The subject of pseudonyms on the internet has received quite a bit of attention in the past week, following Google’s decision to lock out hundreds of accounts on its new social media platform, Google+.  Why would Google do this as it’s trying to draw new users to Google+?  Because the names looked suspiciously like fake names, which are a violation of Google’s terms of service.  (Never mind the fact that many of these names have turned out to be legitimate, something which has caused major inconveniences for lots of actual users who did not violate Google’s terms of service.)

Are Google’s terms of service a good idea?  Facebook and some other sites also have a real name policy; Mark Zuckerberg has said that those who want multiple identities have a “lack of integrity.”  In its early days, Facebook limited users to people with .edu addresses to try to attract “legitimate” users with real names and identities.  This worked to some extent on Facebook — though even when it was less than a year old, there were already numerous examples of people (usually who happened to have multiple .edu addresses) registering as God, Albert Einstein, and any number of other random people or things.

There are some obvious benefits to real names on social media sites, if the goal is for people to connect to other people they know primarily in the real world.  And real names could help to prohibit a lot of “bad behavior” that comes from truly anonymous users.  (For now, I’m setting aside the problem of how one actually determines who has a “real name.”  Google is not requiring anyone who is named “John Smith” to submit a government-issued ID, but that doesn’t mean that the person is actually named “John Smith.”)

The first issue to consider is the difference between anonymity and pseudonymity. 

Who needs a pseudonym?

A pseudonym is a durable name that is associated with the same person for a long period of time.  Mark Twain is a pseudonym; if Samuel Clemens chose to publish anonymously, we might not even know that all of his books were written by the same person.  Pseudonyms allow readers to associate the materials written by one person.

Pseudonyms clearly have a number of benefits.  Anyone who wants or needs privacy is an obvious candidate for a pseudonym, including:

  • People who live in oppressive political regimes
  • Whistleblowers, or any person who wishes to comment on an employer without claiming to officially represent a company
  • People who have stalkers and wish to conceal their true identity
  • People who have had identity theft problems
  • Celebrities who wish to participate in discussions without being associated with their celebrity status
  • Anyone who wants to comment on taboo issues or socially sensitive issues like politics or religion in ways that might not be appreciated by employers, family, friends, etc.
  • People in trouble or seeking help about a very private matter

The list could continue.  Zuckerberg’s claim that those who use pseudonyms “lack integrity” just doesn’t hold up within the strong literary tradition of those who use them, which included not only fiction writers like Mark Twain, but also the authors of the Federalist Papers, some of Thomas Paine’s works, and other founding documents for the political system of the United States.  Those authors had a great deal of integrity, but they chose to publish without their real names for various reasons: in part to protect themselves from being prosecuted for their views if the revolution hadn’t succeeded, but also, in the case of the Federalist Papers in particular, to disseminate opinions about the structure of government that didn’t emphasize the status or ego of one individual.  The argument was more important than the author.

Everyone has (and needs) multiple identities

Even without such extreme examples, we must consider the “integrity” of our own identities in our daily lives.  Do we speak the same way to our bosses as we do to our coworkers?  Do we act the same way at the office that we do at the bar after work?  Do we use the same language with our children as we do with our spouses in the privacy of our bedrooms?

Unless you would be happy to have every utterance you make on a daily basis paraded in front of your boss, your spouse, and your kids, you have to admit that there are different times for different types of language and actions.  If social media and the internet in general are going to allow for the types of relationships we have in real life, they have to be sensitive to the fact that we are not always acting as the exact same person in real life.  It has nothing to do with integrity.  It has to do with complex codes of politeness, respect, and appropriateness, which are fundamental to our society.

Facebook has a history of messing with privacy settings of its users without warning, so something you thought was private suddenly becomes exposed to a bigger audience.  Google+ seems designed to get around these flaws, by allowing a person to divide friends into groups with greater ease.  Each of these groups can have a variety of settings, so effectively one’s identity is tied up with the group one is addressing, just as in real life.  You can talk to the guys at the bar one way, while not exposing the same comments to people you see at church or to your kids.  This is not just license to be a boorish person with some people while “hiding” that behavior from others; it simply reflects the need to express yourself more fully without broadcasting everything you say to the whole world.

Pseudonyms just take this a step further.  With identity theft and other problems with online systems being hacked, do you trust any online community to protect your identity?  Or what if you want to post on a public forum, not only within the small circles of friends on Google+?

If you want to post on an internet forum or blog using the same demeanor you might in having a debate at a bar, but you don’t want your boss to be able to critique everything you say, your only good choice is to use a pseudonym.  Some people might say this “lacks integrity” — if you want to speak out in a public forum, you shouldn’t be afraid if your boss reads it.

But this is naive.  Forget about obvious cases like someone who is hiding his/her sexual orientation or some other very personal thing, or who merely wishes to keep it out of a work environment.  Employers have their own opinions, and they may not appreciate what you think about religion X or about political position Y or whatever else.  If you have a blog under your name or a strong online presence that advocates some position far from the mainstream, it could certainly hurt your employer’s opinion of you, and perhaps even cost you your job.  Heck, some employers might even monitor your web presence and take what you do online as a reflection of your effort or focus during a time-consuming project — if you’re posting on your cooking blog all the time, are you really focused on that report that is due next week?

Is any of this fair?  Probably not in most cases.  But in the real world, we should be allowed some privacy for all of these reasons.  Pseudonyms are the most efficient way of dealing with this on the internet.  I’ve even had requests from people to anonymize their comments on this blog after they had first posted with what was apparently their full name.  Why?  I don’t ask.  But reasonable people saying reasonable things online may not want everyone in the world to be able to find every single thing they have ever written.

The problems of pseudonyms

Of course, we have to address the drawbacks.  The same thing that allows you to speak more freely at the bar than the office also causes people to honk and yell at people from their car, saying things and acting in ways they would never do in front of their bosses.  The more anonymous you feel, the greater freedom you have to express yourself.  If you’re a jerk, or perhaps just feel like acting like a jerk at a particular time, anonymity allows you to feel free to be a bad person, even if you’re normally polite.

Pseudonyms, rather than complete anonymity, can help prevent some of the worst abuses, though.  If you have a durable name associated with your identity, even if it isn’t your real name, you gradually build up a reputation.  If your reputation gets too bad on a particular online forum, you can usually be banned.  If your reputation is good, many forums have ways that your posts can be marked to signal your good contributions.

Of course, it’s harder to prevent “sockpuppets” (i.e., users who use multiple pseudonyms on the same forum, often to get around being banned), but truly bad users can be identified and banned.

The other problem happens on smaller forums and sites, which don’t have the staff to deal with these sorts of issues, and posters don’t often post enough to develop reputations.  The use of OpenID and other online IDs gets around this problem somewhat, allowing a user to develop a consistent reputation across many sites.  Those users who choose to post in a more anonymous fashion can then be examined more closely by moderators.

All of this seems like more work, but on popular forums, users can often be persuaded to do a lot of policing themselves, such as the use of the “helpful/unhelpful” buttons on Amazon.  There will always be some users who rate posts based on whether they agree with them rather than whether they make good contributions, but generally these things get sorted out with enough users.

One example of a system to deal with pseudonyms

Slashdot, a sort of technology blog that predates the concept of modern blogs, has one system that seems to work rather well under most circumstances.  Posts are rated in terms of their helpfulness from a score of -1 to +5.  Anonymous users start at zero; registered users start at 1.  Registered users are given “moderation points” periodically, which they can use to add or subtract points from posts.  All moderators periodically undergo “metamoderation,” which checks to ensure that moderators aren’t doing anything too crazy or against the goals of the site (for example, consistently rating troll posts up).

Users who make particularly good contributions consistently start at 2 points instead of 1.  Users can filter the way they view comments to avoid posts that are rated lower than a particular threshold — usually any post with a +3 score or above is decent, since it requires either an established good user with one moderator who thought it was valuable, or a normal registered pseudonym with two moderators in agreement, or an anonymous person with three positive moderations.

Many moderators don’t even bother looking at posts rated 0 or -1, making it unlikely that an anonymous posting will get attention.  True anonymity is discouraged, pseudonyms are encouraged, and pseudonyms with a particularly good record are encouraged even more.

No system is perfect, and this one doesn’t always work either.  Posts that advocate a view that may be helpful and made in good faith may be rated down simply because most users on this forum don’t agree with it.  But perhaps this is inevitable.  You can’t walk into any bar in town and pontificate on anything you want.  In some bars, people might listen; in other bars, you might be ignored; in others, you might be shouted down.  Online communities will never have perfect moderation, but they can probably police themselves just as well as any real community can.

True anonymity

The last thing to consider is whether there’s any purpose to true anonymity on the internet.  Generally speaking, as long as it’s easy to create new pseudonyms, true anonymity is just a matter of convenience.  Any user who wants to assume a new identity or post something somewhere that conflicts with an established identity can simply create a new pseudonym.  It’s a pain, but perhaps that’s a high enough price that it will inhibit many anonymous users from bad behavior.

It should be pointed out that many anonymous users do not behave badly.  Studies on Wikipedia, for example, have shown that while most vandalism on articles is created by anonymous users, around 25% of vandalism is corrected by anonymous users.  A lot of people out there still are interested and willing to act in good faith, even when anonymous.

I personally only find anonymity to be a convenience in most cases.  On Slashdot, to take the example listed above, a pseudonym with a good reputation can develop “good karma” and thus gain higher default ratings on postings.  There are a few topics, though, where one takes a higher risk of incurring the wrath of unfair moderators.  For example, there are many pro-Linux folks on Slashdot.  (I am one of them.)  But many of them will not acknowledge criticism of Linux, even when it is warranted.  They will moderate posts down just because they speak of Linux in a negative light.

I have a more balanced view, and I recognize that Linux, Windows, OS X, and other operating systems have good and bad things.  Sometimes I would like to point out a problem with Linux, but I don’t want to put my established reputation on the line just so some unfair moderators can come along and shout me down (and thereby push my karma away from positive contributions).  This doesn’t happen to all such posts, but it happens at least most of the time.  So, if I post anonymously, I can say what I know to be true without putting my reputation in jeopardy — if, by chance, some moderators find it valuable, it can still be rated positively and still contribute to the discussion.

If I feel strongly enough, I will always post under my pseudonym.  But if I just want to set the record straight in some minor way, I don’t see the need to incur the wrath of unfair moderators.  If Slashdot did not allow anonymous posts, I could get a similar effect by establishing another username and using that in such cases — it’s a bit more work, though.

Also, everything on the internet lives forever, so before posting anything, you need to consider the future reputation of the name you post under, whether your real name or a pseudonym.  Sometimes using an anonymous name is the best choice.  In particular, the one case where anonymous speech is very important is where the subject is a very taboo subject or there could be serious legal consequences for a person making a posting.  An anonymous user may still be able to be tracked, but law enforcement and others won’t be able to connect things together from various posts under a pseudonym.

When I speak of very taboo subjects, I wish I could give examples, but I’m not even willing to do so here, under the pseudonymity of this blog.  I’m sure every reader can think of some issue that is very charged in our current social discourse, but which deserves a fair discussion — yet, to even bring up certain topics is to risk serious consequences, if not legal repercussions.  In such (rare) cases, anonymity is important.

But, pseudonyms are different, and much more essential.  Whether they are needed on Google+ is a question for Google to figure out.  Short of requiring a government ID from every person who wants to register, it’s not easy to establish a “real name” for everyone.

But one thing is definitely true — even if real names are somehow required, Google needs to allow them to be kept private.  Not just to help those who are stalkers or in oppressed regimes, but also to allow users to connect with other users using the pseudonyms they use online.  Google+ should endeavor to embrace the true online culture, rather than just being an extension of real life relationships.