On October 15, 2006, 13-year-old Megan Meier received an e-mail from Josh Evans, a "cute" homeschooled 16-year-old she had met and befriended on MySpace. "I don't know if I want to be friends with you any longer because I hear you're not nice to your friends," Evans wrote in the e-mail.
Josh Evans was not real. His profile was the invention of a neighborhood mother, Lori Drew, whose daughter had once been friends with Meier. Drew had originally devised Josh Evans in order to monitor what Meier was saying about her own daughter; eventually the Evans profile became a way of harassing Meier.
On October 16, 2003, Meier hanged herself in her closet in St. Charles County, Missouri.
A month later, half a country away in Washington, D.C., James Michael McHaney, an aide to Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., was busily instant messaging one of his friends. That friend happened to be a cooperating witness (CW) for the FBI. When the CW asked McHaney (screenname: "Mike") whether he was interested in meeting up to have sex with a 13-year-old boy, "Mike" responded, "I'll be there." The FBI quickly arrested McHaney.
What do these two incidents have in common? They are case studies of one of the great burgeoning problems of our age: anonymity. Anonymity can be an affirmative good, particularly in totalitarian societies where speaking out carries dire consequences. But in a free society, anonymity often acts as a shield for the most outrageous and disgusting behavior. When people do not have to risk their reputations in order to engage in repulsive and degraded activity, they will do so more often. Anonymity subsidizes publicly unacceptable action.
The Internet is the chief factor in the dramatic rise of anonymity. While the Internet has brought people closer together -- people now work together for years without meeting in person -- it has simultaneously driven people apart. It has allowed people like Drew and McHaney to mask their true identities.
Anonymity has degraded relationships -- people consider their MySpace and Facebook friends actual "friends," without ever speaking to them. People become emotionally invested in "friends" who may or may not exist, as Megan Meier did. Anonymous online relationships spill over into real life, with websites like Craigslist creating an above-board black market for anonymous hookups. In even more extreme cases, the prospect of anonymity has allowed pedophiles like McHaney to stalk and solicit children.
On a broader scale, anonymity has also degraded the political debate -- bloggers often post unsourced information, unmitigated vitriol and patent slander anonymously. When Dan Rather promotes falsified documents, he loses his job; when an anonymous blogger posts false but juicy information about a politician, he boosts his hit count.
The vast majority of mainstream bloggers post under their own names, of course -- and they face the same career risks as more "mainstream" journalists. The blogosphere has, in general, been a tremendous boon to the political process, involving millions who would otherwise remain uninvolved and creating a counterbalance to the left-leaning television media. Nonetheless, the advent of widespread anonymity in the political process has increased the risk of outright falsehood shaping our politics.
A person's greatest capital lies in his good name. If that name is never placed in danger by dangerous or obscene behavior, dangerous and obscene behavior will become ever more commonplace. "Regard your good name as the richest jewel you can possibly be possessed of," said Socrates. "The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear." Anonymity allows bad actors to keep their reputation and avoid the endeavor.