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.