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You Don’t Know Me, and You Can’t See Me

News & Features | April 22, 2014

Brendan Eich, by all accounts, is a highly accomplished and brilliant individual. As an engineer for Netscape in 1995, Eich created JavaScript, a computer programming language that has been integral to the development of web applications and serves as the foundation of nearly all new age websites. JavaScript has become so important that it is now required learning for any serious programmer. In 1998, Eich co-founded Mozilla, a project designed to create open-source applications that eventually birthed Firefox, the acclaimed and still widely web browser. Throughout Eich’s tenure at Mozilla, he served as a member of the Board of Directors, Lead Technologist, Chief Technology Officer, and on March 24, 2014, after 16 years at the corporation, was appointed Chief Executive Officer.

Just eleven days later, on April 3, 2014, Eich resigned as CEO. It turned out that in 2008, Eich had donated $1,000 in support of California Proposition 8, an anti-gay marriage law that defined marriage strictly as “between a man and a woman.” While this donation was publicized back in 2012, Eich’s appointment gave it the heavy media coverage it originally never received. The social media backlash was immediate. Multiple LGBT activist groups called for a boycott of the company, the dating site OkCupid requested that all members stop using Firefox, and Mozilla’s own employees called for his dismissal. Even members of the company’s Board of Directors resigned following his appointment. While Eich tried to remedy the situation, he ultimately refused to publicly change his stance on same-sex marriage. It became clear that the alarming lack of support for a newly appointed CEO would cripple the development of the company; Eich had no choice but to resign.

While opposing same-sex marriage is widely seen as an anachronistic and objectionable view, it is by no means an illegal one. But in Silicon Valley, a region where social acceptance is as much of a defining trait as technological innovation, Eich’s views are particularly appalling. No matter how impressive his resume, Eich was publicly held accountable for his actions. News of his resignation served as a reminder that everything we say or do has lasting consequences, especially in this age of digital permanence.

The Internet has brought with it networks of information that are grow exponentially by the millisecond. A tweet can travel thousands of miles in the blink of an eye and a video shared on YouTube can be viewed by millions of people in just a few hours. Our words and actions move quicker and farther than ever before. And as evidenced by Eich’s road to resignation, in this world of unlimited, lightning-fast information diffusion, the most attention is reserved for news that drives controversy.

There are two sides to every issue, and controversy by its very nature drives debate. Eich’s critics refused to support a company led by a man who wanted to keep gay marriage illegal, and his supporters defended his right to free speech. While both have merit, much of the online discussion on the subject consisted of little reason and plenty of personal attacks. Unfortunately, this has become far too common in online debate. It has fostered what Jon Lovett of The Atlantic (and former speechwriter for President Obama) calls “The Culture of Shut Up.” Debate and dialogue surrounding important issues are far too often undermined by what he refers to as “vicious personal attacks and self-righteous calls for apology.”

This culture has been facilitated in part by the increasing accessibility to online anonymity. According to Ruogu Kang, one of the researchers behind a study done by Carnegie Mellon University exploring why people seek anonymity on the Internet, people engage in “anti-social”, or hateful, online anonymous behavior because they “don’t have the burden of their real-life identities attached to messages that they share on those applications.” They feel like they “have to maintain a consistent self-image” when dealing with public profiles as they do on platforms like Facebook, and anonymity is a convenient way to shirk this kind of responsibility. Kang also emphasized that people were much less likely to engage in this sort of misconduct in spaces where their identities were publicly available.

Opinions will inevitably differ, and disagreements are a necessary part of discussion and debate. But the art of argument has turned more toward accusatory attacks simply for the sake of feeding controversy, as evidenced by the discussion surrounding Eich. Those who support gun control, for instance, are often easily dismissed as “anti-American,” and those who question climate change are often regarded as “anti-science.” People should be able to express themselves, but dialogue should not be any less substantiated and thought out simply because people can now hide behind a computer or smartphone screen. Anonymity makes attacks more cruel, reactions more dramatic, and issues unnecessarily more divisive.

One new venture that supposedly seeks to reverse this trend is Secret, an application hoping to bridge the gap between anonymity and a culture of productive, honest expression. The app, whose slogan is “Speak Freely,” is essentially a messaging service that allows users to share posts anonymously. Its mission statement claims that it is designed to “bring more authenticity, self-awareness, and empathy to the world.” The driving force behind this mission is that while platforms like Facebook or LinkedIn place social pressure on users to project an artificially polished image of themselves, Secret allows members to express all opinion with “free speech and uninhibited communication.”

The app is already gaining serious traction, despite its launch just two months ago. In March, the company announced that it had raised $8.6 million in Series A funding, and now there are rumors that Facebook has looked into it as a potential acquisition (with a valuation exceeding $100 million). While Secret eliminates the potential anxiety that can arise from maintaining public profiles, it also removes all accountability. Silicon Valley executives like Andrew Bosworth, Facebook’s VP of Advertising and inventor of the News Feed, have seen numerous posts and attacking their reputations and careers. Users continue to utilize the platform as a soapbox for hateful personal attacks, all without the slightest fear of retribution or recrimination. Secret has already had to adopt a policy of warning users not to “defame” others on the service. Yik Yak, a similar anonymity-based application, has had to limit its membership to adults after its middle and high school users were found responsible for a series of cyber bullying incidents and bomb threats.

At the end of the day, the fact that technology has made it possible for virtually anyone to share his or her opinion is better than people not being heard at all. In a way, social media is the ultimate manifestation of free speech, as a message on Twitter can fuel political revolutions and a video on YouTube can spark protests in a matter of hours. Voices are being heard, but sometimes the sound of those voices turns rather cacophonous, tainted by a sour blend of vigor, spite, and drama. Referring to Secret’s skyrocketing popularity, Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz and Netscape, wrote, “Every day, each one of us has many choices about whether to lift people around us up or tear them down. For most of us, those choices are local in nature—people we know or meet, interact with face-to-face, one on one. But for some of us, those choices loom larger, in the social software and systems we design, build, report on, advertise on, fund.” In short, we can decide to use this new power of speech to engage in productive discussion with others or spread vicious rumors and launch personal attacks in order to vilify them. Above all, it is our responsibility to remember that regardless of the space in which they exist, our words are not autonomous. Rather, they come with consequences for which we must hold ourselves accountable. Doing so might just encourage dialogue instead of diminishing it.