Any attempt at trying to "discern the spirits" of Web 2.0 needs to wrestle with anonymity and its effects upon the self and relationality.
To start, there is a public good to pseudonymity and anonymity. Particularly in repressive cultures that lack a free press or where speaking truth is likely to be met with reprisals. So it is good that the Internet allows social critics in places like Iran or China to remain anonymous.
In addition, certain forms of social disclosure are easier in anonymous situations, like with the Catholic confessional. Research I've done with my students on PostSecret has suggested that the anonymous nature of PostSecret sharing gives people the courage to begin the process of difficult self-disclosure.
So there are good things about anonymity on the Web. But there are some concerns as well. Here is Stanley Fish in a piece entitled Anonymity and the Dark Side of the Internet:
The practice of withholding the identity of the speaker is strategic, and one purpose of the strategy (this is the second problem with anonymity) is to avoid responsibility and accountability for what one is saying. Anonymity, Martha Nussbaum, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago observes, allows Internet bloggers “to create for themselves a shame-free zone in which they can inflict shame on others.” The power of the bloggers, she continues, “depends on their ability to insulate their Internet selves from responsibility in the real world, while ensuring real-world consequences” for those they injure.This is an extreme example, but it gets at the underlying issue: We behave badly on the Internet, particularly when we are anonymous.
Humans are social creatures. Consequently, much of our behavior is regulated by social norms and social approbation. So when these social controls are removed, when out actions cannot be connected to our identity, we find it easier to behave badly.
Internet pornography comes to mind. Back in the day you had to have a social interaction to get access to pornography. You had to purchase a magazine or a video from a clerk. And there was just enough social shame in this interaction, along with an associated fear of someone you knew walking in the store, that helped people fight the temptation to purchase pornography. If not consistently, at least from time to time.
And so, as most people know, the Internet was the greatest thing that ever happened to the porn industry. Largely because of the anonymity. The few social controls that existed are now gone.
But it goes further than porn. If you're a blogger, blog reader, or blog commenter you are very familiar with how people treat each other online. And the bad behavior is largely due to the anonymity Web 2.0 provides. We treat each other differently when we are face to face. Even if we disagree. But online, where we are communicating through an impersonal medium via pseudonymity, the social controls are missing and, thus, the nastiness comes out. Some have called this the online disinhibition effect (or, more profanely, the GIFT theory where, yes, the F stands for that f-word; see here for pictorial depiction of GIFT).
This nastiness causes a lot of people to give up on Web 2.0. Either that or we change try to avoid the nastiness as best we can. For example, a friend of ours writes a popular blog and whenever he writes on a hot-button topic related to the Churches of Christ the comments tend to blow up. So much so that my wife now only reads the posts and refuses to read the comments. She knows reading the comments will make her angry and depressed. It's just not spiritually healthy to get too deep into some comment threads.
I think this is why a lot of people seek to limit their participation with Web 2.0. They find face to face interactions more civil, humanizing, and uplifting. And, if they do use Web 2.0, they try to step around the nastiness, limiting their exposure to certain comment threads, blogs, or even Facebook friends who post too much nasty stuff, politically or religiously.