Notes on Pseudonymity

Popular perspectives on anonymity online tend to evoke a lot of handwringing: When people don’t use their real names, they behave irresponsibly.  Incivility is rampant!

But as Jillian York’s recent post for EFF on pseudonymity highlights, there are other perspectives on the use of pseudonyms that challenge that popular refrain.  York’s piece, together with Scud’s writing on pseudonyms and ongoing documentation of controversy over enforcement of Google +’s real names policy, brings to mind some somewhat disorganized thoughts/notes on online naming practices.

Fortunately disorganized things always appear more organized with the addition of numbers.

1.   The first question is, or should be, who is harmed by real name policies. Scud’s compilation of a list detailing who is harmed is a great resource for thinking about not just who, but in what contexts people may be harmed.

2.   Thinking about who is harmed in relation to Octopus’ mention of the fear of being invisible reminds me of LGBT cultures, and the tension between fear of invisibility and the fear of visibility — the need for the closet, and the need to come out of it. Violence, discrimination and social stigma can intensify both kinds of fear.

3.   “Anonymity” seems too general a term for talking about names in conjunction with online identities and behaviors.  If anonymity is a featureless pool, in which everyone and no one could be equally “anonymous,” when are people actually anonymous online?

(a)   (Letters!  Now it’s a hierarchical outline!)  The practice of using a consistent pseudonym within a community is better described as pseudonymity rather than anonymity.  George Eliot, for example, is not an anonymous author, but a pen name or pseudonymous author — an entity with a reputation, a writing style, a voice .

(b)   But pseudonymity may be complicated by the use of different names in different communities.  A community could comprise multiple sites or a single site. If I use one name in political communities, and another name in technically-oriented communities, then in some contexts, my political self has a history and a reputation, while in other contexts my political self is a featureless slate. Partial anonymity?

(c)   Pseudonymity could also be complicated by the use of multiple names within a single community/sock puppeting.  A violation of online norms in many contexts — people expect a single participant to be represented by a single name. In my experience sock puppeting is often used in negative ways, but can there also be benefits?

4.   Single serve identities. A one-off post, perhaps with a name (legal or otherwise) that has no online presence, or with a name that has no online presence relevant to the subject at hand. How does this fit into anonymity, pseudonymity, etc.? If you have no history (yet?), are you anonymous?

Established people within a community might be both curious and suspicious about newcomers. Being a “longtime lurker” on a forum might lend some credibility by creating an implied history. When does an online name begin to accrue reputation and an identity that is recognized by other participants?

5. Playing with identity can be fun (sad, too).  It can be a learning experience, a teaching experience, a way to bully people, a way to support people. It can be art. So many things. It cannot be reduced to incivility.


One thought on “Notes on Pseudonymity

  1. Yes! I can’t imagine anyone ever saying that Mary Ann Evans was acting irresponsibly when she used George Elliot as a pen name.

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