In Search of Internet Anonymity

Some of the most popular new smartphone apps offer users the prospect of anonymity. With names like Secret, Whisper, Confide, and Yik Yak, they employ different methods to allow people to post items, and responded to other posted items, without attribution.

The developers of these apps say that anonymity is a kind of pressure-release valve: people have carefully crafted their on-line personas on social media sites, and anonymity lets them really expose their true natures without risk of blowback. (Wait a minute! Are they saying that what people post on Facebook isn’t a true window to their very souls?) So, the apps supposedly allow people to be more “honest.” Of course, there are dangers — such as bullying and defamation — with any social media outlet that allows posters and commenters to hide their identities, so the app designers have to develop techniques to detect or restrain malicious behavior.

Why is the promise of anonymity attractive? It’s a question almost as old as the human species. The classic form of anonymous comment is graffiti, and that dates back thousands of years. Obviously, there’s something about making public statements, without significant fear of retribution, that some people find attractive. Of course, often those anonymous public statements are cruel and repulsive, and frequently the veil of anonymity produces statements that are consciously designed to inflame. Are the people who use these anonymity apps really being more honest, or just saying things that they know will be provocative?

The story linked above mentions the early days of the internet, when pseudonymous postings were commonplace. Some people apparently enjoyed those early days, but I wasn’t one of them. My first few ventures onto the internet, using a dial-up modem and ridiculously slow connections, suggested that the world was filled with mean-spirited people who would glibly say the most awful things imaginable. It took a while before I found websites where I was comfortable.

I think the internet’s move to attribution — like its move to high-speed connections — has been a definite improvement, and I’m not interested in going back. I won’t be looking to add one of the anonymity apps to my iPhone.

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On Trusting The Travel Writer

Kish did a lot of research before we took this trip to Paris. Among other things, she read and printed out a number of “3 Days in Paris”-type articles from various newspapers, and we’ve used them, productively, as helpful guides during our visit.

One neighborhoods described in one of the articles was Belleville. It was depicted as a charming, off-the-beaten path, upcoming area of new art galleries and friendly wine bars that loved drop-in clientele, so we thought it would be a good spot for a stroll and a glass.

When we emerged from the Belleville Metro stop, however, we found a place that was radically different than the travel writer’s depiction. Rather than charm, we found a gritty place of worn and uninspired modern buildings. We couldn’t find the places mentioned in the article because Belleville is so off the beaten path that its streets aren’t even shown on the map we have carried around the city — and when we tried to leave the main streets to find the charm, we found desolate side streets that made me feel physically insecure for the first time on our visit to Paris. So, after having lunch at a Vietnamese bistro and then wandering around for a while among shops that offered cheap discount clothing, lots of Asian-lettered businesses, and panel trucks covered with graffiti, we retreated back to the center of the old city.

Kish and I both agreed that the visit to Belleville was interesting, because it showed that Paris is not just a fairyland of medieval churches and fountains and beautiful apartment buildings. Belleville clearly is a place where recent blue-collar immigrants to the city go to find affordable places to live. We also wondered whether it showed the challenge of the modern travel writer who must try to find something new to say about a city as oft-visited as Paris. No doubt there are nicer parts of Belleville than what we found, but we wondered whether the travel writer’s overarching quest for the new produced a bit of exaggeration. Next time, we’ll do a Google search, too, before we venture off to a new place.

Post-Apocalyptic

IMG_4345On a pretty little island off the coast of Maine, you would not expect to find a graffiti-scarred, overgrown and abandoned concrete edifice — but on Peaks Island you will find Battery Steele.

It’s there because of World War II.  It’s a huge, sprawling gun battery site, pointed out to the open sea, apparently to be used if German U-boats or the Nazi fleet threatened the Portland, Maine harbor.  It is a massive concrete installation with a long tunnel that probably stored ammunition and other supplies.  At one time it must have been powered with overhead lighting and been bustling with activity.

IMG_4334The war ended almost 70 years ago, and the threat of Nazi attack was fleeting.  The government long ago abandoned Battery Steele. Owned by the Peaks Island Land Preserve, you find the installation by walking down a meandering path through a bog, ultimately to reach this grotesque, gray intrusion into the natural landscape.

It is a very creepy place with a strong post-apocalyptic feel to it, like a setting from The Road Warrior.  The sweeping gray concrete walls have proven irresistible to graffiti artists.  Without lighting, the long central tunnel is pitch black and looks like the pathway to hell.  The resulting, unsettling sense of lawlessness has you looking over your shoulder, half-expecting to see the Humongous and his gang of psychopaths come charging out of one of the concrete doors.

On our visit yesterday, there were no rampaging gangs, and the birds chirped and the insects buzzed.  Still, we couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.IMG_4341

Trying To Understand Acts Of Senseless Artistic Destruction

On Sunday, at London’s Tate Modern Art Museum, a visitor walked up to the Mark Rothko painting Black on Maroon and boldly wrote some words on the painting in black paint, then left the museum.

Today a Russian named Vladimir Umamets claimed responsibility for the act, but said it was not an act of vandalism.  According to the BBC, he was later was arrested and held on suspicion of causing criminal damage.  The BBC also reports that Umamets claims to be the founder of a “movement” called “Yellowism,” which apparently posits that “Art allows us to take what someone’s done and put a new message on it.”

I don’t know if there really is a “movement” called Yellowism, as opposed to one nutty jerk seeking to justify an otherwise senseless act of artistic destruction, but his philosophy is asinine.  Part of the joy of art is its aspirational aspect.  People appreciate art that reflects great talent that they don’t possess.  Anyone who thinks a great painting is just a canvas for their personal aggrandizement is just piggybacking on greatness they could never achieve on their own talent.

What would happen if every museum patron felt free to scrawl whatever they pleased on a Rothko — or the Mona Lisa?  It wouldn’t be long before a Rothko ceased to be a Rothko and instead became a patch of random graffiti.  If I wanted to see that, I would book a flight for inner city Detroit.  Come to think of it, that might be a suitable punishment for whomever actually defaced the painting:  sentence them to a few years scrubbing away the graffiti in British toilets.

Ample Asses And Ancient Graffiti

Anyone who has been to Pompeii knows that the ancient Romans were accomplished graffiti writers.  So were many other ancient humans, from the cave-dwellers forward.  More and more, bits of ancient graffiti are being translated, and the results are classic — and often hysterical. The writings tell us something meaningful about our ancestors.

For example, how can you not smile about the unknown Greek guy who wrote, 1,500 years ago, “Sydromachos has an ass as big as a cistern.”  Who today hasn’t felt a similar urgent need to point out the reality of an acquaintance’s enormous rump?  It reminds me of a co-worker who, years ago, saw a newly hired employee who formerly had been an intern and who, in the intervening period, has put on a few pounds in the posterior.  With perfect timing, the co-worker scrutinized the colossal keister, turned to a friend, and said in an awed voice:  “That’s not the ass we hired.”

The ancient graffiti writings confirm that there is something basic and immutable about the human condition that remains lurking below — temporarily hidden, perhaps, by the trappings of civilization and technology, but always ready to appear at an opportune moment.  It’s reasonable to conclude that, for so long as human beings survive as a species, a big butt is always going to be worthy of a wry comment.