4Chan vs. Facebook: Who’s Right About Anonymity?

The founder of 4Chan said this week that Mark Zuckerberg is “totally wrong” about Facebook’s stance on anonymity. But it seems like one critical question is being left out of the debate.

4Chan vs. Facebook: Who's Right About Anonymity?

As far as online environments go, it’s hard to get much different than Facebook and 4Chan. If Facebook is like the suburbs, with their neatly manicured lawns and pleasantly rigid order, 4Chan is a red-light district—teeming with vitality, but a place where anything can and probably will go wrong.

Facebook and 4Chan are nothing more than human behavior manifest digitally, so it’s fitting that Zuckerberg and 4Chan Founder Chris Poole would have different ideas about about the rules that should govern online behavior.

Zuckerberg, famously an avowed enemy of online anonymity, wants everyone’s online activity to be associated with its real-life owner. 4Chan, meanwhile, wants anonymity to be the rule of the road.

The conflicting philosophies came to a head this week at SxSW where Chris Poole said Zuckerberg’s idea of real-person accountability on the web is “totally wrong.” Allowing internet users to cloak themselves in anonymity allows them to communicate in a “completely unvarnished, unfiltered, raw way,” he said. “The cost of failure is really high when you’re contributing as yourself.”

Meanwhile, Zuckerberg wants everyone to carry their real identity online “because that encourages them to be more authentic (and also means they can carry their social connections with them to any site)” according to VentureBeat.

Both arguments focus on one side of the debate, but ignore the other half: What about the person on the receiving end of anonymous communications on the web?

Some identities on the web are commonly accepted as real—website, editors and authors, for instance. When Paul Krugman writes a column for the New York Times, associating the person with the content is part of its value. Paul Krugman can’t very well publish anonymously—but people can comment anonymously on his articles.

If Krugman wants to respond to an anonymous commenter on the one of his articles, he’s a real person communicating with an anonymous force. This creates a psychic dissonance that pervades the web between those who are communicating as real people, and those who are anonymous.

Anonymous behavior on the web enables all kinds of behavior—some positive, some negative. Unrestrained by accountability, the anonymous “trolls” unleash a tirade of invective that truly push the envelope on the human capacity for hate-speech. On the other hand, you get some fantastic jokes, like the Twitter feed of fake Rahm Emanuel. The Twitter feed of fake Kenny Powers of HBO’s show “Eastbound and Down” was one of the funniest things on the web for a while, and a more effective marketing campaign than the show could have devised on their own.

And then there’s the group Anonymous, of course, who uses anonymity as a protective shield to carry out operations that are potentially illegal, but morally laudable—they believe their anonymity is crucial in acting for the benefit of society.

In the grand scheme of things the Web is still the Wild West—there are no real universally-accepted rules of the road, and very few enforced. Zuckerberg would no doubt like to see his real-world web vision realized as a standard moving forward, and there are plenty of merits to such a web universe. In fact TechCrunch just wiped out anonymity in its commenting section by requiring a login through Facebook.

But there are also enough entrenched interests invested the idea of anonymity that it’s hard to believe it will leave the web without a fight. Before that happens, we’ll likely see a guerilla hack war from Anonymous unlike anything the web has ever seen.