Kent Pitman

Kent Pitman
New England, USA
Philosopher, Technologist, Writer
I've been using the net in various roles—technical, social, and political—for the last 30 years. I'm disappointed that most forums don't pay for good writing and I'm ever in search of forums that do. (I've not seen any Tippem money, that's for sure.) And I worry some that our posting here for free could one day put paid writers in Closed Salon out of work. See my personal home page for more about me.


FEBRUARY 13, 2011 11:56AM

Using Real Names has Real Consequences

Rate: 75 Flag

I post under my own name, but I do it with a consciousness of the risk.

I've been on the net (it was the ARPANET then) since 1977. At that time, we actually had user profiles with a place to supply your social security number, and people often complied because there was no reason to suppose it was dangerous. Those were certainly different times. People today are often horrified as they look back at the practices of those days, but everyone's sensibilities were different then. At some point we noticed that there was danger in having such information out in the open, so the data was erased and the ability to attach it was removed. But initially we were more trusting.

I had an unofficial administrative position on one of these machines as member of a group called “user-accounts” that oversaw guest usage of the machine. Guest users were called “tourists.” They were tolerated on the system as long as they didn't interfere with real work, but sometimes we had to disable an existing account or deny an application for an account if we suspected a potential for problems.

Having their accounts turned off didn't always make people happy. The first time I ever found myself quoted by someone on a web page in the early web, it was a remark quoted out of context from my time as a user-accounts member, where I'd once said in email, “[It] would have taken hours to be fair and we're not employed to do that sort of thing.” You can imagine that kind of attitude upsetting this or that person. In fact, in its proper context, the thing to understand is that we already went to extraordinary lengths to be fair to tourists, spending sometimes hours of unpaid time to make sure we didn't do anyone an injustice. But at some point there was just a limit where we had to just guess.

Life in the digital world is not a certainty, and an entire lab of real research at MIT depended on things operating properly. Just one act of devastation by a tourist on our largely unprotected and highly trusting system would have brought down the entire tourist program, and could have jeopardized research funding for the Lab. It was no small matter. So sometimes we just made arbitrary decisions, and tourists sometimes just had to live with them.

It happened one time, however, that someone was so annoyed by something I'd done that in retaliation he ended up performing an act that I'll describe here simply as “having a real world effect.” It really doesn't matter what the act was, and I don't want to give anyone ideas of mean things to do to someone. We'll just say it was more destructive than just sending an annoyed email, and that it involved the use of real world personal information about me in a way that was not proper. It was a sufficiently invasive act that there may well be a law against it now. Maybe there was a law then, too, but I didn't pursue it legally. My point, though, is that it made me conscious of the fact that not everyone “out on the net” was a nice person, and conscious in a personal, tangible way of the fact that sharing information, even information people have been accustomed to sharing since long before computers, isn't always harmless.

My favorite quote on privacy comes from John Gilmore's remarks to the First Conference on Computers, Freedom, and Privacy in San Francisco 1991, which I had the good fortune to attend. He said:

Society tolerates all different kinds of behaviour -- differences in religion, differences in political opinions, races, etc. But if your differences aren't accepted by the government or by other parts of society, you can still be tolerated if they simply don't know that you are different. Even a repressive government or a regressive individual can't persecute you if you look the same as everybody else. And, as George Perry said today, "Diversity is the comparative advantage of American society". I think that's what privacy is really protecting.

And that brings me to the claim that life would somehow be better if people blogged under their real name—if there were no pseudonyms. The underlying claim, not always expressed explicitly, is that eliminating pseudonyms would make people more polite and/or more accountable. I disagree that it would, even if it did, I don't think the cost is worth the value.

First, there is the question of whether you need to know who a speaker is in order to evaluate truth. I don't think you do. Maybe once in a while. Wikipedia is a monument to this because although you can find out who wrote what in there if you dig really hard, most of the truth that is in there is best verifiable by going and testing to cited references, not by going to who wrote it and by testing their character. If who said it mattered, then they might as well throw out the content after about 100 years since all of the people who've contributed will be dead and there will be no one to validate the content.

Second, the claim that having a publicly known name leads to better accountability is bogus. It's maybe okay if what we mean by “accountable” is exposed to personal whims of literally any individual on the net. But then how is that person accountable? In order to make everyone “accountable” for their speech, the claim seems to be that we should expose them to unbounded real world risk. I don't know about you, but that doesn't seem like much of a solution to me.

And while in most cases it may matter that people are accountable for what they say, consider the case where a patriot needs to speak out against an oppressive government. Before we claim that in all cases we want those willing to speak out to suffer the consequences of doing so, let's remember that rules tolerating offensive speech are not there because we like offensive speech, but rather because sometimes, especially in politics, it's subjective what is offensive. And sometimes it's necessary to make people feel uncomfortable in order to promote change. If governments or even just businesses always knew who was speaking, there might be no way to discuss certain things very critical to all of our lives.

I don't know how much of the recent activity in Egypt required some form of anonymity or pseudonymity to accomplish, but it's not a serious stretch of the imagination to think that the events that recently unfolded might not have happened without some degree of protection for those speaking out. Certainly in the case of corporate whistleblowing, anonymity can be critical. When real world corporate or political power hangs in the balance, perturbing the lives of exposed individuals is well-known to be the cheap way to “fix” the “problem.”

Still, even for those cases that do need accountability, all that matters for accountability is that someone (e.g., an OS system administrator) could contact that person. It's just not necessary that every person in the reading audience know how to contact every writer, since it's not the right or responsibility of most people reading along to be imposing judgment or punishment.

There may indeed be some forums that are more pleasant when real names are used, but the price may be that those forums cannot carry the voices of our most vulnerable or our most controversial. It's worth keeping that cost in focus. There is some risk to words, but there is greater risk to people taking up sticks and stones to make their point. I'd rather see words encouraged over sticks and stones, even if the price is tolerating highly controversial speech.

We should be encouraging people to speak and to feel safe about doing so. Sometimes that requires actual anonymity, sometimes just pseudonymity. But certainly it should not mean that “real names” are always best.

If the words of an anonymous soul appear to be causing a problem, more than likely it's an indicator that we need to learn about how to read anonymous writings, not that we need to reform the production of anonymous writings.

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I have always maintained that having someone's "real name" attached to their comments doesn't lend a bit of credence to the comment itself. Either the commenter is full of it, or they aren't and having a real name attached doesn't change that in the least.

Anonymous is fine by me, always has been. Good points all the way through.

Rated, gladly.
Great post Kent, and you raise some important points.

"life would somehow be better if people blogged under their real name—if there were no pseudonyms. The underlying claim, not always expressed explicitly, is that eliminating pseudonyms would make people more polite and/or more accountable. I disagree that it would, even if it did, I don't think the cost is worth the value"

That cost can be pretty high. All it takes is one irresponsible or mentally ill person making slanderous charges against you to directly affect your life in the real world. I've seen it happen here in OS several times, the most recent case I know of involving yours truly. Someone here learned my real name and almost immediately used it in a comment coupled with the implication that I *target* women in my hometown. Once something like that is said in a public online forum the fact that it's false doesn't even matter; anyone Googling your name can come across it and form conclusions about your character knowing (and caring) nothing about the fact that the charge was made by an unbalanced, vindictive person. If someone wants to use their real name, great, but to those who run around saying we must all use them, my reply is "I think I'll pass; there are crazy people out there."
Another well reasoned well thought out post by you. I think using one's real name is an act of bravery, fool hearty or not. I think of people like Joan Walsh who clearly put themselves out there. I'm quite sure she's received her share of hate mail that must surely have included some with threats of physical violence. And your points about the importance of privacy are well taken. But with this advent of technology, why do I get the feeling that my yet unborn grandchildren may ask me, "Grammie, what does the word 'privacy' mean?" I think anonymity/privacy is fastly becoming a thing of the past. The comments below are a good example of that.
Bonnie appears to be implying...what? That I'm going to shoot a politician? Wow! Even for you, Bonnie, that is out there.

Kent, I'll stop commenting here, this is your blog but it's now being co-opted by Ms. Russell to make outrageous slanders against my character. Thanks though for raising some points which are worthy of discussion.
what an intelligent parsing of anonymity and responsibility. A marvel of reflection, this is.

As someone who has been and still is admin for board and forums and member sites, I concur: this is supremely important to think about, and it is not resolved. Not by a long shot. Both accountability and anonymity are valuable.
Bonnie, I understand you have a gripe with Nanatehay, but this is not the forum for it. It is simply off-topic. Whether you have a just grievance or not—something I'm not intending to take a position on here—you weaken your case both by inappropriately co-opting my forum and by employing tactics like this especially without the permission of the forum owner (me).
I wish I could flag comments.

Ms Russell, your comments about nanatehey are completely irresponsible, though I would never in a million years expect you to admit it, nor expect anything other than you attempting to have the last word on any issue.

Apologies to you Kent. You've written at length about an important issue, it certainly is thought provoking especially with regard to what the government of Egypt did to online dissenters. It will be interesting to see how the protests in Iran play out as well and what happens to the online community there.
In the early internet days, on -- what did we used to call them... Oh, yes: a newsgroup! -- when I was publishing an erotica zine, I made a critical comment about the work of another erotica writer. My standing in that circle went into the toilet for the next five to seven *years,* because she was the queen bee type and evidently very sensitive to criticism. And I didn't even know why people were shunning me, until I opened a book that contained an article about the local porn scene and saw that this woman felt I had "trashed her online." One comment! and not even about her, but about her writing.

So one has no control over how others will take one's words. Nevertheless, I've never felt the need to disguise my identity online. I wrote and published porn under my real name, and I continue posting everything under the sun under my real name. That's no judgement on anyone else who chooses to use a pseudonym.
Bonnie, I'm moving your comment (minus the mention of his real name, which is an inappropriate invasion of privacy) and my reply to The Cornfield. Nanatehay, I'm having to move some of your remarks, too, because they engaged Bonnie once she did that. Please both of you stand down and discuss this elsewhere. Use your experiences to inform your remarks if you like, but do not bring the specifics here for trial. This is not a court and I decline to mediate.
Me too.
But I live in Australia ; there's not much danger of anyone tracking me to my home address, should I happen to let slip something contentious enough to make someone want to hurt me. My online reputation is of no matter - it may as well not exist, for all I care.

It does concern me, this thing between Bonnie & nan, not to detract from your piece I hope ( because I like them both ) but Bonnie did put up something she's unable to retract, putting nan into a seriously screwed-up situation - and since I've been on OS I've had 3 threats myself ( weirdo's, nothing really significant, though I reported them ; nothing was done ) aware this sentence is unwieldy winding up to say Yes. Put our name on it. Let the pieces fall.
And thanks.
( I mostly don't read long posts but I'm glad I read this. )
Bonnie, feel free to discuss those concepts. Please just do it abstractly or at least without sufficient detail that this becomes personal. That won't help anyone here.
Thoughtful post Kent. I agree with the sentiment that it's not so hard to judge the content of a post or comment on its own merits, regardless of whether its author uses an apparently real name or an obvious pseudonym. I mentioned in Cranky's post yesterday that I have professional reasons for posting anonymously. One is that a few years back someone in our organization was sacked, and rightfully so, for an intemperate blog post using their real name.
I have had some nasty comments posted on a couple of mine but I have no idea who they are.
That to me is chicken shit.
rated with hugs
Kent, you ruminate thoughtfully and carefully about the question of web anonimity and I appreciate it. There's no "right" answer; some people use pseudonyms so they can make scurrilous remarks; others because their particular line of work doesn't allow them the freedom to speak their minds, and others because they worry about the effect their words might have. The Internet doesn't traffic in civility, unfortunately, And when it comes to playing fair, being open-minded, or respecting the needs of the poster or commenter-- that isn't something that can be imposed. That's about personal responsibility and discipline and a sincere interest in discourse.

Your last comment, though, does say what truly needs to be said:
"If the words of an anonymous soul appear to be causing a problem, more than likely it's an indicator that we need to learn about how to read anonymous writings, not that we need to reform the production of anonymous writings."
I write under a pseudonym on OS and as far as I can see into the future will continue to. That said, it is not a prescription for what any one else should do. For me I use a nom de plume not because I have something to hide but (because this is the internet and) I have always felt I have something to protect.
OK, I have finished moving the off-topic text to The Cornfield. I tried to take all of the pieces, too, that left the conversation here feeling fragmented. I hope the result is more or less a coherent conversation again. (I left in place gripes by Kim and bbd who were not part of the fray. The distraction of them complaining about comments no longer in evidence seemed minor.) I'd ask everyone to please do any residual follow-up on that off-topic matter in PM to me and not to involve this thread. Thanks!
Kent--As usual, an incredibly thoughtful essay. I say that because it got me thinking.

I wonder if at heart the requirement for people to use real names is held by many because it's a simple, easy answer. It's somewhat akin---although the analogy has flaws--to saying "the more laws we have, the less evil we will have in the world."

Where on the other hand, your point (which I happen to agree with but that's irrelevant) requires reasoning, care and thought.
When thought is required, people can do all sorts of things. Toss back a simple answer, get mad, go off topic, attack, judge, defend. Thought takes a lot of energy. But the good news is that thinking can also be energizing.

Which is why I appreciate what you do. Roger
AKA (Chicago Guy, travelight32, Hey You, Dumb Ass, Smart Ass, Dr. Work. . . .whatever. . . .)
See I never really LIKED the name Roger. So I might go with "Dirk" or "Dash Riprock" . . .I'll let you know.
This is such a thoughtful argument in favor of the concept of anonymity on the web. I think it's instructive to remind everybody that you aren't arguing that everybody should remain anonymous, just that there are valid reasons to do so and the right should not be taken away. I think it's true that a well reasoned statement can stand alone, regardless of who said it. I also think that sometimes the source does matter, but then its anonymity is simply factored into the credibility. And this is also true: Relationships matter in evaluating credibility. I would like to think that my long-term presence here at OS and the relationships I've built mean something, even though "Lainey" doesn't capture my legal identity. When I step in and disagree with Mary Kelly, for example, she knows me. She knows I'm not a troll or a hack or someone employed by any of her detractors (though I can't imagine Mary has any of those.) The point is, she can perhaps revisit her own argument and then either stand by it or move in my direction. This kind of thoughtful reflection and conversation on OS stems not from legal names but from longevity and relationship.

Still, in the case of drive-by commentary on newspaper websites and such, I think an argument can be made for requiring real names in the same way that letters-to-the-editor of their print versions do. I have a friend, Connie Schultz, who writes a column for the Plain Dealer and has gotten serious and demoralizing crap from the commenters, stuff that has no merit whatsoever and that co-opts the conversation and drives away any serious debate. I would not ever consider posting a comment there because her columns almost instantly devolve into name calling (She is always a whore and a bitch, etc., etc., b/c she is a liberal feminist), and there is no cohesive conversation.

Still, immature co-opting of thoughtful pieces into personal grievances apparently can happen even with real names, as it has been done right here. Sigh.
Going back to the topic at hand and responding to comments from before this conversation ran astray...

Bonnie, I'm not assuming Salon will be either responsible or not. I'm saying that it's their proper role, not the role of readers here, to police the site. Anything else is a recipe for mass chaos. If someone has a gripe with the way Salon conducts things, they should take it up with the site. If they don't get satisfaction, then I suggest that either this is not the site for them. The only exception is that if the grievance is so horrible that merely leaving does not repair it, that's what the law was created for. But street brawls, virtual or otherwise, don't seem to me to do anything other than melt down the site even worse than anything alleged by those who have original grievances. They seem to me to say “well, if I'm not getting satisfaction, no one will” and the dilute the moral righteousness of the original complaint.

Also, Bonnie, as to your second point about making people feel uncomfortable, I think that should be held to on-topic matters when commenting. The unwritten rule of the blogosphere is that if someone wants to make people feel uncomfortable on a new topic (or on a new instance of an old topic, but in any case something the blog writer clearly didn't intend), they should return to their own blog and make whatever claims they want and then have a discussion there. Co-opting someone else's campaign to wage a war of uncomfortableness on a matter that's not in play is not “inappropriate speech” but rather “a violation of time and manner restrictions.” Even the Supreme Court tells people they're only hearing one case at a time.

Bill, thanks for visiting and sharing your thoughts.

Nanatehay, I agree with you it just takes one incident to make a mess. I do think your remarks would lead to less conflict if you avoided focusing on the rationale of the party. The same problem occurs if privacy is violated whether it was for an organized and well-intentioned way or for an utterly irrational way. The rule against privacy violation should try, to the extent possible, to avoid having to characterize intent or cause, if only because intent or cause can be debated endlessly—often with no resolution—with the original problem standing all the while.

Also, Nanatehay, you make a really excellent point about the incredible magnifying power in Google. It's very easy to Google for bad things someone might have said or that might be said about someone else, and it makes even casual conversations overly important. This is the slander/libel distinction, in my mind at least. I'm not sure the real history of those, and a lot of people get caught up in the issue of paper or the issue of publication, but it seems to me that slander is about a passing remark that might get around and libel is about an enduring remark that is hard to erradicate because it is visible in unbounded ways all of a sudden that are hard to back out of. The internet, and our willingness to do everything in searchable forums, converts almost all discussions from ones where slander might happen if one is not careful to one where libel might happen, or so it seems to me. And although I think the burden is on speakers to be careful, the technology itself deserves some blame for creating this risk.
Mark, your experience may be different for gender reasons, so I'm glad you're not closing the door to others doing differently. It is indeed a matter of choice. I'm not sure what the statistics are on men writing erotica getting stalked, but I've known several women who've done that and I've seen some pretty legitimate concern about it following them home. I bet problems in that arena happen far more to women than men. I think (and I sense you agree) that it's completely appropriate to allow safety through anonymity for those who want to be playful without feeling they have invited stalkers home. It's hard to actually be anonymous—it's amazing what things will trip you up. But like most things involving security, if you can do a small thing that runs up the expense for those after you, that's a good thing. It's like they say about running from a bear with a friend, you don't have to outrun the bear, just your friend. That's not to say I think anyone should be at risk from stalkers, but what I do mean is that if someone chooses to engage even a partial protection, we mustn't hold it back because it might not be 100% effective.
Kim, sorry for the length. And as to the discussion, I hope I got it mostly cleaned up. By the way, people can follow you home, so be careful—you might not be the only one from Australia reading along.
Kent, You bring back to mind words you shared with me when I was first here and responding to one of your pieces. I appreciated them then and I appreciate them even more now. Have noticed how familiar I have become with pseudonyms of some writing from within Tahrir Square. As always, interesting to hear your own history with all of this.

"We should be encouraging people to speak and to feel safe about doing so." I think you already know how important this is to me. Would add that feeling safe allows far more often for gentleness than for the hurling of barbs. At least that is most often what I see.
I can't give "rates" so I'll rant.
I wish you were my neighbor.
I beg you. Give piano classes.
You were into digits in 1977?
I still am so confused all day.
Pac Man was difficult for me.
I "hated" the old commodore.
I never get any comment notice.
I might go back to 3 X 5 indexes.
I still love # 2- yellow pencils too.
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Nature dumped some folk on Pluto.
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La La Land is lots of great entertainment.
Nature must have One funny humor bone.
I never saw a Rhino play the saxophone.
I did see a speckled giraffe sip water.
Why does a giraffe have sexy legs?
I may go get some black balloons.
I get a jade ear ring for buffoons.

Seriously. I wish I had Ya talent.
I am nor jealous as in envy them.
Jealousy's worst than vice hatred.

You should be the Dean and use Mouse.
I never can figure why it's called a Mouse.
Mouse go 'wee' and we get tickled by Mouse.
Minnie Mouse tickle if She wiggle in pocket.
On Valentine Day I may get a butt tattooed.
I might buy a expensive physician stethoscope.
It be wonderful to ask may I? Then SCREECH!
It be a day just walking `bout and wiggle ears.
But, never ask a politico if they have a heart.
I gotta get to the Sauna Sunday hoot at anna`
She wants to see if there' two belly buttons.
We get famed.
Hoots. Howdy.
Clown Doodle.
Great keeper.
annoy peeper.
There's also the need for many for a zone between personal and professional. Personal blog musings can impact ones professional space and vice versa, perhaps. There's a WSJ article about the 30 year old google exec who has risen to prominence in Egypt, for example. That can impact the firm's ability to do business in countries with difference tolerance levels for civil disobedience than our own, for example.

But hiding behind some anonymity can make one a tad less civil. It's the sociological equivalent of mob rule. We find like minds in the ether, we have anonymity, and we can become most uncivil in our expressions of disagreement than if we were face to face sitting around a table or standing at a cocktail party having the exchange. It's part of human nature, sadly, and it has really, really seeped into a political discourse in ways that quite honestly sicken me personally.
Abrawang, you make a good point about employment. There are some topics I can't go to because of that, and not just because I'd want to talk about my company. Rather, because future job prospects are capable of Googling me and using information against me. The simplest example is that discussed obliquely in my post The Big C about my medical history. It would be easier to write such pieces anonymously. In that one, I took the step of just boldly writing anyway, but at personal cost. I thought the piece would be stronger by taking the risk. But I can't begrudge those who aren't up to that risk or say their voice shouldn't be heard. The insurance companies are probably happy people hold back, but I don't think it serves our nation.

Also, you remind me that I left out some useful thought which I had put in a comment on Slashdot a while back. I wrote (under pseudonym, but not one I particularly protect—my identity in that name is pretty well-known) in response to their article New Chinese Rule Requires Real Names Online a number of often-overlooked reasons for anonymity:

•It may also be necessary for the personal safety of people who are being stalked, doing whistleblowing, or even just dating and wanting to chat without committing.
•It can be necessary to express any unpopular political opinion. Note that popular opinions require no protection but that if we assume that what's popular never changes we can just have one vote and then be done and never vote again. All political change begins as a minority viewpoint. For example, labor organization is more easily suppressed if one can keep the organization from ever happening. The movement to stop a war might start small.
•For some public figures, it allows the freedom to relax and speak without having their political motives challenged or their well-known credentials inappropriately applied since their voice is not as loud as when it is their well-known self, and since anonymous speech is evaluated for the worth of the statement rather than for who said it.
•It allows the underappreciated option of having an opinion you might later want to change without being quoted for life.
•It allows one to perform an act like shopping without having marketers of the future be able to log the action as a sign of potential interest.
•On juries (and in paper review for refereed scientific and technical journals, for that matter), anonymous voting is considered a way of encouraging frankness and honesty.
•In voting for politicians and political initiatives, it is considered a way to assure that votes are hard to buy or force because compliance with an improper promise or attempted coercion is not possible to track.
•Certain people will not approach a help desk for things like medical care, contemplating suicide, or other issues if they don't believe it's anonymous.
•Some people are just shy and prefer to speak anonymously.
•Some religions teach that it's more humble to contribute money, time, energy, etc.) anonymously, not drawing attention to self.
Linda, I'm sorry whenever that kind of thing happens. Did you find the ability to delete or respond to the comment was insufficient?

Nikki, thanks for dropping by. I've often remarked that we've created new mechanisms for interacting but we haven't created new versions of ourselves. Whether it's computer blog technology or reform of government by voting rather than by the sword, the issue is still this: People's blood will still boil and they will still want to hurt one another. The only question is whether we let them do it with words or we tell them their only recourse is to throw stones.
Bonnie, nothing in my post says that Liberty is Safe. Liberty involves some risks. I'm not a fan of what what William Gibson calls Disneyland with the Death Penalty. That means it requires some effort to maintain, since things that are complicated require effort. You're not happy with the effort here and there, and I can understand that. But it's not a precise science, and even in the best world, mistakes will be made. The answer is not to get rid of the conflict, that's all I'm saying. That will guarantee an injustice that may be larger than the other things you're concerned with. It's not a perfect world.
" Oh dear, oh dear,oh dear FRed(tm) a great post from an ex-colony written with passion and useful content only to be hijacked by Venom. No not the creature in Spiderman, but close Boy."

Now for fLucks sake children take the bickering behind the bike shed and fight it out in private like we do in Business.

HandBags at Dawn from 20 paces wot wot?
Lainey, it's a great point and I'm glad to see you raising it that even pseudonymous people can develop relationships and reputations that they may be reluctant to lose.

I do disagree with the claim that it's a good idea for real names to be used in newspapers. This is absolutely guaranteed to mean that a certain set of users and topics cannot come up, and some of them may be the kind of thing that needs to come up.

Let's suppose there were a country or religion that many in the US felt was having an inappropriate amount of influence on us. What if people needed to speak out? What if the claim were true and the entity in question were willing to seek down the individuals willing to spoke out and make their life bad? Is the price of speaking out that we must only hear those people willing to put themselves on the line? Does a typical newspaper even check? If I said I was John Q. Smith, would they check if there was such a person? If they did check if there was one, and in fact I was not just lying but defrauding him, would they know? There are people here at OS who publish under real names, just not their own real name. I think it's better to err on the side of discourse. As the Supreme Court has said (and it has exceptions but is still a good rule): the answer to bad speech is more speech. (I'm not sure if that's a direct quote, so I didn't use quote marks, nor do I know the citation, but I'm pretty sure it's close enough. Corrections welcome about the source, but I stand by the sentiment.)
Anna, though we have no other link than your pseudonym, I've come to see your persona's remarks as ever-thoughtful and ever-gentle, so it underscores your point. Thanks for sharing.
People get fired abotu such things all the time, because most people suck,
I appreciate your respect and acknowledgment that people have solid reasons for posting or not posting under their real names. We come from diverse histories and backgrounds, and not everyone has the luxury of writing under their real name. My students would pay to read what I write here about them, and it would be inappropriate for them to read the details of my cancer experience, or about the loss of my mother. Most people whose acquaintance I've made here know my name and I theirs, but truthfully, knowing that Bea is Amy or Cranky is Richard makes very little difference in how I relate to them or their work. The sad fact is that knowing their birth names would only matter if I wished to be intrusive or abusive to them.

OS does not provide us with even the most basic sort of user id block or filter options, and seems unresponsive to legitimate complaints of online abuse from other bloggers. Using caution here is wise to my mind, rather than cowardly.
I believe that anonymity is necessary and important in this and other places on the "net".
I'm newer here than most ohters, even though I'm older than most others.
That said, I've just made a very few blog entries and, in one, I was called very nasty names by a couple of very small people who CHOSE to twist the intention of my blog to their own purposes.
Also, I made a comment about the person who was blogged about being a bitch which was acti-ually in agreement with the blogger's attitude.
The word "bitch" was censored by the blogger and, rather than firing back in said blog, I merely never went back the that blogger's articles or in further PMs.
Some poeple cannot let go of things and neurotically continue speweing their venom.
I'd rather just let it go and use my comments to address more importantly pertinent and humorous subjects.
I'll throw in an "R".
Good article and, you're very tolerant in allowing some venom to be swpewed here.
When it occured in one of my blogs, I decided to allow the posts to stand as evidence of the "dissers" being hemorrhoids.
Kent, regarding newspaper letters, they *do* check, or at least they used to. Whenever I sent in a letter, I would get a call verifying my information (which had to include a phone number and address, which they could match up), and I was asked to summarize my view. That was then, though, when people cared about newspapers; nowadays they are probably grateful to get anybody and are perhaps not as rigorous. In fact, there was something only a year or so ago that came out of my hometown's newspaper's failure to check the identify of a letter writer that erupted into a national story. I can't remember the details.

It's true that attaching names to opinions limits the range of opinions. I'm thinking here about whenever I first connected this OS blog to my Facebook page, which of course has my real name and includes lots of family members, neighbors, and coworkers. It has had a seriously chilling effect on what I've written here. Which sometimes makes me feel like a coward. But there it is.
You seem to have hit quite the nerve with this post. I also use my real name; never gave it a second thought until something I'd written was cross-posted elsewhere and many of the responses were not only vicious but downright unbalanced. That's when I began to question my wisdom - or lack of - but so far, no repercussions.

Myself, I couldn't care less about the blogger's name; I'm looking for content and thought-provoking pieces (like yours) but I know I don't speak for everyone. I simply can't relate to some of the near-psychotic comments I've read on others' posts. Just the effort put into coming up with that stuff drains me and I skip right over them. Fortunately, I've only had that once or twice and I ignore it.

As you point out, in some cases anonymity is crucial and that was the case with Egypt. That didn't start overnight; there were people blogging, texting, tweeting for a long time before the uprising - I think in large part that's what helped foment the unrest - and their lives depended on remaining anonymous.

Incidentally, the use of a nom de plume for a writer isn't new; below are just a few: George Orwell was really Eric Blair; Lewis Carroll was Charles Dodgson; Mark Twain was Samuel Langhorne Clemens; Stephen King has published under Richard Bachman; Nora Roberts is also J.D. Robb; Lemony Snicket is Daniel Handler; and Diablo Cody is Brook Busey. Women also used to publish under men's names to get readership. Great post, Kent. Rated.
Blow on if you will, butt the note is flat.
Art, thanks for visiting and for the compliments.

NEMac, thanks for the thoughtful comments. I'm certainly not arguing there are no risks. But it's a new technology and I think the goal should be to build in some manners. Even if there are base urges to behave a certain way doesn't mean we can't overcome them. Sort of like they say, “Wear clean underwear because you never know when you'll be in a car accident.” We need to teach people to be nicer since anonymity can often be pierced. But also, there's an issue of the golden rule—that the world becomes what we become, and if we want others to treat us nicely anonymously, we must learn to do the same for them. Wisdom tends to lag technology and we're in catch-up mode.

Creekend, hopefully at this point I've excised the comments you were alluding to. I'm trying to keep it civil here, yes.

Don, I'm not sure I'd quite make that generalization, but you're right to point out that firing can be capricious. And the primary thesis of the privacy movement, as expressed in Gilmore's comments, is that if you don't give someone info about you, they can't menace you.
Read and appreciated. Very interesting discussion. Even those who choose to bicker on your thread are proving your point.
Kent.. it was on a repost piece that had been formerly published in two newspapers the real world. Someone took the time on here to create 7 new accounts to trash me over and over. It finally got so bad I had to close comments because I will not rangle like small children.

If people want to act like kids that is fine. I will not.

It was a story that happened 42 years ago. It got lots of nice press in the real world and it did get an EP here.
The OS person in question threatened to throw me down stairs if they saw me and came over and continued to haunt me on another blog. I did not answer them, life is too short. I did report it bit nothing happened.
If someone want to find you they can. Does not matter what your name is.
I happen to agree with Obama's apparent intention to impose some sort of verifiable internet ID, and don't care if it irks inconsequential blatherers on Open Salon and elsewhere. Less of them, less of you would improve the medium.

But when the internet actually matters, on political sites like Daily Kos, which turned itself into a propaganda organ for Obama during the Democratic primaries, the anonymity of hundreds of fanatics for Obama turned into a weapon, and anyone who dared to criticize that con-men was insulted and slandered and eventually banned by the site, and what a beautiful outcome! A Reagan Republican in the White House, and millions of unemployed Americans left to fend for themselves, along with millions desperate homeowners driven out of their houses.

And compared to electing Obama, the first real "internet candidate," what's the upside of anonymity? A billion third-rate confessional diaries?

"My cat died. Boo fucking hoo!"

And that's 99.99% of Open Salon.

So if you don't care enough about what you post to stand behind it as a actual person, then shut the fuck up! It won't be any loss to anybody, not even you, and it might even clear the way for a little honesty on the internet.
And BTW I get threatened all the time, for criticizing Obama and the Tea-Party and advocating on the Wall Street Journal's site that Karl Rove should be hanged for war-crimes. Two weeks ago I got a photo of a high-powered rifle with my real-world address printed under it.

And so fucking what?

I am Jacob Freeze, and I cannot be intimidated.
Jacob (taking you out of order, I'll get back to others above you shortly), see the last paragraph of my reply to Lainey, and also my reply to Abrawang. I think a lot more would be lost by forced identity than what you're imagining. It would totally change the character of political debate and not for the better. It could be devastating for freedom everywhere. It's absolutely necessary that some people be able to post anonymously. But that's not me saying there can be no place that has other rules. It's just critical that such places not crowd out the others—a properly free market must have both.
greenheron, yes, the absence of common tools for addressing these items is quite conspicuous. Also, please exercise care when referring even to first names—I hope you asked those people before referring to them unless those names are public. I know people for whom even a first name is too much to offer, and not because they have a unique name. Rather because it tends to confirm a guess among several possibilities.

XJS, where possible, letting such things stand is often the best thing. My Cornfield idea tries to find a balance, putting the comments slightly out of sight but not really getting rid of them. Yet for privacy breaches, at least some editing is required. Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts. :)

Lainey, I'd be ok with “some check.” To assert they all do would require more research than you have time for, and anyway I'm quite sure I can point you to newspapers that do not check. And of those that try to reach you, those that verify the person they reached is really who they thought they reached is quite a difficult task and more expense than most are up to. Most sites I know of do it mechanically by simply verifying that the email address they send to has been read by the same person that posts; beyond that, they don't verify real names other than to make sure it's at least two uppercase initial words.
Kent, both Bea and Cranky have recent posts outing themselves, but if you think my reference was inappropriate, feel free to delete my comment. I'd be fine with that.
Margaret, some great points there. Thanks for stopping in. Please feel free to return—I try to ask lots of “content and thought-provoking pieces” (to use your words) is my aspiration, at least. I'm glad someone mentioned all those famous pseudonyms. And the part about women publishing as men is important, too. I guess this is a good place to reference the famous cartoon On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog.
greenheron, nope, I'll take you at your word on that unless they complain personally. I just wanted to make sure we were being even-handed here since I had grumped about other uses of real names. Thanks for clarifying.
tg, I confess I didn't understand your comment. But thanks for visiting.

rw005g, thanks for the anecdotal evidence. Whether from a pseudonym or not, it rings true. And your avatar has a reputation for carefully considered thought.
LC, some fascinating observations there, especially the one about having to take more time to post so as not to say something that outs you. As for the issue of being on the big sites, yes, that comes with a lot of exposure and probably risk. Consider, for example, the risk to Glenn Greenwald over Wikileaks.

trilogy, thanks. I agree it's a very interesting discussion with a lot of good points made by all.
Linda, it's interesting (and unintuitive to some, so needs to be taught) how well people are regarded who just refuse to engage provocation. I'm sorry for what happened to you though.
Eye opening discussion. Kent, you lost me for a minute with this: "This is the slander/libel distinction, in my mind at least. I'm not sure the real history of those, and a lot of people get caught up in the issue of paper or the issue of publication, but it seems to me that slander is about a passing remark that might get around and libel is about an enduring remark that is hard to erradicate because it is visible in unbounded ways all of a sudden that are hard to back out of. The internet, and our willingness to do everything in searchable forums, converts almost all discussions from ones where slander might happen if one is not careful to one where libel might happen, or so it seems to me."

Slander, a false verbal utterance that damages the reputation of a third party, and libel, a published falsehood that does the same thing, are virtually indistinguishable, other than the means of delivery--spoken versus written. Newspapers traditionally had to be found to have not only punlished the libel, but did so knowing it was false, but that has changed in the courts over the last two decades. Something like "due diligence" is now applied to newspapers. If a newspaper runs with a story based on assertions from, say, five named upstanding citizens, that a sixth citizen is a pedophile, and that story turns out to be false, the newspaper had better be ready to prove it researched court records concerning the sixth citizen, interviewed that party (or made a Herculean effort to do so). Just having five named sources won't cut it in court. It's no longer strictly about what the newspaper knows but what it SHOULD have known. I'd be interested to see what a lawyer has to say about virtual publishing versus traditional. It seems to me that when one presses "publish" on a blog, they're publishing. Or, if blogging is the equivalent of "speaking" the law should apply as well. You speak of "highly controversial" topics and the resultant hot rhetoric that might result in a discussion of those topics, but libel and slander don't have to do with heated rhetoric, or even ugly, rancid, or delusional rhetoric, but with harming reputations through writing/uttering falsehoods. That's an important difference.

Fascinating discussion.
You said what I've said for years, "the claim that having a publicly known name leads to better accountability is bogus ... if what we mean by “accountable” is 'exposed to personal whims of literally any individual on the net'. But then how is that person accountable?"

None of the OS members who have tiresomely campaigned for 'real names' (on this personal forum) has put forth one valid or well reasoned argument for doing so. OTOH, many reasons exist for using avatars and noms, which are so well stated in this post and in the comment string.

The type of 'act' you allude to happens all too often and has devastating professional and/or personal impact when directed over the 'world wide' web (it goes around the world for gawds sake, for those who have yet to appreciate the meaning of 'www.**).

The comment about libel laws as they pertain to print v. media will continue to be an evolving area of discussion and ultimately, law; we aren't nearly there yet and having something proved libelous, then getting it scrubbed from the internet is presently, well, impossible.

I have no illusion that I am anonymous, with the trail we all leave behind with every use of an IP address (unless blocked), with cell phones, internet surfing and purchasing, credit card use, on line banking... and it will only get broader and broader as time goes on. However, when I am functioning in 'personal mode' on the web, I refuse to hand someone a stick with which they can beat me senseless on a whim, or in an unhinged state, through irresponsible use of my legal or name on the internet .

There is a distinct line between professional and personal posting. Blogs such as OS equate to personal posting, thus I have a nom and a lovely avatar so I can continue to enjoy what little personal privacy I have any more. Professionally, you will always be able to reach me. I use a legal name and stand behind what I research and publish.

Great points, and rated as always, as I always get something out of your posts.
I started out here with a nom de plume, but I concluded anonymity on the Net was an illusion. I decided hiding wasn't worth the trouble.

Frankly, I don't say anything here I wouldn't and haven't said in the "real" world. I do have a concern, though, that there are some real nutjobs out there, and you never know what one of them might do -- ask Gabby Giffords.
Kent: First, as always, I am in awe of your equanimity. It is not a consistent feature in my real world persona nor my alter ego, which is nothing but a different name than the one on my driver's license. The reasons one might do such a thing have been covered already here, in spades, but I wanted to register my gratitude for your thoughtful coverage of the issue because every once in a while I take someone new into my confidence, explain AJ Calhoun does not appear on my driver's license nor my birth certificate, and this is met with shock and confusion. Perhaps it is because I carry the alter with me to Facebook and other places. There's a reason for that. It's my reason, and I feel it is a sound one (actually several). I generally point to Mark Twain, with whom I attended high school (another bald-faced lie from some nameless creep, see?) as an example of why it's OK. It's OK because he did it and sold lots of books and nobody seems to have a problem with him, dead though he may be.

Thanks again. This was actually a rather bold undertaking on your part (hardly the first time) and is much appreciated here. Rated, too.
my alter is actually more identifying than my real name. Googling my real name would give you more pages than you could read in a lifetime. :)
I flagged a comment for racism the other day. Probably nothing was done, but I know that in person that shithead would have never said what they did. Morality, a sense of shame, blocks us all in person. The internet removes that- for good and bad- with or without real names.
I post under my own name, too. A frank decision based on the fact that since I publish fiction under my own name, blogging with a nom de plume would be absurd.
My experience in OS has been kind, but I find that trolls relish the pleasures of anonymity to plunder through posts with the most fantastical contentions.
I spent about 6 months on OS before I started commenting and posting. I was so afraid someone who had been physically abusive would find me that I was afraid to speak even as Bleue. I would sometimes use my real first name in PM's with people I came to trust a little. There came a day when someone was being supportive and accidentally used my first name. I will never forget how terrified I was at that moment.

It turned out well because I was actually trying to become invisible again and it's good for me not to hide under a rock but I haven't forgotten those minutes of terror. None of my email accounts have my real birthday, location or anything (I remember the google employee that was a stalker) that leads to me. I don't have a facebook or any other accounts like that.

The restraining order expired 20 years ago but the nameless fear will be with me as long as he is alive. I finally realized I can't hide so I will just have to live with the fear until he's gone.
Kent, I have taken things to extremes, and have
a restraining order against all my previous
My most intelligent intuitions ,
those that wish to be put into prose
or poetry,
tend to be anonymous,
first + foremost from my self.
The trick is to respect my own anonymity.
Response here is applicable to your post.
Cornfield or no, this is a great look at a troubling issue. Thanks for taking an enormous amount of time to research and post! And sort through comments. And fertilize the crops in the cornfield. And the weeding and hoeing . . . jeez! You must be worn out about now!
Well done, Kent. But never would I have thought that this post would engender such off-topic comments. The Cornfield is pretty brilliant.

If I may weigh in with a couple of points, I would like to say that the encyclopedia volumes with which we grew up are filled with pages of articles written by seemingly anonymous sources. That anonymity does not compromise the veracity of the material.

As as to pseudonyms giving a person a shield to hide behind, I prefer to think of them as giving a person the ability to perhaps speak in a way that their own identity would curtail. It can also be a protective device as noted by Bleue and also by folks that might write erotica and not want an avid fan to show up at the door.
I've noticed that some of the commenters have taken the position that "I stand by what I say so what the heck if my real name is associated with it." I stand by what I say too, but that misses the point. The problem isn't what YOU may say under your real name; the problem is what OTHERS may say about you. Once someone makes an accusation against you online it doesn't matter whether there's any truth to it; at that point it is out there, as Abby points out, on the World Wide Web. Usually, it is out there permanently, and can easily be found by anyone on the planet who knows how to use Google. Now, if you're in a position where it doesn't matter what a potential employer or a potential anything else thinks about you, then it's not an issue, and bully for you. Not all of us are in that position, however, and anyone who for professional reasons or on general principles thinks that having your real name associated with libelous accusations is a less than ideal outcome would be well advised to not use that name in a public forum.
Yeah, Stellaa, even seemingly intelligent people believe a lot of silly things. It never fails to amaze me.
I guess I'm not allowed to comment here without Ms. Russell rushing over to attack. Whatever.
People should be forthright & honest & post only in their real names and faces. For myself, I am monitored telepathically by the mother ship and can't get away with anything. All posters here should submit to probe that will install a similar monitoring device...

I anonymize because from time to time, I've got to closely know people who were either involved in criminal or intelligence activities. For this reason alone, I not only anonymize my personal identity, but the identity of anyone that I write about who's either a spy or a crook. And this way, everyone's protected, particularly yours truly.

The other thing is, every time I get up on my electronic soap box on the net, I know that I'm broadcasting. God only knows who's looking in on the other end of the line. The thing about the internet is -- you don't have any idea who your audience really is. You never know how far your words will go here, or who'll they'll reach and influence. It's always a surprise to find that I've hit a home run with my writing, and often it's because it resonated with someone whom I had no idea that they even existed before.

Just because we've each got our own station on the airwaves, it seems to me that I have a responsibility to be as front brained as I possibly can be (with the exception of commenting to one of tinkerertink69's postings).
Internet anonymity allows for Cyber Road Rage, but I'm not sure using real names would curb that. Meeting face-to-face in a group would chill most of those with bizarre opinions and big keyboards.
Most, but not all.

Real names or not, some suffer from Internet Enmeshment and become too personally involved. They probably have some sort of "Aspergian" disconnect with social propriety in their offline lives as well. It's from this group we get some stalkers who don't see that digging up what personal info they can and fabricating an expose' makes them - not their target- look mentally ill.

I recall at least one such incident on OS, although I forgot who wrote it. While the author must have thought they were being serious, it was full of ridiculous conflations that didn't make any sense, and certainly left more people than me shaking their heads. This same person whose name I forgot once called around trying to similarly "expose" some old OS guy to his offline relations.

Anyway, I'm just pointing that out because I won't be surprised to see a Kent Pitman expose' soon.
A very interesting discussion. Although I publish under my own name in real life, I also blog under a silly nom de plume because Bernadine writes better than I do. Also, since I'm out, I will confess to anyone who cares that yes, indeedy, I was "Aunt Bea" on the Andy Griffith Show group on Prodigy throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Excellent essay, Kent.
I remember using my real picture and then pulling back. I really feel safer that way.
BadScot, about slander v. libel, the point I was making (which I just wanted to emphasize might not be how courts break it down, but is how I think of it) is that yes, it's about the delivery medium, but the reason it's about that is that one of those delivery media is enduring and the other decays quickly. As for the due diligence thing, I agree with you (and Lainey) that it's common to do certain checking. My only point is that it's not really a good enough check, so there is the easy opportunity for some to exploit it while others don't realize they can. Given the choice between letting everyone post pseudonymously and letting only unscrupulous people do it, I'd just as soon everyone was represented. (I also agree there's a difference between heated rhetoric and privacy violations or slander. Sorry if I blurred that.)
Abby, I loved this: “I refuse to hand someone a stick with which they can beat me senseless on a whim.” Thanks for the useful observations. And I'm glad you found your time here well spent.

Tom, yep, there are occasional bad things. It's hard to disprove they'll happen. And it may also relate to what you might say. We each have different employment prospects. For some of us, the notion someone would look us up on the web is silly, for some it's a strng likelihood.

AJ, thanks for the kind words and useful perspectives based on personal experience. I think it underscores the point, too. I could have called myself by some other real-looking name and no one would think twice that it might not be my name. I have moral qualms about the “trig palin” that posts here. I doubt it's the real trig. Some people might know that, some not. He might consider it's so obvious that it requires no explanation, but such “near misses” inform us about the goodness or badness of a policy. The only verification is of the email address, not of the real name. And the email address is not published. I think that's as it should be, but before anyone is horrified by your story they should realize that anyone could suddenly come out and tell the same tale and who would be able to say “I affirmatively verified otherwise”?

Julie, thanks for visiting and sharing your experiences. It adds to the texture of the discussion.

Vanessa, it's true, for some people trying to build a name, it's hard to be private and still become well known. We saw Saturn Smith confront this quite publicly a while back.
Kent, I wonder if it would be helpful to distinguish between anonymity at the administrative level, and anonymity at the public level.

For example, consider automobile licensing. Let's say that you drive a car with a license plate of LZX 245. Publicly, no one needs to know that LZX245 is your car. But at the admin level (e.g., auto insurance, law enforcement) someone needs to know that LZX245 is Kent Pitman's car. Anonymity at the public level is what protects you from other drivers. Lack of anonymity at the administrative level is what makes you accountable (to the proper authorities).

Thus, anonymity is closely related to need-to-know. There's no reason why anyone on OS needs to know your real name; if you choose to disclose it, that's fine, but that is strictly up to you. But if you, for example, make online death threats against the president, then it seems to me that the authorities have a legitimate need to know that it is you making the threats.

In fact, just last week I saw a post in which someone on OS published an apparent death threat against a police officer who was identified in the post by name and phone number. I actually called the officer and told him about the threat. I don't know if he followed up on it; if he did, I don't know if OS was able to provide any information as to the identity of the source.

So all things being equal, I would argue for anonymity at the public level, but not at the administrative level.
l'Heure, sorry about the thing where someone slipped with your first name. That's why I queried greenheron above about that kind of thing. Some people can tolerate that and others not, and yes, it's easy for a well-meaning soul to do the wrong thing. I usually urge heavy conservatism on such matters, but then people think of me as horribly unfun sometimes.

The Way to Black—that's a very interesting perspective. I don't quite know what to say, but I appreciate your sharing. I do think each identity is an investment and it's worth protecting even anonymous identities if they are recurrent. And I do think encouraging self-respect is a good thing.

Joisey, yes, that's certainly an interesting cross-reference. I agree that's a thing that could not happen without anonymity. There are topics (not these, but still ones of controversy) I cannot post as me.

Stellaa, I'm sure you're right that there's a continuum from just annoying into the illegal. Oddly, in the modern world the line between just caring and actively stalking is sometimes uncomfortably thin. See, for example, the movie You've Got Mail which many liked and I found creepy.

Conrad, thanks. I'm glad you found it worth your time to visit. Come again.

Coyote, I agree about the encyclopedia. What matters is that someone has a way of addressing problems, not that everyone knows how to do it on a personal whim. As for the other part, anyone who has never seen the movie Misery and can tolerate a strong content Stephen King movie. It certainly makes an accidental point about the usefulness of anonymity.

Nana, I agree with your comment about who is making the remark. Nothing I said here is about the idea that there should be no recourse. The only question is whether we want a libertarian every-man-for-himself kind of approach to recourse. I'm fine with forums having policies that allow genuinely slanderous information to be removed, although sometimes finding out if things are really slanderous is hard.

LC, thanks for focusing back in on the need to change how we approach interpreting info. Also, I misread what you wrote originally and thought you were also getting at the fact that one person might want to have two “brands” with different personas. That isn't possible as easily in the real world (Mrs. Doubtfire aside). I guess that wasn't your point, but it was nice of you to make me think of it even by accident.
Stella, some nice quotable observations there. I liked “the idea that serious writing, spam and bathroom wall graffiti all share the same medium is hard for people to understand.” Your points are well-made. And pithy.

Bonnie, I agree that care in managing one's life so that if they are later exposed is, well, good hygiene.

Gorlockness, I'm going to hope that's just alien humor. :) If you're planning colonization, can I opt out on the monitoring device thing? Seriously, the people who think there should be authorities forcing a single unitary point of view might want to think twice about what would happen if we get a good controlling mechanism in place and then find our national security compromised by forces who can turn such controls from mere controls on speech to controls on politics.

ONL, indeed, if you're well-connected it does create extra burdens of care for yourself and others.

Paul, let's hope no such exposé But even if one came about, I think most of what I have said would stand on its own merit. On the general topic, exposés are useful sometimes, but the concept is easily abused and sorting it out is quite hard. Case law on these things takes a long time to sort out, and we live in much shorter timespans with a lot of inconsistency.

Ah, Bernadine, so you're one of those people with multiple “brands” like I was mentioning above with LC. :) Thanks for sharing.

o'steph, I'm hardly surprised. It's sad that you have to, but I totally understand.
Mishima, thanks for visiting. I think the thing you're calling public anonymity I'd call accountability, if I didn't confuse your terms. But even there, as noted in Egypt, some things can't happen if there is full accountability. So we have to make choices even then about the relative benefits of this or that approach. There's not one that is uniformly better than the other.
interesting discussion, interesting comments. I've blogged under my real name and my nom de plume. After a while, I decided that 'twas better to take my lumps under my real name, even if it did lead to the occasional "I'm coming to your hometown" sort of threat.
So, my blog clearly identifies my real name.
I've grown tired of incivility; it's one of the reasons I blog less and less. Doesn't stop me from writing--it just means I have found other forums in which to publish.
The problem with using your real name, is to do with the search engines we all use. You can go onto a forum and get caught up in beliefs, politics, and views, and I don't know about you, but my views change every day, as I grow and learn more.
So, in a couple of years time, your views have changed, but someone you have just met, who means a lot to you, googles your name . After reading this - do it, (google your own name).

Everything that you have posted, from windows to eternity ( I don't thing cobol can pick up this stuff - but watch out!) will appear. Page after page of anything showing your views which maybe you do not want your ( Boss, Wife, Kids, Customers) to see because they would not understand - or that your views have since changed.
Then theres the post man, the messenger in us, the person who scribes on behalf of life and love of others, the protector, the one who wants to help (Me!) If you read my blog page, you might think that I am crazy. If you are crazy, you might think I am a threat.
I do not want to be a threat to anyone, but I do not want to be crucified like Jullian Assange, or shot like John Lennon either (LOL)
FLW, I think incivility is a property of how well policed a forum is and how good the tools are for self-policing. Open Salon appears to want to leave it to blog owners to police their own space but has offered a pretty minimal set of tools.

Spirit-Tu-All, yes, the ability to grow is critical and not adequately discussed. Thanks for that perspective.
I think the issue is more complicated when living in a world of search engines. I've had people post anonymous posts about me on public bulletin boards. Had I know who the posters were, I could have attempted to sue for libel or slander (they were making claims that were verifiably false). Anyone Googling my name could potentially be directed to these posts. Since they were anonymous, my only real recourse was to go after the bulletin board owner and try to apply indirect pressure. Though your notion that such an administrator might be accountable and reasonable, I saw some of this admin's interactions on the board and if anything, he was more irrational than the person who had done the posting.

I don't know what the solution is. There may even be different solutions for different forums (e.g. our standards for political forums may be different from our standards for product evaluations, which may be different from general conversation, etc.)
I guess everyone thing has already been said. I agree most with greenheron.
Best Wishes,
BTW -- If you believe that a cat can type, then I am for real. I am smiling as I write this.
Stever, I agree the matter is complicated by search engines. It's interesting because it leads me to remember a concern that people had early in the web that it might be a copyright violation to point into a site rather than to its cover. I don't know how that played out in the courts, but the theory was that if the site had a particular manner of monetizing through ads and you bypassed the ads, then you were effectively stealing the content. This isn't that problem but is a related problem. If the site presents, for example, a discussion in which you have an opportunity to respond but the search engine indexes the page according to an alternate index that doesn't show prominently the response that would have occurred in the natural course of the discussion, then perhaps the search engine shares substantial fault.

Perhaps in the not terribly distant future, given its technology, courts will see fit to think Google well capable of noticing that the search result creates an accusation that at least might require defense and capable of searching for the defense. Perhaps someone will sue them for not using their considerable resources to repatriate the accusation with the defense. :) But beyond that, I think it has to be about the issue of who enabled the bad remark and who had the opportunity to make repair, which means we have to lean harder on forums that permit anonymous posting to provide mechanisms to have content redacted or, at minimum, responded to.

Blittie, thanks for visiting. Don't worry, on the internet no one knows if you're a cat either.
Thanks for posting this. Being new to this, I chose anonymity out of caution. I figure, I can always unveil at a later date. But you can't anonymize something once its out there with your name on it.

I have no intention of being rude or abusive but, if the last decade has taught us anything, it must certainly be that you can't rely on the rationality of strangers.

I found the post and comments very enlightening. If I could just figure out how to make the ratings work (it ignores me when I click but I'm trying not to take personally), I would happily have rated it.
Argh... I DON'T h ave time to read all of this, and I'd very much like to.

This is a topic that I have pondered for decades, stemming from the same roots as yourself, and with many similar experience, including outright online anonymous battles spilling over into real-world vandalism, with me trying to put a damper on things before someone got seriously hurt.

There's a lot I could and would like to say, as well as read what others have written and exchange thoughts on their points.

But for now, let me just say -- there is only one context I have EVER interacted anonymously online, and that's an explicitly role-playing environment, with a strong continuing identity, where reputation does matter (within that environment) -- though people often act as if it did not.

If you look at the comments on ZDNet articles, I think you can plainly see the harm that anonymity does in the hands of the immature. But I also observe that there's a large population out there perfectly willing to screw over their own non-anonymous reputations online without a moment's hesitation.

This is especially true amongst teenagers, sadly, who can't conceive that someday their granddaughter might ask their grandma about that picture of her they found when she was young and stupid.

I think we don't have identity, we have identities. Even someone such as myself who, to all and intents and purposes, assumes a single identity. I post in different communities, with low probabilities of overlap, and my reputation in one seldom carries over to another of these. (There are large overlapping communities in which it DOES, however, and there's always google and a little thought and detective work that can link up my fractured identities).

Anonymous and psuedonyms are rather different. Anonymous has very weak identity -- perhaps the person who wrote this one post, or perhaps a few posts in a conversation, and whatever info the writer put in.

Pseudonyms, however, have an ongoing identity, and thus have reputation, which is something a writer CAN care about, and a reader CAN evaluate and use to judge the writing.

The problem is, pseudonyms currently have limited scope. In my ideal world, you would be able to have as many identities as you wished. They would all be secure from impersonation. They would all be subject to reputation search. And SOME of them would be verifiable in ways that could establish that you stand behind that identity in full good faith -- thus enabling things like contracts.

So you could, in theory, have a Good Guy and a Bad Boy identity, taking opposite positions, keep your stories straight, have knock-down online arguments and fights with each other, each establishing their own specific reputation in the process.

But that's not why to do it. The reason to do it is to strike a balance, between anonymous, and reputation.

So if I were in a repressive regime, I'd obtain an identity that would NOT be tied to me, but which I would control, and my actions would constitute the basis of my new reputation.

If, say, I were a closeted gay, but felt I had to present myself in my public persona as a rabid homophobe, but was lonely and wanted to connect with others without, say, blowing my political campaign out of the water, then I'd have options for doing so.

I'm not arguing that's a good thing. Privacy inherently enables you to do bad things -- and misleading those you are romantically involved with as to your character is a bad thing. Being able to be a total political hypocrite about homosexuality is a bad thing.

And that's why I don't fragment my identity that way. There's a nice word for this that fits in several ways -- integrity. Even my role-playing character shares my values and outlook, and even gender. (Though crossing gender lines by heterosexual males is surprisingly common there, I would find it rather stressful to attempt a different gender -- I just don't know how to do it).

But consider a world like that, where you can establish multiple identities, you can make some of them legally binding and traceable to you personally.

I argue this is a step toward a STRONGER sense of identity, with greater integrity, than one based on anonymity.

There are other, more subtle aspects to this I won't try to cover -- non-repudiation, links to category theory, and the like. But I'll call your attention to one application with universal appeal -- you fill in a form, and authorize communications. The recipient of the form sells your email address, and -- spam is born!

But if the identity I supplied were suitably constrained, the spam-list seller would not be able to sell my identity in any useful way -- because the only way to do so would be to compromise his own identity. My "shell" identity would only accept communications from this one relationship.

Some people do this now with single-use email addresses, but those aren't cryptographically keyed to the other's identity, and thus you have to manage them yourself, discarding them when they become contaminated by spam or no longer relevant. Ideally, it's tied not only to the identities of the two parties, but to the specific relationship between them.

Ultimately, as in category theory, it all boils down to relationships, and identity is just an identity relationship. I have transactional relationships with the bank, and account relationships with the bank, and a relationship which extends across a number of accounts and financial tools. I have similar relationships for my mortgage, and these all tie into the reputation called my FICO score. (Disclaimer -- I now work for FICO, that having no bearing I can see on my opinions; I'm not involved in credit scores). But clearly, FICO scores are tied to matters of identity and reputation.

(Note -- I'm not bolstering my argument by invoking category theory and saying "category theory" justifies any of this. I'm just saying there exist simple mappings, and it might be interesting to explore expressing various social activities and graphs in that context. Or not.)

I imagine a world where you MANAGE your identity, based on relationships.

And yet -- and we see this now with various online services -- it would be possible to reserve-engineer your identity, to correlate the various fragments,through clustering techniques and statistics, to take the various public faces you present, and say, "This is your phone number, you live here, you are married to X, you have N children, you post about Segways and Mathematics and Physics and Endocrine and technical risks and Lisp and learning systems and AI and computer graphics and -- well, I just made their job easier, didn't I?

I visited a site earlier this evening, which seemed to know a great deal about my wife, and seemed poised to draw more connections should I pay them money -- just by my asking. That is, who asks about who is part of the fabric by which they draw it all together.

Just getting to the point where they were asking me for money for a premium account, I realized I'd given away a chunk of my identity, and now they wanted me to give away more, and to pay them in the process.

And I was tempted to do it, just to find out what they already know. But I have a pretty good idea, having done similar things by hand in the course of investigating bad online behavior.

Um, I'd better stop there. I'll try to come back later and read more of the commentary; in the meantime, I hope I've managed to add something to it.
By the way -- to manage the flood of tourists, we went and implemented user accounts on ITS.

(Addressing the crowd here -- Kent knows all this!)

I'm the one who did that. And you can ignore absolutely everything that RMS has ever said on that topic, though he's had the grace to not name me by name.

The main thing we were doing by implementing user accounts with passwords, was to strengthen the notion of identity enough to make the situation manageable. Sure, we knew RMS's password was null, and that someone logged into MC as RMS was probably NOT named Richard Stahlman, yet "Some random logged in as RMS" was sufficient identity for us to deal, and they seldom caused trouble logged in under his account. Before, they could log in as one person after another, or make up their own usernames, and it was much harder to track.

If we really had the motivations that RMS attributed to us, and to the "evil administrators", then we'd have done something about RMS's null password (contrary to RMS's claim of "decrypting" the paswwords, the only identifiable passwords in the database were null passwords, so we knew exactly who had null passwords).

Technical note: the passwords weren't encrypted as he claims, they were hashed. He might have searched for passwords that would match the hash, but I'm not aware of him doing that. I AM aware that he hacked things to print user's passwords on the system console when they logged in, which annoyed the bleep out of me on privacy grounds, as people often use private information in their passwords! Getting back at us by invading the privacy of users -- well, my ethics and RMS's ethics are not compatible.

And, of course, if we had the motivations RMS ascribed to us, we wouldn't have donated countless hours helping and advising those same randoms. I even created a software package to teach them Lisp on-line. Kent joined in, created a huge amount of great instructional content, and we both spent countless hours answering questions and explaining.

And that's a part of our online identity that the internet has in part preserved, 35 years later, though it's getting harder to find.

Historical note: I believe this was the world's very first fully online automated teaching environment. Plato was first in some ways, but wasn't internet-based and didn't offer the sort of community-based assistance.

Anyway, returning to the topic: protecting people's privacy is WHY the passwords were hashed, rather than encrypted, or even simpler, stored in plain text, which really, would have about matched the overall level of security.

Which brings me to one more point -- currently, we manage our fragments of online identity with a plethora of usernames, email addresses -- and so many passwords, that we have to maintain large databases of passwords just to function in daily life. To the point where even 10-year-olds have so many passwords they need password databases.

My wife started a newspaper club at our local middle school. I supply the technology and a lot of writing and journalism advice. I set up online services to facilitate the collaboration. But one of the sticky points is -- in doing so, I added one more facet to the kid's online identities. Which brings in differing parental policies regarding email and online security. I tried to mitigate that aspect, but I'm not completely happy with the result -- it does complicate managing the kid's online identities.

This will only get worse.
Truly free speech is for the anonymous, crazy and the dead.
Bib, it's a curious bind to be in, wanting not to put oneself at risk and yet not wanting to be perceived as someone bent on hiding behind a mask. I think you're right, though, that you can always unveil yourself later and it's hard to put the veil back on.
Bob, quite a lot of points made there. I'll respond to just a few.

I had listed both anonymity and pseudonymity with the intent not of talking about transient nature per se, but rather whether there was any kind of continuity of association between the name and and the underlying person (as in Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens). But I guess you're right that if there is no maintained relationship, it probably is shorter use. So I suppose there is that. For example (and, oh, I see you used this very same example later in a slightly different mode—great minds think alike I guess), in the early days of the ITS operating system at MIT, Stallman's password was well-known and anyone could be him. He was sort of an Everyman. That created a long-standing anonymity. But I suppose from the other side, any sense of continuity of talking to him was lost, and in that sense it wasn't really an identity in the sense of continuity. I tend to associate “identity” with “continuity.”

Also, you mention “reputation,” which is certainly a factor. I generalize this in my mind to include “investment.” Reputation is one kind of investment. But ownership is another. If I allow you to own an object in a virtual world and to manipulate and refine it for your own intrinsic needs under a persona, whether or not there is any reputation to that object, your identity becomes significant and in fact you might feel bad about losing your identity whether or not you had any reputation. Ownership and reputation add stability to a community other words because they mean you are investing in the community.

In the early days of the web, a friend asked what she could trust. I had a hard time explaining what one would do to tell good guys from bad ones. At some point I said to her “Just trust people who have a reputation.” because I realized that she just wasn't rich enough for Microsoft or Sam's Club or even some big bad-guy organization to try to defraud her. The risk isn't worth the reward. Small-time operators with limited investment in their persona might not have invested enough in their identity that the same would be true, so you had to be less trusting.

In concrete terms, just to make that clear, if they realized they could make $1000 by throwing away a character that they had only invested $100 in creating, especially if the risk of being caught wasn't terribly high, it might be worth their while if they were gamblers to just grab the dough and then go about starting over again from scratch with a new identity. Then again, as illustrated with the unabomber, it's often hard to really disguise yourself even under a new avatar if people have extensive experience with your old behaviors. Behavioral recognition has become an important part of crime tracking, or so I have heard.

Oh, and don't get me started on FICO scores. A whole other kettle of fish. I'll just say I'm told there are hundreds of scoring systems and no one agrees on them. This creates much flexibility for banking with utter disclaimability and no real traction for people at home. Remind me some day to write more on this. Bleah. Bad taste in mouth.

This response box is small and fragile so I'll stop here and return with more responses to your other comment later.
Bob, regarding the history of security and passwords at ITS, we should probably write down the history as we recall it from that time in a more coherent and enduring way sometime than in the comments here, but I appreciate your sharing your thoughts here just to get them onto the record and into search engines, on their gradual march toward :)
Jonathan, that's an amusing set of people but it's a good point. Anonymity frees one to speak the truth in the way being crazy or about to die does as well. You could also look to the law on the hearsay exceptions, which include “excited utterances” and “statements against interest” although I guess those are less licenses to speak honestly and more just after-the-fact ways of detecting that perhaps someone did, in fact, speak the truth. Anyway, thanks for the thoughts!
The "cyberbullying" issue is very, very serious. The New York Times had a great article about it some time back.

Anonymity must be possible, especially for dissidents. And I do not expect, or even advise, other people to do what I do.

As for me, I always post whatever I post under my real name. I don't say anything unless I am comfortable with anybody seeing it. So I try very hard to avoid saying anything bad about anyone. I realize that I might make a mistake, or some person might hassle me for reasons I cannot fathom. But I'm wiling to take that risk, and I hope that my decision is sufficiently wise. If someone submits a truly offensive comment on my blog, I don't accept it. But that has happened only one or two times. (Not too many people react with vitriol when I explain about the relational database model, and also bend over backward to praise its virtues even though I'm not exactly "in that camp".

-- Dan Weinreb
Dan, you, Kent and I have been wise enough to live our long online lives in a way that we can stand by what we've written decades later. I recommend that standard of behavior to everyone -- and I think we are all harmed when anonymity undermines that and bad behavior results.

And I think the results demonstrate the general wisdom of that course.

But we have also been fortunate enough to not have suffered from the actions of others in a way that would make that unwise in some way -- abuse, repression, etc. Being able to communicate under a pseudonym is essential in these cases -- but full anonymity is a poor substitute from a communications standpoint. Still, in extreme cases, full anonymity might be necessary because of concern that a reused, persistent pseudonym identity might be discovered by an organization with massive resources.

Still, it's not how you spell your name that counts -- it's that you back that spelling with your full personal integrity. You've always done that; it's hard to imagine anyone giving you a serious hard time because of anything you've written.

Although I know I have gotten myself some rather hostile responses at times when I've attempted to resolve various seriously intense online battles. When you deal with enough people online, you will certainly find some who are psychotic.

That's why I don't post my physical location. It's not a secret, but it's not something some crazy with an imagined grudge will casually find, either.

Of course, I extend that to other's physical locations, as well. And I often do discover people's physical locations when looking for more information on them. It is pretty much impossible to prevent that if you use your real name.

I find myself in the position of advising middle school kids on internet safety. It's rather a rather sobering responsibility...
I should clarify that last remark. It's not that I think the risk to the kids is so extraordinarily high. Rather, some of these kids have had no real internet experience, but their parents have trusted me enough to allow them to get email to enable them to participate.

So I see responsibilities to go with that -- and in some cases, the parents may be so protective because they themselves don't know how to advise the kids.
Dan, people may not find the discussion of relational databases to be something that throws them into a frenzied rage, but you forgot to close a parenthesis in your comment. Be careful—that can really drive some Lisp programmers crazy. (See my obituary for Joseph Weizenbaum, for more discussion on hanging parens.)

Bob, you and Dan and I grew up on the net (and later the web) and watched it go from small to large. We had the unique opportunity not to be born into a gigantic web, but rather to be nurtured by a community that, while growing fast, was still sort of proportional in size to our experience. We got to make mistakes and hone our own personal styles back when there was still some hope of erasure. I think two things are missing now—that sense of hierarchy (everyone wants to be on the whole world web [yeah, I know that's not the acronym's expansion, but I wanted to emphasize its actual meaning is the problem] all at once), and there are not really training grounds of communities teaching you at every step. Bob, you used to hang over my shoulder when I first got the office next to yours at MIT and you'd give me advice about what to do and what not to. Lots of people would, since it was a very social network there—very forward-looking in many ways. People think social media was discovered recently, but it wasn't. The media we had back then was way more social than what you get now. Perhaps almost too social in its lack of privacy. But it fostered a certain caring about one another. In fact, the place where it all went weird was when the community got so big people could no longer afford to watch over and care for one another. Once people didn't know each others' names. But that's different than anonymity. We had real untracked anonymity in those days. We just often knew, not always, but mostly, that someone anonymous was still someone we knew, we just didn't know which person. Now an anonymous person is probably someone we don't know. That makes it different. I'll have to think more on this issue and perhaps write another post on it sometime.
Kent, re hanging parens, note the xkcd from a week ago:

Regarding training wheels for the Internet (to recast the metaphor), thanks for zeroing in and isolating the point I was dancing around.

Indeed, much of what is wrong with the internet, has been wrong with the internet since AOL opened it up to the masses. Initially, the problem was that all these new people didn't know what they were doing technically. They came in such numbers, that they greatly outnumbered the people from whom they might have learned. But even more, they lacked any social connection with us.

So, of course, they learned from each other more than from us, new conventions, new bits of language, and new standards of behavior evolved. Some for the better, some for the worse.

But the situation evolved further, with new floods. I'm not sure what made the later wave different. Maybe it was that THEIR role models were the AOL generation, and we had more of an influence on the AOL generation than we think. Maybe it lies in the culture at large, or the age distribution.

But if you take a look at almost any unmoderated forum with a broad audience -- say, a lot of local newspapers, or anything on zdnet -- well, you get a phenomenon whose closest parallel might be the crude drawings and wit you'd find on the bathroom walls in a truck stop.

I don't mean the choice of language or the sexual content (though there are those who'd inject those as well) but rather, the deliberate offensiveness -- a type of anonymous bullying, really.

We had people like that back then, of course. It's not like the distribution of human natures has changed all that much. It's that it appears to go unopposed.

Of course, MIT was home to a sort of more intellectual bullying. I seem to recall having I'd beaten on you on some topic or other, and you called me on it, and I learned from it; I don't recall the details -- but if I didn't offer you an apology then (I think I did), I offer it now!

My point isn't that we were or are better than the newcomers.

My point is that todays' kids have to learn in front of a much larger audience, and generally at a younger age. I think they need some anonymity for their own protection -- physical and online -- and yet they need the lessons learned by taking responsibility for what they say. I hope we evolve a good way to do that.

And relating to that -- we have the case of Natalie Munroe, the teacher who got in trouble for blogging (seemingly largely because she included that old list of alternative teacher comments, like "she's not as smart as she seems" -- I think this is among other things a big press FAIL).

I've blogged on that (and referencing this conversation as a tie-in) on my blog at

My bottom line is -- if we don't even let TEACHERS learn the ropes, what hope do the students have?
Thoughtful essay, Kent, and thoughtful way to handle extraneous comments as well. I would say you avoided a hijacking.
Bob, I wonder if the hanging paren comment came from Wiezenbaum, since that's pretty much the essence of the story he used to tell in 6.030 at MIT (that's Intro to Computer Programming, for those of you who prefer names—MIT students just refer to classes by their numbers).

Also, yes, it's true, the net you and I grew up on wasn't thoroughly archived and so in many ways supported personal revision and evolution and redemption in ways that the modern net does not.

Steve, thanks for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed the read.
Rw, thanks for re-visiting. I'm glad it survived a second read. :)

And it's a good chance for me to cross-reference your post July 4th and Internet Anonymity, which offers some excellent history and analysis on this issue as well. Thanks!