Jillian C. York is director of International Freedom of Expression at the US organization Electronic Frontier Foundation. Some of her articles and a lot of the interviews she has given provide excellent insights into chances and problems of anonymity and pseudonymity on the internet and on closed social network platforms. “A case for pseudonyms” for example explains why being able to use a pseudonym sometimes saves one’s life and often is an important factor to guarantee freedom of speech. “Lieber anonym als verfolgt” partly is a German translation published in the weekly newspaper “Die Zeit”. In “San Francisco Organization Fights For Online Anonymity” by CBS San Francisco Jillian C. York briefly summarizes why she does not like the ban of user pseudonyms by Google+ and Facebook.
From the fact that the Venecians never abandoned the use of the Bauta until the Austrians marched in and changed politics and culture, we know that there probably never was too much misuse of the society mask to give it up. That’s a little mystery, because having the chance to act anonymously always creates temptations to act in an antisocial, egoistic way. M.E. Kabay for example, with respect to deindividuation theories, points out that the deindividuation factor of practical anonymity may foster incivility, dishonesty and a more aggressive behavior and that it may lower self-reflective propensities (see sources to find his essay).
I already mentioned that one of the reasons why the Venecians only had to cope with a tolerable degree of misused anonymity was the fact that bearers of the Bauta did not escape society rules and expectations and that they could be practically unmasked if necessary. But this measure certainly only was used as a last resource. Another reason why citizens adhered to good manners when wearing the mask certainly was that when they put it on, they changed their existence to the role model of an ideal member of the noble citizenship.
Picture Source: Fotolia.com, Gloria Guglielmo
The role of “Signora Maschera” not only was to be characterized as generic and predefined, as I mentioned before, it also meant to reduce personal characteristics and to play up the qualities of the noble patrician as an idealized model. There are certainly parallels to old ideas of the “perfect gentleman” with his perfect style and manners. From Karbe and Toscani (see sources) we know that Venecians wearing the Bauta explicitly behaved politely and chivalrously when wearing the Bauta and that they even tried to move and communicate in a most elegant way.
Over the centuries Venetian lifestyle has been stigmatized as hedonistic and unethical. For strangers, especially carnival and the fact that so many citizens wore masks gave reason for suspicion. Someone who wears a mask has something to hide, they thought, and what else would a person want to hide than something felonious or unethical?
Mario Belloni today finds a way to say it more friendly, but the basic rating of Venetian culture still is the same: ‘They were merchants and adventurers who risked their riches, and often their own lives, on a daily basis on the ships which sailed for the mysterious East. Pirates, storms, attacks by enemy fleets, strange lands: mystery and adventure! These people couldn’t let up even in Venice, in their own city. Adventure for them was a way of life. They therefore created a city which offered all types of adventure, in every sense of the world! Carnival and masks everywhere represent absence of rule and freedom of action. You can do everything you want when you hide behind them, and adventure is possible again, even in the city, among the offices of the institutions, regardless of the laws and the vetoes of morality, however severe they may be. And so carnival breaks its boundaries and masks enter the realm of everyday life. In some places they were actually compulsory by law! Games of chance (a good example of adventure in the city), were a bit like the “national sport” of Venice, but in the state casino (the “Ridotto”) you could only play if you were masked.’
Of course there’s truth in this explanation. Just visit Cologne in Germany today when the carnival season arrives, and you will certainly find out that this kind of feast is an event to do things you would not do at other times. But Belloni’s explanation of why masks were worn in daily Venetian life may be at least partly wrong. After reading Karbe and Toscani, I think especially the use of the Bauta had a more serious and sophisticated social and political background. The Venetians had a deep understanding of what anonymity was good for. And, what’s most important, a citizen wearing a mask in Venice did not escape law and order. Of course he or she could do things which were not meant to be attributed to him or her by others, but his or her behavior still had to comply with certain expectations and laws. Venetians wearing Bauta and Volto were not up to antisocial behavior.
Today, for older generations the internet life of the digital natives perhaps looks as suspicious as the Venetian life may have looked like from the perspective of other cultures in the past. Ironically, even piracy in a different context is a core topic again. But in both cases the critics also misunderstand a culture which knows about the merits of anonymity and how to live with it. That’s one of the topics I’d like to work on.
In his blog www.metaphorous.com, Wilhelm Greiner 2010 wrote down some interesting thoughts on privacy in the social media age. The blog disappeared later, but, as you see, the Internet Archive still has it in its wayback machine. The entry is here. From Wilhelm’s point of view, for a privacy-aware person, there are four possible attitudes towards social media:
- Lifecasting – me, myself, my life and everything shall be online. Self-marketing is more important than privacy.
- Total refusal – nothing shall ever be found online about me. Privacy is my top concern.
- In-depth and detailed control –every bit about me goes through a risk assessment process before I put it on the web.
- Social media stream designed as a résumé – whenever a future employer finds information about me, he or she should get the right impression.
- Role play or “alias” mode – I make sure that my online me is not at all congruent with my real life me.
I like these categories, especially when taking into consideration that there are combinations of the attitudes possible. Wilhelm already mentions that attitude 5 can be combined with attitude 3 and 4, but in my opinion it also fits to attitude 2. For example, web-citizens anonymously participating in imageboards like 4chan or krautchan, inhabitants of virtual worlds or players of multi player online games may never show any information about their real identity anywhere on web 2.0 platforms like LinkedIn, Xing or Facebook. This seems a little bit similar to the way the old Venetians lived their real lives. In their small, but vibrating and multicultural town on the seas, dealing with merchants and pirates from everywhere in a still uncharted world, they developed the idea of living an anonymous life besides the public life. Wearing the Bauta, they played a role, but it was a predefined and generic role. It worked very well. Everyone wearing the Bauta disguise was accepted and greeted as “Signora Maschera”. May be that this is the 6th attitude to be thought about. By the way, on krautchan, every user is called “Bernd”. I definitely have to think about that, too.
Munich business consultant and psychologist, Dirk Appel, reminded me of the fact that the English word “person” (German “Person”, Italian “Persona” and so on) is based on the Latin word “persona” which meant “mask”. Etymologically, it roots in “per sonare”, an expression for the voice of an actor sounding through a mask. From Appel’s point of view, today managers are mostly paid for playing a role. The “person” they appear to be is modeled to comply with certain expectations from the business world. It is seldom congruent with what could be called their inner self. So don’t say too easily that you never wear a mask.
At the European Identity Conference 2010 in Munich I presented some first thoughts resulting from this project . The presentation led to a discussion. Some of the questions posed there by the attendants will be of interest for the ongoing research:
- Venice was a small community. Does an anonymity concept like the one represented by the Bauta disguise only function in a (nearly) closed system like the one of the Venetian society? Is the internet itself a closed system or an open system? Perhaps the Bauta concept may have more in common with the anonymity and pseudonymity concepts of platforms like the internet imageboards than with the internet itself.
- Was it really a good anonymity device? The user of the Bauta could not hide height and weight and voice.
- It was easy to unmask the user of a Bauta If something went wrong. Isn’t it far more difficult to unmask an anonymous internet user?
- To develop a device like the Bauta, the Venetians must have felt the necessity of anonymity. Given that most internet users today still believe that they act more or less anonymously in the internet, may this be the reason that there is not so much interest in anonymity solutions today?
- The Bauta gave its user the identity of a true Venetian citizen without revealing many personal details. Would it be possible use identity devices like the new German digital identity card in a way like that?
- If necessary, the user of the Bauta could reveal a little bit more of his or her identity by abandoning parts of the disguise. How do you transfer this to the internet environment?
- Can the real environment of the Venetian city really be compared the virtual one of the Internet?
A lot of questions to think about, thanks again to all the participants!
I‘d like to thank Michel Kabay who has given me extremely valuable advice and pointed out some mistakes in the initial posts and pages of this blog. One of his essays will be one of the most important sources for upcoming work, so watch out for news in the “sources” page.