Anonymity on the Net works a little differently, not least because authorship works a little differently here, too. A piece of writing in the print world is usually more or less an ex cathedra pronouncement. In an electronic environment, writing is often part of a conversation of some kind, or intended to instigate a conversation: a line of chat-room dialogue, a contribution to a thread in a newsgroup, a piece of email, a once-in-a-blue-moon post to the Bullet-In-Board. To get all pomo for a minute, what's at issue isn't just the "I" who is speaking, but the "you" who can be spoken to in return. If you're role-playing someone other than your normal self, you have to stay in character for as long as you want to participate.

The other difference is how easy—and how normal—it is to change or hide your identity on the net. With a few clicks and keystrokes, you can adopt a new screen name on any number of online services; if you want to conceal yourself behind the shiny veil of Anonymous, you can send a message through a remailer that will mask your identity but keep you in the discussion; if you want to obliterate the you-who-can-be-spoken-back-to, you can send your message through a "cypherpunk" remailer that can strip off its header. But here, anonymity isn't a symbol of intrigue or authority; it's just a tool of privacy. If you're a victim of abuse, a twelve-stepper, a whistle-blower, a practical joker, a disgruntled former Scientologist, a freedom fighter, a harasser or just a naturally shy type, you can participate in online discussions, secure that you won't be exposed. Okay, maybe not if you're a disgruntled former Scientologist.

Discourse within a finite, closed community where everyone has to trust everyone else requires anonymity from either everyone or no one. That's why, for instance, the WELL insists that "you own your own words"—the same phrasing you find in Chat-A-Lanche—and forbids true anonymity. Pseudonymity is another matter, especially if you're not actually disguising your real identity. Most pseudonyms on the Net are more like nicknames or handles: dbcloud's writing is no more different from Douglas Wolk's than my phone voice is from my in-person speaking voice. If you've made the bit before the "@" in your address something other than your name, you've got a pseudonym yourself. And if you're in an online setting where you're likely to be play-acting—a MUD or a chat room or an avatar space—everyone around you probably is too. Very few people who adopt online pseudonyms intend to give the impression that the "characters" they create have real-world analogues other than their typing bodies; if the electronic mask and the flesh-and-blood face are different, they're usually just indulging a fantasy or cruising for cybernookie. Unless Steve Case has been making most of his money from 21-year-old, six-foot-tall blue-eyed blondes. Like the cartoon says, "on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."   </end>

—Douglas Wolk

Douglas Wolk is the Managing Editor of CMJ New Music Monthly. He lives in Queens, NY.