time and online location of their choosing. Participants were interviewed individually, and each participant was given some choice over where and how the interview was to be conducted. A private chat room hosted on the project website was available for each interview, but all participants chose to conduct the interview either at the site where contact was made or using an Instant Messaging (IM) client.

Participants

These preliminary findings are based on the responses of 6 participants recruited from 4 different sites. Participants were asked to volunteer demographic information. Four of the respondents identified as men, and 2 as women. When asked what experiences they had chatting online, all participants indicated that they were highly experienced, and many indicated 10 or more years of experience. The study was restricted to users who self-identified as being at least 18 years old, and participants ranged in age from 18-19 to over 60.


Results

Names and Addresses: The Technical Aspects of Online Anonymity

When asked what it means to be anonymous online, many respondents start with a relatively traditional notion of anonymity as the state of being untraceable, quickly noting that in the context of the Internet this state is largely illusory. In these discussions, participants often demonstrate significant technical knowledge about the Internet and the methods whereby a user could be traced and ultimately identified. Thus, for example, one respondent offered this explanation of how he could identify an ‘anonymous’ person on the Internet:

The Internet is made up of users, servers and routers. A user connects to the Internet by way of a server through a router. Routers connect to each other. If any one hop\link\server\router in between his place and mine was to trace the packet and find the destination IP (which is time consuming but not impossible) it would be traceable. Knowing my IP means you can make one call to my ISP, create a plausible story, get my customer info (address\name\etc) and I’m sure you can take it from there.

Respondents demonstrate an understanding that coordinability of information is a critical aspect of identification in the online context. For example, an IP address can be used alone or in conjunction with other identifying numbers to track users:

Well, on the [site] they have three bits of data to use to track individual users… the uid, reg hash and IP numbers.

As suggested earlier, access to these important registers would be enough for an ambitious identity-hunter to learn the name and address of their prey.

Access to IP numbers and other tracking information is not distressing in and of itself. Instead, it is the ability of others to use these numbers as keys to unlock further information, to coordinate online with offline identity-knowledge, that provokes concern:

… if I tell you *who* I am, then I might be less likely to tell you certain kinds of information. It’s the spectre of someone collating the two [offline information with online information] that gives me pause.
This point was reinforced by another respondent who was asked about the fundamental differences between anonymity in the online and offline contexts. This individual responded that:

Really, it’s about the same. Identity is just hidden until enough information is collected… I know your pseudonym, and can extend from that point. At some point though, the two may merge. Online and offline information joins together to complete a full picture of the person.


At least in one sense, therefore, anonymity in the online context requires separation of online and real-life (RL) identities. It is not the revelation of either in isolation that threatens anonymity, but rather the integration of the two.
Names and Addresses: The Subjective Aspects of Online Anonymity

Given accounts of how much information an IP address could yield about others, it did not come entirely as a surprise to hear participants express that they feel more anonymous when they take proactive measures to hide their own IP address:

The most anonymous I feel online is when using a software package which obfuscates the IP address.

This statement, however, highlights another aspect of perceptions of online anonymity: the sense that anonymity is not merely ‘on’ or ‘off’, but instead can be thought of as ‘more’ or ‘less’.

Although well aware that true online anonymity is rare (if indeed it ever occurs), even the most technically sophisticated of these participants indicated that they had indeed felt anonymous online at one time or another. Respondents expressed a certain amount of tension as they struggled to explain whether or not they felt anonymous at particular sites. Take this statement from an individual who had earlier expressed the view that anyone with enough determination could learn his RL identity:

…on [the site] I don’t feel anonymity is truly there, but it is for the most part.

Another respondent, who frequents a site where all users go by their real names, made the following comment:

I suppose I feel anonymous on [the site], but at the same time people do know who you are…


This comment is even more surprising given that this user provides a link on the site to his personal website and resume. With very little effort other users could see his picture, where he went to school, his work experience, as well as his home phone number and address. Yet despite all this available information, he still purports to feel some level of anonymity on the site.

According to these respondents, therefore, ‘anonymity’ is not simply about identifiability. At least in some cases, the feeling (and thus, presumably, the behavioural effects) can exist despite the fact that one’s real identity is (or can be) known.


Names and Nyms: The Complex Relationship Between Anonymity and Pseudonymity

An intriguing theme that surfaces in these investigations is expressed in the following quote:

a lot of what people casually refer to as ‘anonymity’ on the net is actually pseudonymity.

One respondent, who claimed to feel some small level of anonymity when chatting with a pseudonym, was asked if they agreed that people tend to confuse anonymity with pseudonymity. In response, he offered this anecdotal evidence:

My grandmother thinks that because she uses her username everywhere instead of her real name, that she is anonymous. Yet, I can find posts to sites by her username which give me her real name from the email she sent there. Most users are easily confused by the differences [between anonymity and pseudonymity], and the terms (in my opinion) have become interchangeable online, even though there are significant differences… anonymity assumes that no one knows you are there, nor can they find that you were there. Pseudonymity hides the true identity, but you leave a trail everywhere you go that can come back to you without fail.

Grandma is pseudonymous because she uses a pseudonym, but not anonymous because her pseudonym can be traced back to her real name. This participant alludes to the notion that an alias can lead to a false sense of anonymity, or a condition that is sometimes referred to as pseudo-anonymity (Kling et al., 1999).

Grandma values her pseudonym on the incorrect assumption that it protects her RL identity, but other online users value pseudonyms more as eminently piercable veils that nonetheless provide a degree of anonymity in interactions. This perspective is evident in the following quote from a respondent ruminating on the difference between anonymity and pseudonymity:

… no one on [the site] has violated the polite fiction that my RL name is unknown.

This respondent knows that other users could identify her, but she is allowed to carry on within the context of her online community as if others did not know who she was in ‘real life’.

This collective (and polite) fiction is evident in the rules against identifying or outing other pseudonymous users without their explicit permission, adopted implicitly or explicitly within many online communities. In their online interactions, users are expected to maintain or feign ignorance of the real life identity of others unless and until they are explicitly invited to do otherwise. As one participant explained

if people I don’t even know ask me anything [about my offline identity] I feel offended,

indicating that unless it is volunteered, such information “isn’t really anyone’s business.” Another respondent recounted a time when this customary line between online identity and offline identity was crossed:

[another user] pressed for information like where I live… a kind of question I routinely try to politely deflect. Eventually, I told this user that I was busy, and that I would be happy to converse further on some occasion… The user asked one more question: ‘How’s the fishing, lately?’ Thus disclosing that the guest knew something about my RL life all along. Frankly, I felt rather violated… I treat such situations as I would treat an obscene phone call: You don’t react. You just hang up without fanfare.

These comments offer a clue as to how users can feel anonymous without being anonymous. Although in some cases (as Grandma’s) this feeling is based on a simple misconception, in others it results from a shared social convention: the practice of respecting, in most interactions, the division between pseudonymous and real-life identities.
Nyms and Reputations:The Importance of Enduring Pseudonymous Idenities

Pseudonyms are widely used in online interaction, offering (as indicated above) a certain degree of identity protection. Thus, some users feel that their identity is protected through the use of multiple, temporary pseudonyms:

No one can find out who I really am, and that makes me feel anonymous… I have a lot of IDs [pseudonymous characters], mostly male, a few female… they know [and presumably are known by] different people.
The use of multiple identities that are easily disposed of makes this user feel more anonymous.

In many cases, however, pseudonyms are relatively permanent, and the pseudonymous identity develops a reputation over time. Adoption of an enduring pseudonym, along with the reputation that accrues to this identity, appears to make users feel less anonymous. One participant explained that she felt very much more anonymous when she first joined a site but after being a member for ten years she was very well known to the community in her pseudonymous identity:

In the context of [the site] people ‘know’ me… It has to do with continuity. I have been ‘username’ here for ten years. I have interacted with many people in what I think is a mostly consistent way. People here probably have a pretty good idea what to expect of me, how I’ll react to something.

It really did not matter to her whether or not her real name could be linked to her pseudonym: she felt very well-known within the context of the site and claimed to feel less anonymous because of the prominence, or perhaps notoriety, of her pseudonymous character. In other words, feeling well-known precluded her from feeling anonymous regardless of the fact that it was her online persona and not her real-life identity that was well-known. This respondent was well aware of the importance and impact of online reputation:

I think that the longer someone stays here and the more they interact with others, the less anonymous they are likely to feel and the more aware of their level of anonymity [or lack of] they are likely to be…

Another respondent agreed that reputation was an important factor influencing his feeling of anonymity, and explained that even though he used his real name on a particular site, “…people really don’t know me [there], so a reputation hasn’t been established yet…”

Apparently, reputation matters in online interaction – even (and perhaps, in the online context, particularly) pseudonymous reputation. In other words, Internet users feel, at least to some degree, accountable for their pseudonymous online activities -- at least, for those activities that contribute to their online reputation.


Developing Reputations: Some Acts Matter, Some Don’t

In our everyday lives, not every act contributes to reputation, and the same is true in the online context. Acts that affect reputation are those that are both noticed and correctly attributed, and when either condition is not satisfied, reputation remains unaffected. Thus, for example, one can easily get ‘lost in the crowd’ on a busy downtown Toronto sidewalk, becoming for all intents and purposes just one of an indistinguishable (and indistinguished) mass of people. Furthermore, in this context even an outrageous act that draws the attention of a passing crowd will not necessarily compromise anonymity, if (to borrow a phrase) “no one knows your name”.

The same principle holds true in online chat rooms. According to this respondent:

Well, if there’s a lot of people in the room, it definitely makes me feel more anonymous… the more people in a room, the more data everyone’s sending out when they chat… the more likely anything an individual says or does is likely to go unnoticed – like a single voice in a school cafeteria…

Anonymity as ‘blending in’ depends critically on not drawing attention to oneself. When asked to explain what circumstances might make them feel more identifiable online, one participant responded:

When I’m openly making an ass out of myself! ^_^ … Doing something stupid - running ones mouth off brings attention to yourself - making you more known - more noticeable - losing that anonymity.

According to these respondents, being unnoticed is critical to a feeling of anonymity. When their actions are noticed, anonymity is compromised for at least two reasons. First, as discussed above, there is the simple fact that people are ‘watching’:

…unless you did something to draw attention to yourself, the larger environment would be less aware of you… the amount of attention you receive makes you stand out more in a group.


In addition, however, there is the sense that being noticed makes it more likely that those watching will seek the information, always available, that identifies:

If you stand out more, I’m more likely to look up who you are, and more information about you… My feeling of anonymity shrinks if I am standing out because of that.

The general consensus seems to be that people can be easily identified, but the likelihood of this happening depends on whether or not they have provided others with some motivation or incentive for doing so. When prompted to give an example of a time when they felt anonymous online, a participant offered the following scenario:

…someone has had trouble with their computer and I will post a reply and I feel anonymous since they really don’t care about who I am, just that the problem gets solved.

He feels anonymous because he believes that his communication is not likely to prompt further investigation. “In summary,” he concludes, “it depends on how aware others are of you”.

Obviously, online participants feel that at least some acts have no effect on reputation, and there is some suggestion in these comments that anonymity may be the default in online interactions. Although in most if not all cases it is possible to find the true identity of any online actor, participants seem to feel that their actions often go unnoticed and/or unattributed. Thus, despite the ever-present possibility of real-life identification and the continued importance of online reputation, online participants may nonetheless feel anonymous in many of their actions.



Conclusion


What does it mean to be anonymous on the Internet? At one level, these respondents hold a definition of anonymity in the online context that is entirely consistent with the traditional notion of namelessness. In their discussions, respondents focus on the IP address as the formal ‘identifier’ of an individual, assuming (or explicitly stating) that this IP address can lead to the more traditional name or address as forms of identification. These technologically sophisticated respondents are clearly aware that, unless special precautions are invoked, IP addresses are easily available and easily traceable. As a result, most respondents claim that Internet anonymity is a myth.

That is not, however, the end of the story: myth or not, anonymity and its behavioural consequences loom large in the minds of those participating in online activities. Despite knowing that they are rarely if ever truly anonymous online, these respondents indicate nonetheless that in at least some contexts they feel anonymous. This feeling is important because, as argued in the introduction, it is the feeling of anonymity that drives behaviour.

In the online context, the feeling of anonymity is influenced by the interconnections between four aspects of identity: name, pseudonym, IP address, and reputation. To the extent that any of the online identifiers can be connected to real-world name or physical location, anonymity in its strictest sense is compromised. The feeling of online anonymity, however, is shaped by other factors.

The use of pseudonyms in the online context promotes the feeling of anonymity. In some cases, this feeling is due to a misconception about the degree of identity protection afforded by pseudonyms. In other cases, however, the feeling of anonymity depends on a common practice within online communities: the practice of maintaining a ‘polite fiction’ that real-life identities are unknown and unknowable. Where this fiction applies, online interactions are limited to pseudonymous identities, and any reference to (or inquiry about) real-life identity is seen as a transgression of social norms. Although users could know the real-world identity that corresponds to a given pseudonym, they choose not to, and this collective choice results in a practical separation between pseudonymous and real-life identities.

Although pseudonymous identities are thus independent of physical identities, respondents still report a sense of accountability. The reputation of enduring pseudonyms matters to those who adopt them, and as a result users take care to maintain that reputation in good standing. At least for these respondents, therefore, pseudonymous identity is not viewed as license to commit any and all acts without consequence. If anything, the adoption of a pseudonym (or multiple pseudonyms) allows users to maintain a separate accountability for each identity. This allows for different standards of behaviour for each pseudonymous identity, but does not in practice support action with impunity.

Finally, these respondents demonstrate a sense that much of their activity in the online context remains unnoticed or unattributed, unless they act in such a way so as to draw attention to themselves. Although others could in principle almost always identify them, users believe (usually correctly) that their identity will go unchecked unless they provide sufficient motivation to do otherwise.

These preliminary results provide important insight into the experience of anonymity in the wired world. Although true anonymity is indeed rare in this context, the feeling of anonymity thrives, and these results identify some of the situational factors that influence this feeling. Online anonymity matters because online users think about it, experience it, and act differently because of it.
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1 Author to whom correspondence should be addressed:

Peter West, Faculty of Information and Media Studies

North Campus Building

University of Western Ontario

London, Ontario

N6A 5B7
e-mail: pwest@uwo.ca




2 Funding for this project was received from SSHRC, CGS Master’s Scholarship, Award No. 766-2003-0286.

3 Funding for this project was received from SSHRC, INE Grant No. 512-2003-1008






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