Your Comfort Is My Silence


Your Comfort Is My Silence“, by Barbara Kruger

With “calls for restrictions on Internet anonymity growing” (and rebellion against real names policies also growing), I am hoping there will be more conversation about who is actually silenced in online interactions and why.

I was thinking about Kathy Sierra the other day, whose excellent blog Creating Passionate Users never did return after she was harassed and received death threats coupled with the publication of her address and social security number.

People using “fake names” made those death threats — but people using pseudonyms don’t have a monopoly on harassing people. And this list of people who are most harmed by real name policies is just as much a list of those who are most vulnerable to online harassment and intimidation.  Suppressing pseudonyms is mostly just another way to silence people, maybe especially people who have been harassed.

But maybe there are other possibilities. Sierra’s harassment started on a site that refused to shut down users who were harassing her.  And the site’s culture strongly supported bullying. And maybe the users who made death threats could have been identified by the site owners.

Or maybe not. But there is a difference between forcing everyone to use legal names, and revealing information about someone when they make death threats against someone else.

Corporate real names policies aren’t really about protecting vulnerable people’s identities or interests; they’re about protecting corporate interests. But in addition to supporting the use of pseudonyms, are there other ways to encourage respectful interaction and reduce harms to people who might otherwise be silenced?


Re-Civilize Yourself

Nivea pulled this ad recently, after it got attention for being racist.


The message couldn’t be clearer: natural hair on a black man isn’t a style preference or a nod to afrocentrism—it’s straight-up uncivilized… Although Nivea has several other ads with the words “Look like you give a damn,” and one where a white guy is holding a long-haired mask, none of them mention anything about civilization.
(from Good Culture)

A post at racialicious delves deeper into which people/practices are considered “classy, refined, and aspirational,” and who defines civility v. incivility.  Which makes me think of the concerns various online gatekeepers have expressed about incivility and naming practices… What is this incivility thing exactly, that requires the domestication of the Inappropriately Named?

If you’re a cool and smart and civilized person (read: someone whose experiences are already visible and normalized all over the place), you shouldn’t have a problem with using your real name, right? It’s not like you’re gonna go around flashing gang signs on your MySpace page! Or if you did, it would obviously be ironic. (Seriously, MySpace? What kind of losers use MySpace?*).

danah boyd writes:

Years ago, I received a phone call from an Ivy League college admissions officer who wanted to accept a young black man from South Central in LA into their college; the student had written an application about how he wanted to leave behind the gang-ridden community he came from, but the admissions officers had found his MySpace which was filled with gang insignia. The question that was asked of me was “Why would he lie to us when we can tell the truth online?” Knowing that community, I was fairly certain that he was being honest with the college; he was also doing what it took to keep himself alive in his community. If he had used a pseudonym, the college wouldn’t have been able to get data out of context about him and inappropriately judge him. But they didn’t. They thought that their frame mattered most.

Maybe some people feel relatively comfortable with being transparent online because they are kind of more entitled to their opinions? That, and no one’s actually requiring them to be transparent about things like, say, how G+’s naming policies are enforced. According to the NYT:

…the Internet would probably be more civilized if contributors to online discussions had to use their real names. Some people might even start to use spell check and proper punctuation.

Civilize the natives! Proper punctuation! It’s for their own good!

Which, to be fair, isn’t the NYT’s takeaway — and thinking about ways to encourage respectful online interaction is valuable. But when there’s little acknowledgment of people whose experiences aren’t normalized all the time, this real names stuff is pretty patronizing. People like Eric Schmidt know what’s best for us:

The internet would be better if we had an accurate notion that you were a real person as opposed to a dog, or a fake person, or a spammer.

Really? ‘Cause I think the internet is better with secret dogs on Twitter.

* A lot of young people from poor neighborhoods in the East Bay seem to use MySpace, which, interestingly, has a pretty strong pseudonym tradition.
** Not that there aren’t other reasons why someone would be more comfortable, or interested in, being transparent.

What’s in a name? What’s in a hat?


Riffing off of Fox’s post about Artificial Life and research ideas with these two questions. The first: does using a “fake” name make a person behave more or less civilly in online forums? (and the corollory: does using “real” names make people behave more or less civilly?) And secondly, how could we engineer civility into the technology or at least the structures that guide communication and dialogue?

Let’s start with the names we use; the personas we inhabit and the flow of dialogue. I’ve had this idea of using the Six Thinking Hats in an online dialogue. Like: what happens when you’re asked to adopt a persona when responding to someone. Maybe I’m a person who is bad at being too critical. Maybe I’m assigned the black hat (for identifying flaws and barriers). Here, I get to “hide” (positively this time) behind the hat. “It’s not me,” I can say. “It’s the guy in the hat. I’m just playing a game.” We did this in educational drama and theatre at university and it worked amazingly to help people who are more shy or those who always adopt the same ‘persona’ in public conversation e.g. the Voice of Doom becomes the Rabble Rouser.

The thing I always got stuck on is how to conduct the experiment (is a true experiment even possible here?) One idea could be to pick a random group of people from the same population (e.g. in response to a Craigslist ad); start two online conversations: one where people are asked to respond to some question/topical issue/idea (maybe you’d have to test on all these types) using their own names; the other where they have their own names but are asked to don a ‘hat’; and the other where they can use a pseudonym (perhaps that describes some aspect of who they are in a crowd).

The other thing that is often present on a site that you might not be able to reproduce is the culture and past history of conversations on a particular channel. For example, do I respond differently when I’m in a place that is supportive/aggressive/friendly/direct? What’s the first thing you do when you go to a place you’ve never been? You look around. You see how loudly people are talking to one another. You see what people are drinking. You adjust your behavior accordingly. In the same way, I ask questions differently on Burda open sewing community to the Wikipedia Foundation mailing list.

The question would be how you could conduct the experiment with that culture in the background and how you would control for the different ways that people perceive of that culture. e.g. ask folks to conduct a conversation on 3 different platforms and take a more qualitative approach – asking them questions about their experience. What they said, what they chose to leave out etc.

Hmmm. Hmmm. Hmmmmmmmmm.

Illustration by Cathy Woods on Flickr, cc-by-nc-sa

Onymouse Noms Moar Wurdz

War on Anonymouseity

  1. The Identification Law has a civilizing effect on the Internet’s verbal offenders — though only in moderation. Those who rarely post comments online were especially likely to temper their emotions. In this group, the number of comments containing “swear words and anti-normative expressions” fell from 27 to 20 percent.

Anonymity and Research Ethics

This article by Anne Grinyer explores the use of pseudonyms in social research, focusing on a study of how families are affected by a cancer diagnosis. In accordance with standard research ethics, family members in the study were given pseudonyms to protect their identities:

But as the research progressed we began to question whether some respondents might prefer to be referred to in publications by their own names… How would they feel if they had been allocated a random pseudonym and what would be the effect of seeing their lost son or daughter referred to by another’s name?

The researchers decided to ask the family members how they wanted to be identified. To their surprise, very few people chose to use pseudonyms. One participant who chose to use a pseudonym later regretted it:

Looking back I was very disappointed not to see Stephen’s and my name in print. Even though my words were there, I felt as though I had somehow lost ownership of them and had betrayed Stephen’s memory.

(The participant’s change of heart came up before the research team published a book, so she did eventually get to see her words with her real name.)

The standard assumption enforced by research review boards is that protecting participants from harm means ensuring their anonymity. But people can be harmed by the use of pseudonyms too.

Would it be better to let participants decide how they want to be identified?

When do we feel that we own our stories? When do we feel silenced, or that our stories have been taken away from us?

Artificial Life

It’s interesting that the difference between offline and online is often conceptualized as the difference between real and not-real. Arguments for the use of legal names online propose that in “real” life (IRL) we behave civilly using our “real” names. Online we can use other, not-real names, which predisposes us to behave rudely.

All kinds of technologies are incorporated into many people’s IRL/”real” lives though, like writing systems or techniques for building fires — but maybe newer technologies are more visible, feel more artificial.

And of course there are many IRL interactions in which people don’t know our real names. It would be weird if every IRL interaction became part of a persistent record identified with our real name, which is what the use of a real name in many online venues essentially translates into.

Using pseudonyms all over the place isn’t generally a thing IRL, but then neither is being online in the first place.  Face-to-face interactions are different, in both positive and negative ways, from interactions via postcards, phone calls, video chats, text-based online interactions, etc,

(I wonder if there are, or will be, influential arguments made that using text as opposed to one’s real voice, or not using video when the option is available, predisposes people to behave less civilly. A human voice would likely be a better unique identifer than a name. But maybe there is something special about names, words and language in relation to identity for people. All the more reason why naming policies should err on the side of letting people name themselves, no?)

So anyway, okay, “real” names in “real” life are different from artificial names in mediated life.  But that doesn’t mean that using one’s legal name online is inherently better.

For one thing, I’m not sure that pseudonyms have as negative an effect on civility as some people seem to believe. If you expect pseudonymous participants to be rude, then instances of rudeness by pseudonymous participants might stand out more for you. But it can be pretty hard to know who isn’t using a pseudonym, since pseudonyms can look like real names. How can casual observers know which kinds of names are more associated with incivility without knowing first which kinds of names are being used?

(Could be a good research project actually, looking at the effects of different kinds of names on behavior and perceptions of behavior. My quick Google Scholar search didn’t turn up any studies on this, but I didn’t look that hard.)

Concerns about pseudonymity and anonymity as factors in online incivility also need to be balanced with concerns about how real names can hurt people and inhibit speech.

Pseudonyms aren’t The Problem, after all. People using pseudonyms can be some of the most thoughtful, community-minded contributors, and people who appear to be using real names can be jerks (and vice versa).

If the problem is incivility, it makes sense to think about all the factors that contribute to the bad stuff. Focusing exclusively on naming skips over what should be foundational questions — What factors contribute to online incivility and harassment, and how much? How effective are potential remedies? How to minimize harms and maximize benefits?

My guess would be that pseudonymity and anonymity can contribute to incivility, but that other factors related to a site’s content, tone and culture are far more influential.



One of the things I like about Lady Gaga is her exuberant wearing of masks (and also crazy hats, preferably made of hair).

Googling around for pictures, the headlines describing her in masks can be entertaining too:

Lady Gaga Wears Mask for Press Conference – Has She Gone Too Far?

Lady Gaga’s Shocking 2009 VMA Fashion Choices!

Lady Gaga Turns Up Wearing Face Mask… Nothing To Do With The Flu

When Lady Gaga started to break into the mainstream, I came across pictures of her here and there, but still wasn’t entirely sure what she looked like. In every image, her face seemed to be at least partially obscured by masks, giant glasses, hats, and um… accoutrements.

Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if she were a character played by a group of people?

* Image from Super Angie, a “regular mom” and figure skater, who portrays Lady Gaga in a skating routine.