Tag Archives: internet anonymity

Now we are seven

I have always played the long game. Waiting? I’m an expert. Biding your time? First class. Despite outward appearances to people who know me well of being tempestuous and quick to (over)react, I’m actually much more patient than they realise.

I started writing anonymously almost exactly seven years ago, on 30 June 2010, for a variety of reasons, some of them ridiculous and others important.

Me, around the time I started The Guyliner blog. It was my profile pic on Guardian Soulmates for a while.

The main, initial reason was that I was writing about going on dates and didn’t want to be identified. Simple. I was both fearful of recriminations and worried it would mean I could no longer be honest when writing up further dates – “compromise my artistic integrity”, as Madonna would say. Perhaps I would even have to stop altogether.

My anonymity, which I maintained until six months ago, allowed me to retain some power, some control. I had – still have – absolutely no desire to be famous. I turned down chances to appear on TV or radio countless times, and even used a fake name when I had to meet or speak to people about potential stories I’m writing who only knew me as The Guyliner. That’s how obsessed by it I was. My anonymity was always crucial to me because it allowed my writing to be the main focus – or so I told myself at the time. So many media types struggle with this – it stops being about what they’re saying and evolves into who they are. Plus, I wrote under my own name elsewhere and for a series of clients – what would they think about what I did in my spare time? Would it put my work in danger?

What I assumed my anonymity would allow me to do is swerve the usual judgement and/or criticism of my looks, and also restrict my vanity to my writing. I told myself it would be less superficial. That’s not to say I’m not as basic as the next motherfucker with a full Instagram top row of selfies with eight filters over them  – I like to get a like and a share, of course I do – but I would know for sure people would only be interested in me for what I said. I’m not saying I thought everyone would fall in love with me, far from it, but I guess I wanted to avoid the kind of attention I’d always been uncomfortable with. Fame leaves me cold; I’ve only ever been interested in success. Being a writer in the confessional digital age and a relatively private person is pretty tricky. I have only ever told the world what I wanted it to know.

As time went on, my anonymity became less and less fascinating to readers and I was all the happier for it, but as my profile started to grow a little more – a turn of events which still genuinely shocks me – my lack of enthusiasm for showing my face became a barrier. People became annoyed I was reluctant to tell them my name or what I looked like. I had to turn down promising career opportunities because it would compromise my anonymity. And then, of course, there were the people who found out.

Despite everything I say above about my anonymity being precious to me, I was kinda sloppy with it. Almost all my details were out there: where I live; where I socialise; my job; my history; my hometown. I played with it sometimes, alluding to how much I hated my name or describing some of my features. Few knew what I looked like, but I’d written about my greying hair, my blue eyes, my height, my weight, what I wear. I was hiding in plain sight for years, like all the best monsters always are.

My anonymity freed me and my work like nothing before it. It made me braver and stronger and proud – but it was also a cage. I always told myself I owned the key to my own prison, but things seemed to change. Humans are curious creatures – it’s only natural that once you refuse to tell them something, they will try to find out what it is and why. Most people who discovered my real identity were very gracious and kind and sympathetic and agreed to keep it a secret.  Some, however, did try to use it against me. On two or three occasions, finding out where I lived, or emailing me at work. There were, sometimes, vague threats to expose me and at least two very clumsy, quite menacing, attempts to use this knowledge in an effort to extract sex from me.

It reminded me that the things precious to you are meaningless to others if it’s a good anecdote.  People play fast and loose with anonymity, thinking it unimportant. “What have you got to hide?” is the battlecry of those who only search for the truth because it looks good to be in the know, rather than any compulsion for honesty. They don’t realise the acrobatics I had to go through to keep it to myself, the people I had to trust, the opportunities I’ve lost, the things I haven’t been able to share because it would all be compromised. I was not a bangle, an artefact, a prize; I was not to be collected.

Now that my anonymous days are over, I confess I miss them a little. My life hasn’t changed at all, tbh – I don’t get mobbed in the street or anything – but there was something about that shield of anonymity that made me feel more of an interesting proposition. But now it’s gone, I feel duty-bound to embrace it. I went on the radio. I’m appearing on a panel at the National Theatre for the Queer Theatre event to mark 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality. I’ve started writing under my own name again. More importantly, I managed to get a personalised box of Corn Flakes. Amazing.

Oh, and my first novel, The Last Romeo, which broke the spell in January, is out next year. Basically, I started saying yes, and it feels nice to be myself again.

Am I phasing out The Guyliner? Is his time up? And am I really talking about myself in the third person?!?

Ugh.

I will always be The Guyliner, but now it’s time to be me. And it is worth remembering that I couldn’t have done any of it, not a single moment of the last seven years, without you.

Thank you. It’s so good to finally meet you.

More like this:

The Fifth
Everything I know about love
The beauty in goodbye

Main image: BBC/Radio 4

 

I still believe in internet anonymity – even when you’re being mean to me

We hear a lot about trolls and the trolling they do in the news these days. A sub-class of human previously restricted to the mysterious world of specialist messageboards and forums about dodgy TV shows nobody watches any more, the troll has now been brought front-and-centre, blinking uncertainly in the shimmering light that is Twitter.

The adoption of Twitter to the bosom of the mainstream has finally done for social media what Facebook could not and would not: it’s made it okay to talk to absolute strangers, even if you’re not an ‘internet geek’.

Twitter, whether it likes it or not, is now a regular feature on the news bulletin – be it thanks to a celebrity making an announcement, having an argument or acting weird or, as is now more common, some arsehole threatening to rape someone or plant a bomb outside a columnist’s house.

Those who partake in trolling — of which there are very many complex levels from mild ribbing to the above-mentioned  ‘death threat’ with a whole sub-genre of sexism, homophobia and vague paedophilia in between — are often thought to ‘hide’ behind the anonymity the internet affords them. Although IP addresses are freely available to any body who can be bothered looking for them, the fact that it’s usernames and not full Sunday names which accompany each bilious entry allows us a freedom that we are in turns proud of and disgusted by.

Every so often, there are calls for procedures to identify internet users to be more transparent and robust. Sites like Google and Facebook largely have ‘real name only’ policies, Arianna Huffington, the founder of Huffington Post, who I also blog for, has now announced that commenters on HuffPo will no longer be able to speak their mind anonymously – full ‘Wait until I get you home’ monikers will accompany every contribution. This could mean bad news for the very few wannabe trolls who bother to log in to tell me how pathetic I am.

There has been applause and outcry in equal measures in response to a ‘real names’ approach to posting on the internet. On one hand we remove the opportunity for trolls to post faceless vitriol with little worry about the effect it has on the object of their ire. I imagine menacing posts about cutting somebody’s throat or planting a bomb lose their thrill for the poster if their name is easily retrievable, easing the path to retaliation and/or punishment.

Casual racism and homophobia would, perhaps, shuffle off elsewhere from its natural habitat at the bottom half of articles in the leading newspapers and all would be well again. There is nothing quite so powerful as a barrier to online nastiness as having your full name attached to it, take it from me.

But when crusading against the vicious, masked internet assassins, we forget the other side of anonymity: the ability to speak one’s mind without fear of recrimination. Internet posters don’t just spout random opinions and then take their leave — they engage, interact, reply. They try to bully those who don’t toe their line. People on the internet like to disagree with each other, and things can get very heated. An online pseudonym doesn’t just give you carte-blanche to be as unpleasant as you like; it protects you from those who are.

In a world where a name is instantly retrievable on Google and almost everyone ‘has Facebook’, an invisibility cloak of some sorts gives the ‘good’ people of the internet the chance to speak frankly about what they believe in — be it attacking racism, talking about the positives of immigration or impassioned essays on horrifying real-life experiences.

Naysayers claim that as long as you don’t post vitriol on the internet and are totally truthful, you have nothing to worry over when it comes to a removal of internet anonymity. But I disagree. For all those who post on the internet, there are thousands, millions more just watching, like a coiled spring, awaiting outrage. Maybe your musings on the situation on Israel or gay marriage or women’s rights in Saudi Arabia may seem fairly balanced and innocuous, but there’s every chance someone out there doesn’t like what you’re saying, and wants you to know it. Remove your mutual veil of online facelessness and your detractor may find other ways to make life difficult for you. And how will they do that? Well, with your name freely available for all to see, he or she is spoiled for choice. A heavy-handed example, yes, but we shouldn’t encourage the opportunity. For every 100 people who just shrug and think ‘what an A-hole’, there’ll always be one twisted mind willing to go the extra mile in the name of internet justice.

Why should the few maniacs who think it’s OK to threaten to cut someone’s head off spoil it for everyone else? Anonymous posters can invite discussion, shine light into the darkest corners, help overturn oppression and prejudice. Why remove that power just because some people use it irresponsibly?

So, internet warriors, do your worst. In some ways, it is almost flattering that someone would take the time out to log in (or in cases of extreme desire to express, sign up!) and type furiously away, their tongue no doubt hanging out of the side of their mouth, just to say that you suck.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but I’m hard-pressed to take offence at what humm1ng8ird1876 has to say, even if they’re lobbing outright homophobia my way or calling me a… well, take your pick. After all, they don’t know my name either.

Anonymity is a gilded cage which protects us from each other. Let the key stay lost.

This is an updated version of a post which appeared in Huffington Post last year.

Why I believe in internet anonymity – even when you’re calling me a ****

We hear a lot about trolls in the news these days. A sub-class of human previously restricted to the mysterious world of specialist messageboards and forums about dodgy TV shows nobody watches any more, the troll has now been brought front-and-centre, blinking uncertainly in the shimmering light that is Twitter.

The adoption of Twitter to the bosom of the mainstream has finally done for social media what Facebook could not and would not: it’s made it okay to talk to absolute strangers, even if you’re not an ‘internet geek’.

Those who partake in trolling — of which there are very many complex levels from ‘mild ribbing’ to ‘death threat’ with a whole sub-genre of sexism, homophobia and vague paedophilia in between — are often thought to ‘hide’ behind the anonymity the internet affords them. Although IP addresses are freely available to any body who can be bothered looking for them, the fact that it’s usernames and not full Sunday names which accompany each bilious entry allow a freedom that we are in turns proud of and disgusted by.

Every so often, there are calls for procedures to identify internet users to be more transparent and robust. Sites like Google and Facebook have ‘real name only’ policies, with the former recently mulling over whether to force their gaming and reviewing users to also ditch their usernames and display their full ‘Wait until I get you home’ monikers.

There has been applause and outcry in equal measures for this approach to posting on the internet. On one hand we remove the opportunity for trolls to post faceless vitriol with little worry about the effect it has on the object of their ire. I imagine menacing posts about cutting somebody’s throat lose their thrill for the poster if their name is easily retrievable, easing the path to retaliation and/or punishment.

Casual racism and homophobia would, perhaps, shuffle off elsewhere from its natural habitat at the bottom half of articles in the leading newspapers and all would be well again. There is nothing quite so powerful as a barrier to online nastiness as having your full name attached to it, take it from me.

But when crusading against the vicious, masked internet assassins, we forget the other side of anonymity: the ability to speak one’s mind without fear of recrimination. Internet posters don’t just spout random opinions and then take their leave — they engage, interact, reply. They try to bully those who don’t toe their line. People on the internet like to disagree with each other, and things can get very heated. An online pseudonym doesn’t just give you carte-blanche to be as unpleasant as you like; it protects you from those who are.

In a world where a name is instantly Google-able (I hate myself for using such a non-word, and no doubt the trolls will be after me for doing so) and almost everyone ‘has Facebook’, an invisibility cloak of some sorts gives the ‘good’ people of the internet the chance to speak frankly about what they believe in — be it attacking racism, talking about the positives of immigration or impassioned essays on horrifying real-life experiences.

Naysayers claim that as long as you don’t post vitriol on the internet and are totally truthful, you have nothing to worry over when it comes to a removal of internet anonymity. But I disagree. For all those who post on the internet, there are thousands, millions more just watching, like a coiled spring, awaiting outrage. Maybe your musings on the situation on Israel or gay marriage or women’s rights in Saudi Arabia may seem fairly balanced and innocuous, but there’s every chance someone out there doesn’t like what you’re saying, and wants you to know it. Remove your mutual veil of online facelessness and your detractor may find other ways to make life difficult for you. And how will they do that? Well, with your name freely available for all to see, he or she is spoiled for choice. A heavy-handed example, yes, but we shouldn’t encourage the opportunity. For every 100 people who just shrug and think ‘what an A-hole’, there’ll always be one twisted mind willing to go the extra mile in the name of internet justice.

So, internet warriors, do your worst. In some ways, it is almost flattering that someone would take the time out to log in (or in cases of extreme desire to express, sign up!) and type furiously away, their tongue no doubt hanging out of the side of their mouth, just to say that you suck. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but I’m hard-pressed to take offence at what humm1ng8ird1876 has to say, even if they’re lobbing outright homophobia my way or calling me a… well, take your pick. After all, they don’t know my name either.

Anonymity is a gilded cage which protects us from each other. Let the key stay lost.

Why you should never date an anonymous blogger

You’re on a date. The guy opposite of you seems attentive, interested, and personable. But there’s something not quite right.

Maybe he’s commenting a little too much on the décor of your date venue. Perhaps he’s got a lot to say about the menu or is critiquing the clothes of passers-by. And when he asks you again where you’re from, your age and appears to make a mental note of your eye colour, you need to beware.

There’s every chance you could be sitting across from the scourge of the internet: the poison pen-wielding, faceless web coward that is the anonymous blogger. Avoid. Why? Here’s why:

Identity agony
The true cross that every anonymous blogger has to bear is that most people don’t know (or indeed care) who they are.

For some bloggers, this adds to the mystery and appeal and so they value their anonymity (yes, I’m talking about me now), but others regret that their face sits behind a paywall that nobody is going to shell out the pennies to peek behind.

That their genius will remain undiscovered or that they’ll never receive recognition for their toil is a constant source of worry. They consider ‘coming out’ and revealing all to much fanfare, realising it’s the only way to realising their ambition of getting a publishing deal for a toilet book of their tweets out in time for Christmas, without taking into account that it’s the anonymity which makes them interesting.

“This would make a great blog”
Everything is material. Everything. Whether they’re the kind of scribe who slates restaurants or drones about fashion, every single sight and sound is potential content for their wry musings.

With an armchair movie reviewer, for example, the pleasure of a date to the cinema would be destroyed with every tut and deep sigh, along with the fuzzy glow of your blogging beau’s iPhone being removed from his pocket so he can tap out some withering notes about Keira Knightley’s similarity to a pine summer house.

Everyone’s a critic, yes, but perhaps your other half could leave the fault-finding eye – let alone the gushing superfan plaudits – at home for the evening.

Automatic fanboy
Being their nearest and dearest – no matter how much your enthusiasm might be dwindling – you are of course expected to be their number one devotee.

When they ask you if you have read their latest tirade against the state of the London Underground or their new blog about Blackpool Fashion Week, don’t let the panic shoot all the way up from your gut to your eyes. Pretend that you did, make your excuses as quickly as possible and adjourn to the nearest toilet and get busy with your smartphone – and pray it’s only a short essay.

Alternatively, if you’re feeling a bit argumentative and are looking for an afternoon more interesting than discussing what your paramour thought of the sausages in the 100 local cafes he’s reviewing for his fucking super-amazing blog, confess you haven’t read it and probably won’t, because the last one wasn’t your “cup of tea”.

If there’s one thing a nameless scribe can’t abide, it’s being compared to a cup of English Breakfast.

Do you know who I am?
The answer to that can only ever be “no”. If you will insist on dating an anonymous blogger, you need to make sure that the most interesting thing about him isn’t merely that nobody else knows what makes him so interesting.

And that misguided self-importance? The belief that what they’re doing is SO vital that they couldn’t possibly do it under their real name? Not to mention the hand-wringing over the impact their posting will have (none, usually). As unsexy as it gets, really, unless they’re bad in bed to boot.

Persona non-starter
The power of anonymity enables the secret blogger to develop a persona quite distinct from their humdrum everyday Mr Average.

Perhaps in his blogs and on Twitter your codenamed scribbler will come across as a hot, sexy wordsmith, with lashings of snarky asides, cogent thoughts and a trailer park full of witticisms to make your heart thump.

Rip him away from WordPress and his tweets, however, and you’re left with a ratty, pensioner-in-training with a myopic worldview, endless bad jokes and a skip filled to the brim with unbridled anger and missed opportunities.

You can’t log off from real life, remember.

NB: Absolutely none of these pitfalls apply to me. Not a one. I’m a joy to date. You’d be lucky to have me. Maybe. (Possibly not.)