25 July 2011


In recent days, a passionate discussion has arisen over the use of pseudonyms online, in particular on social networks like Facebook and Google+. In a perfect world, we would be free to use our own names ~ but we don't live in a perfect world. Many are at risk when using their real (i.e., legal) names. As set forth in Geek Feminism Wiki, those who may be harmed by a 'real names' policy include women, LGBT people, children, parents/caregivers, people with disabilities, people from certain racial/ethnic/cultural/religious backgroungs, people with unusual names, victims of real-world abuse and harassment, political activists, people in sensitive employment, or people with long-standing pseudonyms. Not to mention writers who adopt controversial stances, like Mark Twain (above) or ~ dare I say it? ~ myself. Click on the link for a much fuller description of each group, and the risks they face.

Despite the need for protection of its members, Google+ has recently instituted a "no pseudonyms" policy, and has closed the accounts of individuals who appear to be writing under names they've adopted. The response among users has been swift and decidedly negative. Witness Denim and Tweed, who bears witness to the silly shortsightedness of a newborn network excluding many of the most talented and original writers now online.

Witness En Tequila Es Verdad, who correctly points out that "A 'nym is not an unknown. Names are easy to fake. Reputations are not. Over the months and years, pseudonymous folk build up a reputation, and that reputation follows the 'nym. So let's not pretend that a pseudonym is the same as anonymous .... Allowing people to use their pseudonyms will not throw open the gates to barbarians and trolls. Disallowing 'nyms won't prevent people from being assclowns .... There are better ways of guarding against undesired behaviors. Such as, banning the people who actually engage in those behaviors, regardless of whether they use their real names or not."

Witness Does Google+ Hate Women?, which echoes the observation that "It's about behavior, not names. If your website is full of assholes, it's your fault for not holding people ~ whatever name they go by ~ accountable for their behavior. Online behavior doesn't have to be polite or full of everyone agreeing with each other. Conversations just need not to be bigoted, hateful or destructive."

Each of the above links provides access to a petition which urges Google+ to reverse their no-pseudonyms policy. And each link describes if fuller, eloquent detail the many legitimate reasons people may have for writing under a pseudonym (particularly the first link). The issue is nuanced and complex, and deserving of discussion. Part of the complexity lies in the darker side of using a false name ~ reduced accountability for those inclined toward cruel or abusive behavior. Sheril Kirshenbaum discusses just this issue here. And in a Facebook post, science writer and neuropsychologist Andrea Kuszewski thoughtfully commented "Think: Stanford Prison Experiment. Stanley Milgram's Obedience Study. When we detach from ourselves or the other person, there is an increased likelihood of violence, aggression, or unethical behavior. Not a CAUSE, mind you, but an increased likelihood. Anonymity makes that easier."

So yes, the use of pseudonyms is a necessary protection for people at risk of attack or abuse. And yes, the use of pseudonyms may make the work of attackers or abusers easier, at least temporarily. As I suggested in a previous post, those who experience abuse have several levels of recourse. I'm inclined to agree with those who say that using a pseudonym is not the same as anonymity ~ I know dozens of intelligent, playful, responsible, good-hearted people online only by their adopted names, people whom I might never have met if pseudonyms were banned, as Google+ seeks to do. I also know dozens of people with those same traits who use their 'real' names. Pseudonyms are not the problem. Behavior is.

Incidentally, Google+ during the first 24 days of its meteoric rise in popularity achieved a milepost that Facebook required 1152 days to reach ~ 20 million users (see graph below, click to enlarge). G+ is a more sophisticated, user-friendly, and less cluttered platform than FB, but I suspect that both sites will be around for a long time, and that some users (like myself) will continue to use both, simply because some friends appear on one, some on the other. Peace.

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