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.


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