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?


4 thoughts on “Your Comfort Is My Silence

  1. My personal stance: keep the pseudonyms and lose the assholes (through better tools for users to help moderate). We won’t stop the worse online behavior through a "real names" policy, and it does not seem worth the downsides. If had it all to do over again, I might have chosen to post everything under a pseudonym myself. While that would have been more difficult once I began speaking at events in public, plenty of others have managed to appear live, and give presentations, while still protecting their real identity.A corporation is of course free to implement whatever policy they choose, but I have heard people in the nym wars use my story as a plus-one for Real Names, and though I deeply support their intentions, I do not believe this is productive or healthy path forward. There are more important issues around online harassment that we need to work on.Thanks.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this. When I think about pseudonyms and harassment, I am always reminded of happened to you (and I am so sorry you went through that). I remember trying to discuss it on blogs at the time just as an unconnected observer and getting overwhelmed by flames. It was eye opening in many ways, and yet I’m still not sure what the right answers are. I hope the real names thing move from just plain "Keep the pseudonyms" to "Keep the pseudonyms and lose the assholes." Thinking about way of identifying and discouraging harassment + how to make that a priority…

  3. Kathy, you wrote here ‘plenty of others have managed to appear live, and give presentations, while still protecting their real identity.’ Interested to hear what you meant here. Fox, I’m so curious about this: ‘the site’s culture strongly supported bullying’. I wonder how this happens. I belong to a few online communities like Burda style and I’ve noticed how the culture is generally so supportive. It is mostly women. Is that why? Joan Walsh says in the Salon article that at Salon they were going to be rolling out better tools to moderate and control our letters and comments. I’m wondering what that ended up being? More investigation needed!Also inspiring, is the book ‘Dear Bully’ that was featured on NPR today

  4. octopus, the most *famous* I can think of is Why The Lucky Stiff. While I have no doubt there are plenty who know his real name, he managed to appear publicly at programming events, give brilliant presentations, and was still known only as Why. And since the nym wars have heated up, I have learned of several people I have spoken with at public events only to just now learn that what I thought was their *real name* was not their name at all.The culture of a site determines whether it supports or encourages bullying. Any animal trainer knows that you get the behavior you reinforce, and a site that reinforces/rewards cruel behavior ends up with commenters/participants escalating to out-cruel one another. Meanwhile, sites that don’t allow it just don’t have a problem. I laugh when people used to say it was not possible to have a thriving, vibrant site, especially one with mostly male geeks, if it enforced "niceness" as a standard. Because, which I started in 1997 (but no longer run myself) was for a decade the largest programmer community online, and STILL has 3 million unique visitors a month. All while militantly enforcing a "be friendly" policy (which is the TOS) to an almost entirely young male audience.In the case of javaranch, it just makes it easier to feel free to both ask and answer a technical question when you are certain you won’t be called a "moron with no business writing code" which pretty much summed up in the days when I was first learning Java. stackOverflow is based largely on the same underlying premise, though implemented differently. Thanks for bringing this up. I sincerely hope the Real Names thing does not pick up any more steam. It is a distraction from the deeper issues, while restricting our ability in a million possible ways. I have epilepsy, and have probably had my life saved by being able to discretely ask questions on epilepsy forums I would never have dared discuss publicly under my real name. Of course I COULD have, but I would not have (at that time), and discovered something crucial my neurologist had missed. The ability to feel comfortable discussing heath issues online may not be important to anyone in the grand scheme of the nym wars, but again, it sure as hell meant a lot to me. And my family.

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