Anonymity in writing and blogging

Anonymity has become crucial in the fastly times and we need to allow it and enforce it so that one can speak without distinction, without the consideration of their race or status, their location, or their time or what influence their words may hold so that only their words, and not the person behind them, can be judged freely. - Mantenel

I'm a huge fan of Medium, having been one of the earliest readers and Beta adopters. I love it and I love how it allowed long-form essays to flourish. With that many articles that would get lost in the hurdles of Newspaper media which buried interesting stuff below revenue-generating content became visible. From disclosures from the deepest darkest parts of the soul to threateningly earnest discussions on the world. It's an amazing medium (get it?) which also encouraged many people to start their own "long form blogs". I know that's what encouraged me to start my current blog.

Yet, a few days ago I found myself wanting to write an article that would not belong to my blog and also would not belong to me. I wanted to write as an anonymous user. I want to do a long-form expose on something interesting to me that I did not want associated to me. There's always a threat to one's career when writing these kind of pieces. If not career, then possibly family, individual, or whatever else.

We've seen what the likes of 4Chan can do when they find out who you are and post something they don't like. But anonymity gets abused and often. It just doesn't work on a large scale. Except for one place, Reddit.

Reddit is an amazing beast in that it somehow meshes anonymity with the pride of user profiles. There's a nice medley of users that like to be vocal, and have a reputation associated with them while there is a great number of others who simply create a new account to voice an opinion. Actually, there are several subreddits that depend on this behavior: /r/offmychest, to some extent career/job based subreddits, /r/relationships and even AMA-style subreddits.

The discussions there usually require anonymity for a good reason. However, I believe that we could extend the courtesy of anonymous usage outside of reddit. There have been several instances in the past where that's proven useful. From the Confessions of a former TSA agent to stories about depression and even a an amazing story on pedophilia. Those stories require anonymity.

Strangely enough, we have systems like SecureDrop that allows us to drop off documents safely to the Guardian with various entities having similar features. Why is it no big blogging network has a anonymous/throwaway style posting?

There are a few sites made for these purposes but they're lacking in features, polish, and hey, even exposure to the real world, and are meant only as private alternatives to most subreddits as a place to vent. Not to share deep thoughts, but to vent that's the distinction.

There are several problems with large-scale anonymity which discourages most sites from offering the option:

  1. abuse of anonymity - from trolling to downright illegal behavior (posting nude photographs of people, copyright infringements, harassment). And putting a profile behind that behavior makes it easy to ban someone and regulate the behavior. Anonymity doesn't allow such comforts. You can ban an IP at best but even that doesn't help when someone uses proxies or has a VPN.
  2. lazy anonymity - this is in regards to people who feel that if their name is not on the article, they will not be found out. There are relatively simple ways to match an article to a person. From writing pattern matching to location matching, checking out references to places, times, and people. That's how many reddit accounts become compromised and linked to facebook accounts based on relatively harmless behavior.
  3. spam - probably the worst to deal with is spam. What stops people from posting 400 articles within minutes, all anonymously?

Reddit solved most of these issues. First, most subreddits have moderators and auto-moderators that help filter out #1. For #3, Reddit already deals with it. New throwaway accounts have limits on posting. IPs get flagged and banned (shadow banned sometimes) when abuse is detected. Not only that, Reddit has a sophisticated spam/abuse detection algorithm. #2 is up to the people but moderators help here as well by either suggesting changes or implementing changes to the original post.

So what would my ideal anonymously-driven Medium-like site look like?

I believe that to prevent abuse, lots of checks and balances have to be put in place. Iron-clad minimal rules like: no porn, no copyright infringement, no abuse, no harassment, etc.

Some of these could be handled easier than others. High-traffic articles would have to be quickly moderated and given moderation priority. Does it fail any of the checks? If so, correct it.

For user accounts, I'd setup two tiers. One, complete anonymity (throwaway) and two, semi-anonymity with reddit-style easy sign ups. Complete anonymity would, in my mind, requires deletion of logs and IPs. Or perhaps, using some complicated hash to verify if the incoming user is from the same IP to allowing banning IPs without necessarily knowing what they are or what users they're attributed to. This could also allow rate-limiting, allowing a user to post only 1 article a day but allowing unlimited drafts to write.

To help users retain complete anonymity, I'd love to include guides to masking your posting time or even set a "queue to post randomly in the next 24 hours". There could even be an integration with some translation API to translate into a random foreign language and back and help correct the text, whilst deleting the original draft. Better yet, keep all drafts encrypted with the temporary password created by the anonymous user (whatever tier they may be in).

An option to show up in a main article feed or allow password-protected posts or just link-protected post would be another feature.

Come to think of it

This is a service I'd like to build myself. I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts on the matter and perhaps, with enough interested, I'll get started on a prototype.

image courtesy of: NHuval-stock