Anonymity is the simultaneous source of the internet's greatest strength and weakness. What do I mean by anonymity? Well in real life (RL), my identity is more or less set in stone by our current legal system. True I can change my name, but it doesn't really mean alot, when there is a legal record of it. People can still find out who I am. Not to mention the fact that the I can't really change the skin I'm in either, as in the details of my physical body. It's not as easy to fake DNA tests, fingerprinting, and retinal scans as it is to fake an email address. Philip Rosedale, one of the creators of Second Life, thinks that in the future RL identities and virtual world identities will eventually merge into one using one of the various biometric diagnostic tools to verify people really are who they say they are. However, I am not convinced that merging virtual identities with online identities will be that desirable, at least for a large portion of the population. Merging our identities may detract too much from the value we give to privacy, and the desire to even do so I think in is some way shows that we value self promotion at least as much as we value making unprecidented connections with people all around the globe.
So what are the Pros and Cons of anonymity? To keep this thing short, I will first discuss only the pros and save the cons for a later discussion.
It is a well established phenomenom that students interacting with each other in an online classroom are more likely to engage and start intellectual discussions. It was important that these students have the choice not to use their real names if they did not want to. They could choose to be anonymous if they wanted to, and that is what many of the students chose to do. When the researchers asked the students about why they thought the increase in discussion occured over traditional classroom settings, the students answered that they felt less likely they were being judged. This is just a vague summary of a number of experiements, and I am leaveing out the exact details on purpose. If you would like to know more about this phenomenom, to form your own opinion, then a good place to start would be the online education journal www.jolt.merlot.org. I highly encourage you to look at these very interesting journals researching online interactions.
My roommate is often engaged in World of Warcraft, a very popular massive multiplayer online game (MMOG) with some 50 million signed up users. He has made many online aquaintences over the few years of playing the MMOG, as well as the occasional good friend. The nessessity of knowing who people's real names in the game, he says, is just not there. Well, you might think, that's due to the nature of the game. It's mostly indvidual right? Wrong. The game is structured so that the only way you can progress to certain parts of the World is by forming a guild of warriors, that can sometimes be upwards to 100s of people simultaneously coordinating their efforts to defeat a superfoe. The guild members have to use headsets and microphones in an IRC chat channel, because the World of Warcraft servrs don't offer that kind of audio functionality, which is strange because it seems so nessecary in order to be sucessful at the game. In all this time spent being socially engaged with other members of his guild, he has never had the mental need to know the real names of the people with whom he has been spending the last 3 or 4 months of his life interacting with in the Virtual World of Warcraft. My roommate also has made a few of what we have defined as "good friends," i.e., people with whom he continues to keep in contact with (in the game, that is) even after they each go their own separate ways, from one guild to the next. After a long time my roommate finally came by the knowledge of real names of one his good friends he made online, but he had no desire to even know it. It just sorta came up.
The philosophical takehome point to all of this I think is that knowing who someone's real life identity is definitely a preference that will vary from person to person. Maybe for the more professionally minded people, merging their virtual world identities with their RL identities makes sense for reason's that are pretty obvious. They want any sucess from RL to map to VL (Virtual Life) and vice versa as a way to amplify that sucess. But we have to remember that the majority of people using this stuff aren't going to be professionals as we usually consider a professional in today's world to mean, Ph.Ds, college degrees, etc. I feel the vast majority of virtual world users are going to be people who are not necessarily engaged in the medium for professional reasons, but simply benefit from the fulfillment of certain mental and emotional needs caused by the social interactions and relations with other virtual identities formed in the medium. And those needs can be meet regardless if you choose to go by your RL name in the virtual world, or if you choose instead to call yourself "BABOOSHKA." In more poetical terms:
A Rose is a Rose is a Rose. Would it not by any other name smell just as sweet?