Saturday, August 18, 2012

The need for pseudonyms

Originally posted 07/28/2011 on

Tuesday I told you about Google deleting the accounts of users using pseudonyms. There has been a lot of discussion online about the situation, some of it very well thought out, some less so. Kee Hinckley wrote an excellent piece and put it under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. The full article is here. Because his original post is so long, I'm going to mildly condense 3 of his sections: Red Herrings, Who needs a pseudonym and Arguments against pseudonyms. I will keep the order of his points intact:

First, the red herrings:

Anonymous speech on the Internet is a mess

This is absolutely true. Fortunately, nobody is asking for anonymous speech on Google+; we're asking for the ability to use pseudonyms—persistent names that aren't tied to our real life address, home and personal information. All the usual validation processes (SMS messages, voice activation on the phone, etc.) would apply to them. When people give examples of how pseudonyms create hostile environments, they are almost always referring to comment systems, not social networks.

If people use pseudonyms, I won't be able to track down a stalker

If you have a legal complaint, then Google will reply to a subpoena with all the information they have, which at least includes IP addresses and any linked accounts, and perhaps the number of the phone used during verification. The process of tracking a real "John Smith" to an originating computer is not going to be any different from tracking down "Demosthenes" to that same computer. Since Google isn't verifying every address, they have no more information about "John Smith" than they do about "Demosthenes".

I want a service where I know that everyone I talk to is using their real name

Then you need a paid service where every person is required to provide a credit card and/or government ID. So far as I know, no such service exists, nor does anyone have any plans to create one. Google is only suspending accounts that have odd characters in their name, or which are reported by other users. They have given no indication that they wish to ask for a photo ID from every single one of their users, nor would such a process be viable in an international community.

This policy is necessary to stop spam.

See the previous item. With no ID requirement, spammers simply require a phone and a name that looks real. I'm sure Google will be using phone data, content filters, social graph analysis, and user complaints to help track down spammers, but allowing or disallowing pseudonyms has zero impact on the problem. Bad behavior is bad behavior, it doesn't matter if you do it with a real name or a fake one.

Next, who needs a pseudonym?

Mr. Hinckley starts this with personal examples, times it was important that he not use his real name, then talks about a couple of friends, then generic examples.


When the attempted revolution broke out in Iran, I had in-laws there, I had information about what was happening that I wanted to share online with people who were interested in the situation. I wanted to educate them about what was happening. But I couldn't do that under my real name, because the Iranian government was actively searching Twitter for posts about Iran, and they could easily have connected me to my wife and her relatives.


My father has Alzheimer's. It's getting pretty bad, he's starting to get paranoid, my mother has to bathe him and help him go to the bathroom. She and my aunt care for him, and it's pretty tough, and when I go there to help, it's pretty hard on me. Fortunately I can talk about this publicly, about all the things that happen and all the stress it causes me. And when I do, I get support and discover that there are other people out there amongst my public correspondents who are also having these problems, and we offer each other suggestions and support. I don't do this under my real name because I really don't want to be putting private information about my father, my mother, my aunt and myself out on the Internet. So I do it under my pseudonym. And not surprisingly, most of the people who respond to me are doing so under their pseudonyms. Is Alzheimer's a topic we aren't supposed to talk about publicly on Google+? There are many many topics like this which are not in the slightest bit controversial, but which people would prefer to talk about without their boss, neighbors, or strangers connecting to their real name.

Dating the Wrong Guy

Her boss is a total misanthrope, he hates blacks. He rails about them day in and day out. What he doesn't know is that she's living with her black boyfriend. She's been looking for a new job for months, but this is all she can find. Where can she go where she can talk publicly online with her friends and her boyfriend about politics, the latest tech toys, and her interests?

Here is part of a list of examples from +Shava Nerad:

The Lawyer

This is setting a precedent for the small town lawyer who wants to be able to keep their ability to blog about local politics, even though it might alienate their clients in their law practice.

The Abuse Survivor

It's about a middle aged guy who wants to blog about surviving sexual family abuse as a kid, even though his abusers are still very much alive, living in the same town.

Arab Spring

It's about the woman who wants to blog about how her husband and several of her cousins are activists in the Arab Spring movements in Syria, and how she and her mother and sister are getting by at home while they are away.

I have a pseudonym I use on the Internet. It has a blog, a paid Flickr account, a YouTube account, over 1000 Twitter followers, over 40,000 tweets (that's about 1000 pages of writing). It has its own domain name, and three years worth of 50,000 Google references associated with it (twice as many as I have under this name). Why does that account, with it's obvious pseudonym, have less accountability than some guy named "John Smith" who lists no location, links to no other info, and shows no connections to any other people on the Internet? My persona lives and dies on reputation alone. "John Smith" gets a free ride because he can produce a driver's license to Google and continue being an anonymous asshole to everyone else. Does that really make sense?And if you grant my persona's right to exist here, then are we saying that Google+ is a network only for people who already established their connections somewhere else; the "old boys' club" of social networks? We don't ask people for their passport before we talk to them. As +Sai . asks, "Have you ever slept with someone without first asking to see their ID?" If we'll do that, why do would we require one to talk online?

Arguments against pseudonyms

People don't really need to hide

I hope the earlier set of examples has put this argument to rest, but in the end, this is no business of anybody except the person who wishes to have some privacy. This isn't about hiding. It's about privacy and control of the key that gives every stranger access to my doorstep; my name.

You only need a pseudonym if you're bad

Mark Zuckerberg is famous for having said, "Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.". (Okay, that's not theonly reason he's famous.) So speaks a man who has never had to work for someone else and never had children. He also said "The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly." ( It's pretty clear that Facebook is doing its best to make this true, it's not so clear that people want it to be true.

A forum with pseudonyms lacks respectful discourse

There is an element of truth to this. Someone may in fact chose a pseudonym in order to troll and create havoc. Removing pseudonyms will probably reduce this. There are however, a couple of problems with the argument.

  1. People troll under their "real" names too. So with or without pseudonyms, the service must provide mechanisms for dealing with abusers. Google+ does provide some of these already. Over time, Google will need to provide additional tools; whether or not they allow pseudonyms.
  2. Google is not providing a mechanism to prevent fake accounts. They are providing a mechanism to report fake accounts and validate them after the fact. So if someone signs on as John Williams, and starts flame fights in the comments, it's going to be a while before it occurs to anyone that it might be a fake account. You'll still need the moderation tools.
  3. People who have persistent pseudonyms are noticeably different from the trollers. They have lots of friends, you can Google them, they have many online posts. Even on Twitter, in the land of 140 character tweets, it's pretty easy to glance at the follower list and tweet stream of someone and tell whether they are a spammer, a jerk, or an actual social person. It has nothing to do with name, and everything to do with behavior and content.
  4. A person with a persistent pseudonym lives and dies on one thing; reputation. If they lose their reputation, they lose their voice. All they have is what they say. So in fact, they are more inclined to carry on a respectful conversation. Especially in a forum where being blocked is a mouse click away.

One common argument is to point at other services as an example of the failure of pseudonymity, but the comparisons are almost always apples and oranges. Examples include Techcrunch's comment forum prior to switching to Facebook, YouTube, Myspace, and any newspaper comment forum. They also provide no benefits to creating a social network of friends. On the other hand, there are social networks, like Flickr, LiveJournal, Twitter, and others, which have a huge mix of pseudonymous and "real" names, and have civil discourse and a very active community. If they can have a vibrant user community with both "real" and pseudonymous accounts, why can't Google+?



Mr. Hinckley makes many other good points, but the upshot of them all is that there are a lot of good reasons to allow pseudonyms. Reasons that easily outweigh the objections to them. In fact, he quotes Googles policy blog:

Pseudonymous. Using a pseudonym has been one of the great benefits of the Internet, because it has enabled people to express themselves freely—they may be in physical danger, looking for help, or have a condition they don’t want people to know about. People in these circumstances may need a consistent identity, but one that is not linked to their offline self. That quote is from Google's own policy blog. The question isn't whether Google gets it. The question is why on earth they thought that wasn't a useful feature of a social network. Here lies the huge irony in this discussion. Persistent pseudonyms aren't ways to hide who you are. They provide a way to be who you are. You can finally talk about what you really believe; your real politics, your real problems, your real sexuality, your real family, your real self. Much of the support for "real names" comes from people who don't want to hear about controversy, but controversy is only a small part of the need for pseudonyms. For most of us, it's simply the desire to be able to talk openly about the things that matter to every one of us who uses the Internet. The desire to be judged—not by our birth, not by our sex, and not by who we work for—but by what we say.

The first 15 years I was online I used pseudonyms. One was 'Lord Hawkmoon' and was used primarily on local BBS's. The other big one was 'Bright Warrior' and I used it on 3 national BBS subs.It's only in the last 10 or so that I've used my real name online. That is my choice, and it should be a choice.

In that 25 or so years most of the people I've known online used pseudonyms, and even when we met in person we seldom asked for 'real' names. There were people who were total jerks, but often when we met it turned out they were total jerks in real life. The small sacrifice of dealing with the occasional jerk seems a small price to pay for the benefits of allowing pseudonyms.

Edited at 9:00am for formatting because this software ignores 98% of html formatting