Over the course of eight or nine years, until last August, someone with the handle "rahodeb" posted regularly about the company Whole Foods on Yahoo!'s finance bulletin boards. Rahodeb liked Whole Foods. He didn't care for its competitor Wild Oats. Rahodeb particularly liked Whole Foods CEO John Mackey. "While I'm not a 'Mackey groupie,'" rahodeb wrote, "I do admire what the man has accomplished." This was true, as far as it went. Rahodeb was not a Mackey groupie. Rahodeb was Mackey.
It was a venial sin that would never have come to light except that in February Whole Foods made a $565 million play to buy Wild Oats--the very company rahodeb so soundly dissed online--and while reviewing the bid, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) turned up what would, if this were a spy thriller, be known as the Rahodeb Identity. The FTC is seeking to halt the deal on basic antitrust grounds--it claims that a union of the two companies would produce an organic-foods quasi-monopoly. The government may also be examining whether Mackey, in his double life, revealed information a CEO shouldn't. But there are plenty of economists and lawyers around to figure out important stuff like that. The really burning questions are, Why would Mackey bother posting about his own company on Yahoo? And should people be allowed to be anonymous on the Internet at all?
As far back as the 1980s, the Internet has been an electronic masked ball, a place where people can play with new identities and get off on the frisson of being somebody else. MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle has argued that this kind of identity-play even has therapeutic value. You certainly can't ascribe a plausible financial motive to Mackey--rahodeb's postings weren't moving stock prices around. This was about just being naughty: picture Mackey chortling as he played the regular rube, like Marie Antoinette dressing up as a peasant and milking cows on the fake farm she built near Versailles. (Mackey was even in drag, sort of--rahodeb is an anagram of his wife's name, Deborah.)
But it's all fun and games till somebody loses his head. As anybody who has even looked sideways at the Internet knows, anonymity has a disastrously disinhibiting effect on human behavior. Freed of any possibility that their words will be connected to their actual identities, anonymous Internet posters have charted historic new depths of verbal offensiveness. Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture, has called for posters to own up to their Internet alter egos, arguing that "if we are to save the Internet, we need to confront the curse of anonymity."
Then again, anonymity can protect the innocent as well as the guilty. As privacy advocates will be ecstatically eager to remind you, Common Sense and The Federalist were both first published anonymously. In countries where governments don't respect free speech, anonymity is a priceless resource. Right now the Chinese city of Xiamen is trying to ban anonymous Web postings after citizens used the Internet to organize a protest against a new chemical plant.
There are forums in which the need to exchange information anonymously is compelling. But there aren't many, and in most cases it's just a temptation. Look at Amazon, which since 2004 has urged anonymous reviewers to fess up to their real names, lest authors be tempted to review their own books. Viewed as a social experiment in good faith among anonymous equals, the Internet is not succeeding. The masked ball is in danger of becoming a hooded mob.