Communications on the Internet is mostly one step removed from the other party, unlike real-life communications. Even when one is using the medium of emails (as we shall see later on). However, people often consider it the same as face-to-face communications. This misunderstanding may be because of our need (as humans) to form patterns. We tend to readily form analogies from other facets of our lives —sometimes without putting too much thought into the patterning process.

The closest one can get to face-to-face communication on the Internet is when you are chatting using some kind of IM (Instant Messenger) system (E.g. Yahoo Messenger, MSN, Jabber, etc.) but even there it is quite easy to fool people. I know an instance where I got induced to chat with someone whom I later realized was an automated Alice web-bot (Alice was the name given to an Artificial Intelligence project which attempted to emulate human conversation. Again, let me not get into that as it would be a digression. See the link at the end of this chapter for details. It is also a little embarrassing for me to realize that I was be-fooled thus.)

So the short answer is: When we communicate on the net, we really do not know who is there on the other side. I can be bold enough to say that if we were to rely strictly on the net to validate our identities, we are usually indulging in anonymous communications whether we like it or not. (Strictly speaking there can rarely be true anonymous communications on the Internet. There is a large technological hurdle that needs to be overcome in order to achieve true anonymity. The correct term could be 'pseudonymity' when we talk of such communications on the Internet. However, for the sake of clarity, we shall continue to use the term 'anonymity' most of the time).

This is not normally the impression one has about the Internet. It is often considered to be an extension of the way we communicate in the real world (oops… have I said that before?)

Let us take an example (Example 1) to understand where the misunderstanding comes in: Say you meet a new person ABC at some conference and Mr. ABC gives you his email address. So you come back and then send an email to ABC, and there you are : you have extrapolated your real life communication system over to the Internet and in this specific instance, I cannot claim that the email address is not representative of a known identity.

Now lets consider another example (Example 2): You come across an interesting well written website on the Internet. You now want to "talk" (again a word that seeks analogies from non-virtual world experiences!) to someone who is responsible for that website. Then you notice a line on the website that gives the email address for one Mr. XYZ. So you write to him and he becomes a good friend of yours. It is only much later, when you are more experienced about the subject matter of that website, that you realize that Mr. XYZ was a Ms. RST and then you realize she had adopted the identity of Mr. XYZ for some ulterior motive that had escaped your attention earlier. If you extend this example a little more, this is the method that many insidious pseudo-science and pseudo-philosophical websites all over the net use to build up credibility.

Now lets take a third example: You come across an interesting website, and it so happens you have met that person Mr. PQR (or you know of someone who knows someone…. who has met that person) and so that PQR's email address is validated and attached to an identifiable real-life person. So that person's website is pretending to contain valid, authentic information. But the information is quite bad (Though you don't know it as yet) though well presented. Now as you know that person, you send off an email to that person and he replies … so your fears are put aside and you start interacting with that person's mailing list. Its only much later (when you get behind to know the technology that email mailing lists, etc. ) that you realize that PQR has invented several identities on his mailing list and many of the postings are actually from one and the same person.

For example Mr. PQR will send one email to the mailing list about some point of view and soon after there will be an email from another identity of his in the same mailing list corroborating Mr. PQR's point of view. It is only when you carefully examine the headers of the emails (it takes some amount of careful reading documents relating to email technology to understand email headers) that you realize that the emails are from one and the same person. It is quite easy to spoof email headers and invent identities. In fact email technology is so crude that it is sometimes fairly difficult to detect the forgery of email headers. With time Mr. PQR may even get some fan following and there would be some real persons who could be banked upon for support of Mr. PQR's points of view. When that happens, it would be tragic indeed.

Thus, it is only in the first example where you were certain of the true identity of a person. In all other cases, it just relies on faith and nothing more. Do we really know who Mr. PQR or Mr.XYZ is? According to me, there is a strong case for giving up our pretensions. We are all playing a masked game here, whether we like it or not. If we need to produce credible information let us gracefully accept the weak spots inherent in this medium and then work out methods by which we can all construct valid knowledge. The only way out is to get as many number of people involved in a particular knowledge building exercise. Only when there are large numbers working cohesively that important and useful properties will emerge. The adage "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts" can work only when there are sensible numbers to talk about. For example; if we search for the property of temperature or pressure at the molecular level; they are absent. Those properties can only be seen when there are enough number of molecules inside a vessel.

One sure shot way to detect the PQR and XYZ is to see how receptive they are for the participation of anonymous authors into their website, and how much control they yield over the medium. For example; if you find that in the mailing list by Mr. XYZ most of the postings are by the "admin" (an identity of Mr. XYZ) and by Mr.XYZ then it is likely that there is something fishy going on.

The common thread that ties all the three examples together is the lust for the new gold in the new continent named Internet that has appeared over the horizon : credible and original information. Anyone who can mine this gold will strike it rich. So there are all kinds of people attempting all kinds of tricks. The "dot-com" wave in late nineties was one period that saw many desperate attempts. Thankfully that phase has passed, and slowly the Internet is getting rid of all such hyenas. It may still take some time before the average John and Jane Does are armed with enough knowledge to distinguish the wheat from the chaff. (This document contains some information on some of those isolation techniques)

There are two kinds of knowledge depending on the way it relates to an existing body of knowledge: <ul> <li>a) One that takes a position on the previously existing body of knowledge. <li>b) And the other is one which is completely brand new. </ul> Both are benefited by The Delphi Method. An author who is pregnant with ideas is just like a pregnant lady: The seed inside her needs to be protected during that gestation period. When the author is indulging in type (a) activity, she needs to speak boldly without restraint. There could be others who could take offense. In type (b), there would be jealousies at work. But more than that, the author with an original idea may have to discard the body of work after having found that the germinating idea was defective, in face of proper criticism from the other participants of The Delphi Method. In such a case, the author needs to retract his/her thought without suffering humiliation or embarrassment.

Anonymous communication is not just useful for the person who is anonymous. But often it is a clear message to the other person that "look here, I am not talking about myself here. What I have to state is more important than what I am". It can put the other person at ease and a more logical response is obtained.

If one does not use The Delphi Method, the credibility of the author is often the one that is attacked by those with vested interests. It is for this reason that currently many people (including me) are of the opinion that the Internet really does not have much new knowledge (Type (b) in the above classification). At most, it has some type (a) kind of knowledge.

If you check on the Internet, credibility is a hot topic that is discussed — especially by anguished professors who have to pore over ridiculous materials pulled carelessly out of the Internet by lazy students at the last minute. The next chapter discusses this in more detail.


  3. A summary of the subject of Emergence is available at
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