Would Replacing Anonymity With A Single Universal Social Media ID Fix The Web's Toxicity?
Perhaps the most existential question regarding the Web’s future is what could turn the tide against online toxicity? The rise of horrific speech, terrorism recruitment, cyberbullying and all other manner of toxicity has undermined the initial advances the Web made in granting a voice to the formerly voiceless. Much has been made of the Web’s ability to transform Dr. Jekylls into Mr. Hydes, bringing out the worst in ordinarily level-headed individuals and turning even teachers and professors into raving founts of hate. The Web’s anonymity has frequently been cited as a root cause of this transformation from in-person congeniality to online hate monger, raising the question of whether replacing the digital world’s anonymity with real-world personas would restore digital civility or make things worse?
Twitter has in many ways become the public face of online toxicity. While there are many reasons for this such as its broadcast nature, one driving factor is its reliance on anonymous user accounts in which hateful individuals can hide behind the protective cloak of an anonymous username.
In contrast, LinkedIn, with its focus on accounts that directly tie users back to their real-world identities, including schools, employers and professional connections, is far less associated with toxic discourse.
Twitter’s anonymity is equivalent to a protest march in which participants are wearing masks to shield their identities. LinkedIn is the equivalent of everyone wearing name badges and the logos of their employers and schools on an identifying vest.
This connection between online persona and real-life identity mirrors the mediating influence connectedness once had through the geographic ties of community. In the physical world that predated the Web, community reigned supreme, whether on the scale of a small town, an urban neighborhood or a professional society. Members knew each other and had deep ties established through friendship, family, schools, workplaces, social organizations and other connections. This meant that even when community members disagreed, there were costs to deviating from civil discourse. Two neighbors might vehemently disagree about politics, but their physical proximity and need for mutual cooperation typically overruled emotional irrational impulses.
A verbal altercation in a community where parties know each other and have deep ties can yield substantial professional and personal costs that help mediate how far those conflicts proceed.
In contrast, in the digital era, when communicating with a total stranger on the other side of the world and hiding behind the invisibility cloak of an anonymous username, individuals may feel far less constrained to vent their full fury on the other person, engaging in free-for-all flame wars and horrific speech designed to emotionally destroy each other.
Without fear of repercussions (the worst that could happen is a deactivated account that can be quickly replaced), there is little cost to dissuade particularly vicious and destructive speech.
In many ways, the anonymity of the Web strips individuals of the coercive forces of norms and consequences that typically govern behavior. In turn, the globalized nature of the Web means it is far more likely that individuals will come into contact with those who do not share their views, experiences and narratives, creating conditions ripe for unrestrained conflict.
What might happen if the identity ties of the physical world were reestablished in the digital realm?
While there have been many discussions of universal online identities and some platforms’ single sign-on systems have become de facto shared digital identities, what might happen if all social media platforms used a single shared identity for each person?
Instead of anonymous usernames and multiple accounts across multiple platforms that bear little resemblance to one another, what would happen if all of our social accounts were connected? Our Twitter username would be the same as our Facebook username which would be the same as our LinkedIn identity and our account for every other major social platform. A social media user would thus be restrained by the knowledge that everything they say is connected back to their employer, school and real-life identity. In turn, a person’s real-life interactions would be contextualized by their online commentary.
Could such a model successfully curb online toxicity?
One challenge is that such a model would actually bring even greater potential for harm for activists, dissidents and those from underrepresented and particularly vulnerable communities. Twitter became an early choice of activists due precisely to the protection its anonymity afforded them from repressive governments eager to silence dissent. Similarly, vulnerable populations would be even further exposed to harassment and violence if they could no longer express unpopular ideas online without having them connected back to their real-life identities.
One possible solution would be to require all new social media users by default to use a shared global identity across platforms and then to apply for an anonymous account in much the same way a user today might apply for a verified account. Platforms could enact policies ensuring activists, dissidents and members of vulnerable populations are able to continue using anonymous accounts, while all other users are required to use connected accounts.
Alternatively, perhaps accounts remain anonymous by default, but anonymous accounts are prohibited from using profanity and non-clinical speech and must change to a shared account to use such language. This would force users to make a choice: express any thought anonymously in clinical terms or choose to assert their real-life identity to enjoy the ability to use profanity and emotional speech.
Putting this all together, would a single shared universal social media identity solve online toxicity by restoring the coercive power of identity? Or would it merely entrench and enhance it? The only certainty is that a new approach is needed to how we communicate online.