Ryan  Burns, phd
August 18, 2011

Anonymity in the geoweb

danah boyd recently posted on her blog an entry arguing that “real names” policies on social networking sites disproportionately affect marginalized populations adversely. The idea is that people - from any race, gender, class, background, etc. - have many reasons for wanting to maintain various degrees of anonymity (everything from pseudonyms to complete anon). Online communities in particular are already used to using “handles” for most of their communication; sometimes these are clearly and explicitly linked to offline identities, sometimes they are not. However, social groups using pseudonyms and needing greater anonymity are more likely to be women, minorities, and from lower classes. She concludes that due to the uneven effects of these policies, they are an abuse of power and should not be implemented or tolerated (to use stronger language than she uses).

Taking a step back, this is an issue on one level of anonymity in online social spaces. On another level (and one that others have rightly noted), it’s about having the same social flexibility as people have in the “real” world: we all show different sides of ourselves depending on what we deem the right social contexts (e.g., I talk much differently at a bar than in my seminars - I hope!!).

What does all this mean for me, a geographer interested in geoweb and society linkages? A group of geoweb-ers that has a weekly twitter session recently took up this issue, although due to technical limitations (fitting nuanced thought-out arguments in 140 characters is really quite difficult), I felt we never got to the meat of the issue.

One complication is that the sheer diversity of geoweb applications makes meaningful generalizations nearly impossible in a Twitter context. Anonymity, pseudonyms, and identity mean something very different for OpenStreetMap, WikiMapia, geotagged Flickr photos, and tweet-flashmobs or political demonstrations. With this in mind, I want to talk briefly about the way this connects with my own interests in urban and knowledge politics, and inequality.

First, if what is true in social media broadly is true for the geoweb - that those marginalized by systems of power are more likely to need anonymity - any geoweb application must respect that need. The problem that’s often put forward is that oftentimes contributions to the geoweb - i.e., digital spatial data that is produced - often “must” be linked to real names to verify certain notions of “accuracy”, to link the reputation of the person with the amount/quality of data generated, and so on. Put more formally, Premise 1: We need to ensure some degree of accuracy. Premise 2: People have more at stake when a measure of quality is associated with one’s birth name. Conclusion: The best way to ensure accuracy is to directly link measures of accuracy/quality with users’ real names. There are multiple problems with this line of reasoning: 1) Not all geoweb applications rely on these given notions of accuracy (e.g., geotagged photos, blog posts, iPhone apps like One Bus Away, etc.); 2) even when some measure of “accuracy” is necessary for usefulness - such as infrastructure mapping in OpenStreetMap - reputation can be built around a ‘nym just as easily as a real name; 3) this further discourages particular knowledges and perspectives from being mapped (see footnote 1).

Second, geoweb applications must respect the fact that “HansonFan666? (or any other username) is as much a person’s identity as their “real” name; in other words, for many people, one’s username/handle/pseudonym is as much a real name as their birth name. Particularly for political uses of the geoweb (e.g., tweeting locations of demonstrations, police abuses, or strategic political information), a layer between “meat space” and “online space” is crucial. Reporting sensitive information can increase one’s vulnerability and endanger their well-being (see footnote 2).

In closing, a very important point here is that many cases need to be considered individually, rather than constructing a problematic one-rule-covers-all theory of anonymity. I’m interested to hear from other scholars of the geoweb about issues regarding anonymity in their focus areas and platforms of interest. I’m also interested in hearing from people who disagree: am I missing something? is there something else I should consider? a better way to frame the problem?


  1. I might go even further and argue that the disproportional and slightly distractionary focus on “accuracy” in geoweb scholarship obscures its own situatedness in Cartesian logic and Enlightenment principles, de-privileging non-Cartesian ways of knowing the world that may factor strongly into how people use the geoweb.
  2. This perspective assumes that there’s something “special about the spatial” - online identity is of course an important consideration, but particularly when locational information is associated with it.
blog comments powered by Disqus