understanding the importance and impact of anonymity and authentication in a networked society
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Jaquelyn Burkell


Jacquelyn Burkell
Associate Professor, University of Western Ontario, Faculty of Information and Media Studies

April, 2004

ANON: You have written about credibility on the web. What does that mean? Does this idea involve both the establishment of authoritative written sources and the authentication of individuals?

JACQUIE BURKELL: When I talk about credibility, I am talking about the experience of it. What makes information believable? What makes people trust it? Authentication is usually irrelevant, because people do not take advantage of technical tools we provide them with to authenticate. Anonymity, however, is important because people pay attention to the source of information – and when sources are anonymous, this is explicitly unknown. So anonymity is likely to make information less credible.

ANON: How is credibility on the web reconcilable with anonymity on the web?

JACQUIE BURKELL: In establishing the credibility of information, people look to the source, asking whether the source has important qualities like trustworthiness or expertise. As a result, information from anonymous sources is less credible. On the web, however, this becomes complex, since anonymity is not necessarily tied to the absence of a name. You can have an unnamed source of information and can, at the same time, show people who that is, for example, by having a picture of that person. It used be that names were the identifier. Now you can identify with images, names, pseudonyms, or other characteristics. It may be that these are enough to allow us to trust an information source.

ANON: How do you see anonymity influencing a person’s online interactions?

JACQUIE BURKELL: Anonymity tends to make people disclose more. We are more honest about ourselves when engaging in anonymous online interactions. We share more online than we would face to face. The power differentials that may be present in a face to face group environment are reduced online. Anonymity online is different from an offline environment. In face to face interactions, for example, we have relatively limited choices about changing our physical appearance: we could change our hairstyle, use makeup to change our appearance, change our weight or muscle mass, or change our clothes. However, in many online contexts, we can completely and immediately change our physical representation by choosing a different avatar. We can be unseen but have a representative of our choice stand in. One interesting question that arises is whether these avatars – these chosen physical representatives – make us feel more responsible for our actions in the same way that we feel more responsible when we are visible in a face to face interaction.

ANON: Do you think people are aware of what they reveal of themselves on the internet?

JACQUIE BURKELL: People are very unaware of what they reveal. We are lulled into a kind of complacency when surfing the net. We feel anonymous because we are not physically seen. One of my students, Peter West is conducting interviews with people about their level of anonymity. What we have found thus far is that technically sophisticated people are saying that no one is anonymous on the net, yet they feel anonymous. They acknowledge the lack of anonymity on the internet but are willing to share personal information about themselves because they nonetheless feel that their identity is in some way protected.

ANON: There has been a lot of work on protection of children on the internet; do you have on thoughts on children’s issues on the net?

JACQUIE BURKELL: One of the first things that come up in our research is that technically sophisticated adults have incorrect beliefs about anonymity online. If this is the case, there is very good reason to believe that children will likely be prone to similar misconceptions; believing that they can’t be identified when in fact they can. To the extent that this puts children at risk, it is important that we understand what aspects of a certain online situation triggers this false sense of anonymity.

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