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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Anonymity and the Internet as Real Life, Not Second Life

My poll on anonymity for commenters drew 163 responses, a pretty high response rate for Madville Times polls. In connection with my new practice of deleting all anonymous and pseudonymous comments, I asked you if blog commenters should be required* to include their full name. 104 said No, 59 said Yes. 64% to 36% against. Still better than President Bush's closing approval rating.

So how's that new and wildly unpopular policy working out? Read through the comments from the last few days, and you'll see exactly what I expected: a mostly civil exchange among Stan, John, Rod, Curtis, Tony, Kelly, Don, Tim, Kelsey... (dang... pretty guy heavy!). We talk, share ideas, point out pros and cons in each other's ideas. Posts (e.g., here, here, and here) that a couple weeks ago probably would have drawn vituperative outrage and ad hominem attacks have seen nothing of the sort. The daily anti-O comments have disappeared (please don't tell me the commenters are too scared of fascist retribution to put their names to sincere criticism of the President).

Not that my goal is to stifle dissent; far from it, I still welcome vigorous disagreement, and I still get some. But with anonymity gone, I just don't get the screaming, "Cory, you're an evil bastard going to hell!" type of disagreement. Funny—if I really am an evil bastard, why would anyone be afraid to say so? Folks talk about the need for anonymity to avoid retribution, but it's not like I have the money or power to make my critics lose their jobs or catch swine flu.

I continue to think a lot about anonymity and pseudonymity and the nature of online discourse. Part of the problem with using no names or false names seems to lie in enabling people to act without integrity.

Think about how easy it is online to act in ways that are uncharacteristic. We are disembodied on the Internet. We are separated from almost all of the normal social cues of a conversation: facial expression, tone of voice, body language. Despite multimedia capabilities, we still make our presence known and know the presence of others almost solely by words transmitted via keystrokes and uniform fonts. Online, it is hard to feel like ourselves, because we can transmit so little of what we usually think of as ourselves through this medium. When we are so separated from ourselves, it becomes easier to act like someone else.

For many users, the Internet is still a not-quite-real realm. Perhaps some view the Internet less as real interaction and more as a video game. We have an urge, it seems, to put on masks and imagine ourselves to be superheroes crusading against the profound evil perpetrated by Dick Cheney or the unholy Obama-Reid-Pelosi Triumvirate, the Tea Partiers or the New World Order, the theocrats or the RINOs or the LibDonks. We fire our rhetorical lasers at each other with all the sympathy reserved for the little blinky dudes in Space Invaders or the hulking sword-wielding Grendels of World of Warcraft.

This video-game perspective changes when you use your real name online. Your name is the most compact bit of personal context you can transmit online. When you attach your name to your words online, they remain a part of who you are. You keep accountability for them. You accept the possibility that someone will look you—not your online persona or avatar—in the eye and say you were wrong or rude or over the line.

And to protect your good name, you will inevitably take a little more care to avoid being wrong or rude or over the line.

The Internet is not just Second Life. It is real life. It is new and strange (not even 20 years of widespread public use), so it is understandable that we would still view it as somehow separate from who we really are. But as I have interacted with it and through it over the last thirteen years, as I have put my name to e-mails, teacher websites, blogs, and scholarly publications, the Internet has become an integral part of my life. The Internet is not an escape, a place I go to do things I wouldn't do in public. The Internet is a tool that makes it possible to do more in public—in my case, to express and solicit opinions and ideas in ways that would be prohibitively expensive for me by older means of publication.

I like speaking publicly. So do some of my readers. If you don't, that's fine. The Internet gives you plenty of opportunity to send messages and play games without anyone knowing it's you. But understand that this corner of the Internet is a space for neighborly conversation. And neighbors know each other. Neighbors have names.

*Amazingly, after two weeks, no one called me on the typo: "requireed". Maybe outrage at such an error skewed the negative vote?


  1. "And to protect your good name, you will inevitably take a little more care to avoid being wrong or rude or over the line."

    Cory, I'm perfectly willing to risk being wrong. In fact, I will occasionally plead with other posters to prove me wrong when I post a hypothesis or belief that I honestly don't like -- for example, that the Democratic Congress is deliberately navigating this nation toward fiscal Armageddon in order to ram Socialism down the throats of a population that would never choose Socialism in a free election.

    Oh God(dess), say it ain't so.

    I'm willing to risk being "over the line" of logic or truth now and then, though I do not wish to cross into indecency. I hope never to be truly rude. I've been taken aback in recent years by the free flow of virtual venom and gratuitous garbage on the Internet. Does the Net make people more willing to spew poison, or do people these days simply have more poison to spew than they did in the good old days of printed letters to the editor? I suspect both, but in my opinion, the abundant ejaculation of such toxic discourse serves no useful purpose. It seems akin to spitting into the wind. The product makes its originator look like an idiot.

    I'll continue to attach my name to all postings I make on the Internet, here or elsewhere. I want people to know who I am.

    As for the typo, "requireed," I probably noticed but let it go, knowing how keyboards can defy their operators, and also knowing how, despite all my efforts and multiple proofreadings (not to mention the efforts of the editors, technical reviewers, and compositors), errors end up in my own printed works.

    But I do wonder: Might such errors give rise to new words, such as "requiree" (those of us who must adhere to your rules to post here) and "requirer" (that is, you)?

    In any event, I marvel at your ongoing prolificity and profundity. Evil genius, maybe?

  2. Stan, your willingness to be wrong still comes with thoughtfulness and a willingness to be held accountable. Plus, you're not using ideas you find distasteful to wallop anyone; you're just testing ideas and seeing input.

    On Dems engineering fiscal Armageddon for revolutionary purposes: it would seem much more plausible that Bush-Cheney were deliberately navigating the country toward fiscal Armageddon to cause the federal government to collapse, kill off all social programs, and create a Grover-Norquist-style anarcho-capitalist fantasy land.

    "Evil genius"? I keep striking the flints, hoping for at least sparks of the latter. :-D

  3. "... it would seem much more plausible that Bush-Cheney were deliberately navigating the country toward fiscal Armageddon to cause the federal government to collapse, kill off all social programs, and create a Grover-Norquist-style anarcho-capitalist fantasy land."

    That too!


  4. I might suggest posting your comment policy next to the comment section (if this is permanent). Perhaps with a prompt on how to set up the google account and let people know they can select anonymous and include their name. It may encourage additional voices.


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