Trolls: Those creepy, hyperaggresive, hateful, mouth-breathing basement-dwellers. They were a feature of the Internet long before the social web, and most of us feel they're probably here to stay.
But one of the things most trolls rely on is anonymity, a wall behind which they hide any information that could be used against them, including their jobs, locations, appearances and real names.
And anonymity is a not-so-slowly disappearing feature of the social web. What do you think: Will the rise of transparency and the fall of anonymity put trolls in the deadpool any time soon?
Two things have brought this to mind.
First, there's this interesting post from The Next Web. Last week, Zee Kane wrote this piece about a typical flame thread that became a bit too personal.
Kane observes, absolutely correctly, "If you've spent more than ten minutes on any blog, YouTube video or any site that permits anonymous commenting, you will have noticed some of the filth that many commenters come out with. Often it's completely incomprehensible; other times it's pure bile and frankly a test of what a human will not reply to."
When an anonymous commenter attacked the subject of the original post in the comments thread, the subject, one Hermione Way, decided to find out who the troll really was. Email addresses, IP addresses and the social web being what they are, Way soon had her attacker pegged and found out that his "anonymous" persona had been trolling and attacking some of the people he'd called his friends in real life.
This chain of events left Kane editorializing, "Privacy truly is dead." This is a theme some think we've been beating over the head lately at ReadWriteWeb, but it's as timely as it is true.
Facebook's game of footsie with privacy and user data has led to a string of well-researched, thoughtful posts by our own Marshall Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick has very well justified his position that Facebook's original brand promise to conceal and protect user data has definitely changed to a promise to make the site - and user data - more "open" and accessible to other users and search engines.
Kirkpatrick sees this as a broken promise, which it is, to a point. I also see it as an overarching trend of sociological behavior online.
Think about the days of You've Got Mail, that god-awful, AOL-based Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks flick where two real-world rivals end up being anonymous penpals via email with no idea who the other person is or what he or she looks like. That could never happen today. Username conventions have drastically changed over the past 10 years; more and more online identities are tied to part or all of a user's real name rather than a "handle" for anonymous chatting and posting.
The same is true of avatars. However posed or candid, more of us are using real photographs of our own faces on the web rather than cultural icons, cartoons or some graphical represenation of our personality.
Today, anonymity represents the far, sketchy outposts of the web, much like the Reaver-filled edges of space in Firefly. Those who inhabit that space might be more likely to engage in account-cracking, cyberbullying, mob behavior and other activities that run the gamut from unkind to actually illegal. The illusion that their anonymity protects them from discovery and possible prosecution is often just that - an illusion.
Of course, anonymity can be great for freedom of speech purposes. Several of our favorite sites lately, such as Formspring.me and Quora, provide opportunities for the anonymous asking of questions in a safe environment. But I've already experienced a bit of trolling on those sites, as well.
What do you think: Is anonymity linked directly to trolling behaviors? Is the social web trending away from anonymous profiles and posts? Will less anonymity lead to fewer incidents of trollism? Let us know your opinion in the comments.