From: Timothy Burke ([email protected])
To: Feedbag
Subject: Anonymity

Along with community, the other thing that I’d urge the panelists to
back away from, re-think and then approach from some new or fresh
perspective is the notion of anonymity.

There’s a lot of McLuhan-esque presumptions that are typically embedded
in the way that the notion of anonymity typically comes up when
computers are being discussed, e.g., people assume that anonymity is
somehow inherent in the medium itself, a natural consequence of the

In my own net experiences, that’s never been particularly true. This may
be because many of my professional contemporaries in academia have had
easy access to the Internet for some time, though surprising numbers of
them continue to avoid it as well.

For me, email has actually forged strong professional and personal
linkages between myself and a number of spatially dispersed colleagues;
it has facilitated a kind of regular discourse between people who might
only have spoken casually once or twice a year before. Each listserv I
subscribe to is different, of course. Nuafrica, an older Africanist
listserve run out of Northwestern University, is astoundingly productive
and interesting. Postcolonial, a listserv run by the very active folks
at the University of Virginia, is frequently frustrating and rather
insular. But the point is, none of these networks reinforces anonymity
or impersonal detachment. In fact, they all challenge it.

Even the muds, mushes and moos I have visited over the years have often
made surprising new links between myself and other individuals–both
academic and non-academic. This despite the fact that many of them
feature the frequent use of pseudonyms.

The growth of the Web and of home pages is even more striking for me in
that regard. Since I put my own page up in June, I have received all
sorts of curious, interesting and often useful emails–and many of the
viewers of my home page have learned more about me as an individual than
they would likely ever learn otherwise. I recently looked at a
colleague’s just-finished homepage and learned things about him that I
never really knew before.

Anonymity, where and when it exists on the Net, is a discursive
convention rather than something inherent in the technology. It’s been
established as a part of particular “civil societies”. It’s not
inevitable. If one finds it problematic–and I often do–then one can
challenge it. There’s no reason to throw one’s hands up in despair and
write “anonymity” into the definitional core of the idea of “virtual

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