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A tool for anonymizing writing

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  August 5, 2013 10:37 AM

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If you passed notes in middle school, you know: The best way to disguise your handwriting is to use chunky block letters made out of straight lines. What's true about disguising handwriting seems to be true about disguising writing style, as well. If you don't want the public to know you're the world famous author behind a nom de plume, or the dissident behind a seditious blog post, use short sentences and simple words.

A team at Drexel University, led by computer science professor Rachel Greenstadt, is developing software called Anonymouth, which identifies telltale writing tics (like recurring words, repeated punctuation, characteristic sentence rhythms) and replaces them with blander, more anonymous constructions. Laura Bennett, a staff writer with The New Republic, asked the creators of Anonymouth to apply their tool to famous literary passages, and she shared the results in a recent issue of the magazine.

You have to pour over the anonymized passages to really get a sense of how the tool works. The most obvious change Anonymouth makes is to break long sentences into several short ones. Here is a sentence from "Middlemarch":

Nevertheless, Celia wore scarcely more trimmings; and it was only to close observers that her dress differed from her sister’s, and had a shade of coquetry in its arrangements; for Miss Brooke’s plain dressing was due to mixed conditions, in most of which her sister shared.

And here is the same passage after being run through Anonymouth:

Celia also wore mostly plain clothes, although with slightly greater embellishment. So small was the difference that only a few could detect a hint of flirtation in them. Price certainly had something to do with it, for the ladies were well situated in society.

Anonymouth also seems to repackage text according to standard stylistic or grammatical conventions, which makes sense: The more a writer deviates from convention, the more likely they are to write in a recognizably idiosyncratic way. So, for example, it turns the double-negative in this line from the end of "The Great Gatsby":

his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it

into a more straight-forward statement:

his dream must have seemed so close that he almost had to realize it.

Anonymouth is a work in progress, which feels most evident in a few places where it turns literature into something like consumer product instructions written by a non-native English speaker. For example, this complicated but coherent passage from "Middlemarch":

there was even an ancestor discernible as a Puritan gentleman who served under Cromwell, but afterwards conformed, and managed to come out of all political troubles as the proprietor of a respectable family estate

becomes this jumble:

you would even find a Puritan who had elevated from serving Cromwell to having as few political difficulties as a respected head of a family estate.

Perhaps the best example, however, of what truly anonymized writing might look like, comes when Anonymouth is applied to David Foster Wallace's essay, "Consider the Lobster." This phrase, which is deliberately clinical in style:

one reason why lobsters’ claws are banded on capture is to keep them from attacking one another

is reworked so that it sounds like it was written by a fifth-grader responding to a prompt on a standardized test:

This is actually one of the reasons lobsters’ claws are clamped shut upon capture.

This last translation actually raises an interesting point. There's a generic quality to the way little kids write, and if you really want to anonymize your ideas, maybe it's best to have a 9-year-old write them down.

You can see more examples of Anonymouth at work at The New Republic.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

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Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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