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In praise of anonymity

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What do the following people have in common?

  • Andre Norton
  • Cher
  • Currer Bell
  • Deep Throat
  • Divine
  • Ellery Queen
  • George Sand
  • James Tiptree, Jr.
  • Judy Garland
  • Kate Elliott
  • Lao Tsu
  • Lenin
  • Lester del Rey
  • Lewis Carroll
  • Malcolm X
  • Marilyn Manson
  • Marilyn Monroe
  • Nora Roberts
  • Plato
  • Sting
  • Superman
  • Susan Sarandon

Answer: They're among the thousands (or more) of people throughout history who are (added later: or were at one time) best known by a name, handle, nickname, or pseudonym that's different from the name they were given at birth.

Introduction/Overview

At various times, in various online contexts, I've said or implied that anonymous comments (in forums and blogs and such) are less valuable than comments with names attached.

But I tried to stop doing that a couple years back, when I noticed I was doing it, because I don't actually believe that there's anything wrong with anonymity or pseudonymity. (Most of the time when I made negative remarks about anonymity, what was really going on was that I was being defensive.)

In fact, I actively support anonymity and pseudonymity; I think they are forces for social good in a variety of ways, and there's a very long and proud tradition of their use.

However, I think it's important for people writing and speaking anonymously or pseudonymously these days to be aware that in the modern era, it's even harder to keep the general public from learning your name than it's traditionally been.

(Terminology note: Most of what I'm saying applies to both pseudonymity and anonymity, and so in various places in this entry I use one or the other term to apply to both. But I'm mostly trying to use both terms in each instance, to remind myself that there are differences and that I need to think about whether a given point applies to both or not.)

Pros and cons of anonymity

People have a wide variety of excellent reasons for using pseudonyms or remaining anonymous. A few weeks back, Mely provided a partial list of "reasons people may prefer pseudonyms or limited personal disclosure on the Internet." Here's the list:

  • Because it is a standard identity- and privacy-protection precaution
  • Because they have experienced online or offline stalking, harassment, or political or domestic violence
  • Because they wish to discuss sexual abuse, sexuality, domestic abuse, assault, politics, health, or mental illness, and do not wish some subset of family, friends, strangers, aquaintances, employers, or potential employers to know about it
  • Because they wish to keep their private lives, activities, and tastes separate from their professional lives, employers, or potential employers
  • Because they fear threats to their employment or the custody of their children
  • Because it's the custom among their Internet cohort [to which I would add: "and/or segment of Fandom" --jed]
  • Because it's no one else's business

But there are also lots and lots of other reasons for using pseudonyms, in all sorts of contexts. See the list at the beginning of this entry for examples of some other reasons.

And the same is true of anonymity. I believe that anonymity can provide a useful, even necessary, venue for important criticism that the speaker might not be willing to say if they had to attach their name.

I consider anonymity and pseudonymity particularly valuable in political contexts, specifically in contexts where speech that comes with names attached may subject the speaker to harsh punishment from those in authority, whether governments or managers. But the same idea applies in contexts where, for example, a writer feels that they can't sign their name to a comment that's critical of something an editor has done; there's a power imbalance there, too. [Note: I wrote this paragraph in 2006. See below for details.]

[Added later: another important context in which Western society considers anonymity important is voting.]

The difficult part is that anonymity also allows a lot of other, less desirable to me, things. Anonymous speakers can say false things without fear of retribution as well as true ones. Anonymous speakers may be emboldened to speak truth to power, but they may also be emboldened to speak insults to everyone.

But I feel that the downside is worth it. The problem, to my mind, with people posting anonymous lies and insults is not that they're anonymous; it's that they're lying and being insulting. It's true that people appear to be more willing to be nasty to other people online if they don't have to sign their names, but anonymity is nonetheless a valuable tool; it's the misuse of that tool that's the problem.

I don't mean to suggest that the issue of anonymity is a simple or easy one. There are all sorts of complex ethical and societal issues to be dealt with. For example, there are journalistic-ethics issues around anonymous sources.

Nonetheless, I personally am strongly in favor of people being able to be anonymous or pseudonymous in almost all contexts.

Of course, it's easier for me to say that than it would be for some other people. I've never been attacked by a coordinated group of sock puppets (see below). I've never had to moderate a high-traffic Internet forum. I'm very conflict-averse, and tend to steer clear of most controversial topics online. So it's quite possible that I would feel less positively toward anonymity and pseudonymity if other people's misuse of those tools were making my life miserable. But I like to think that I would continue to maintain my support for the general idea, and for the huge number of people who use these tools responsibly and/or for the greater good, even as I condemned the people who were attacking me. (But please don't take this as an invitation to test me.)

How do you know whether it's a pseudonym, anyway?

It's also worth noting that on much of the Internet (including most email systems), there aren't good authentication systems in place, so anyone can sign any name they want, including made-up ones. If someone using the name John Smith posts a comment in a forum or on a blog, it can be extremely difficult to tell whether that's their real name or not. Some Internet handles are more obviously not birth names than other handles, but the less obvious ones are just as much pseudonyms as the obvious ones.

And the question of what counts as a "real name" is a complicated one, especially since there are plenty of legal and/or birth names that sound to me like pseudonyms. What if someone changes their legal name to something that doesn't sound very namelike? What if someone gives a legal name to their baby that sounds silly to me? What if a name that sounds un-namelike to me turns out to be the actual birth name of someone from another culture? (Note, for example, that some South Asian people go by a single name; that doesn't match Western expectations about given names and surnames.) What about people who choose to use a middle or last name instead of their first name? What about people who've been given a nickname early on (sometimes even before birth) and it's stuck? What about people who use initials? What about people who choose to change their name (whether legally or not) to a name that sounds more normal in a particular cultural context? (For example, think Ellis Island, or kids of hippies deciding to rename themselves, or South Asians who were born with a single name but go by two names in the US because that's what we expect.) What about people who, when they get married, invent a new surname and legally change their names to use the new one?

(Added a few minutes after posting this entry: I'd kinda like to say something here about identity being malleable and varying over time, and about people sometimes choosing names--sometimes temporary or part-time ones--that reflect different personas and contexts. (In many many contexts of different sorts. Think drag queens. Think roleplaying games. Think Fannish names. Think nicknames. Think professional titles. Think "But my friends call me Bob." Etc.) But I think that's a whole big topic of its own, and this entry is already overlong.)

As the list at the beginning of this entry shows, people using names other than their birth names in a variety of contexts have not only been accepted but celebrated throughout much of human history. In some of those cases, the public didn't know that the name wasn't real for a long time. Does it lessen the value of a person's contributions if you discover that the name they've been using isn't the one they were born with? (That's not an entirely rhetorical question; there was significant debate around that question in the case of Tiptree, for example.)

(In such contexts, I do sometimes feel as if the person has been lying to me, which can be upsetting. But I try not to let it bother me too much. Why should I care whether someone I don't know prefers to go by a name other than the one they were born with? I'm reminded of a joke my father used to tell: "They just discovered that Shakespeare's work wasn't written by William Shakespeare, but rather by another Englishman of the same name!")

Using real names

I should note that I do, as a matter of personal preference, like to see people using their "real" name whenever that's feasible. For example, I often find LJ handles hard to remember--I have a (non-public) table listing my friends' LJ handles and their names, for my own ease of reference. And in general, I would rather know who's saying something than read anonymous comments.

And me, I use my real name online because I'm lazy. (Well, okay, "Jed" is not my birth name; it's a nickname for "Jedediah." But that's pretty close.) Maintaining anonymity is hard work (see below). And I don't want to risk the loss of anonymity, so I generally don't say things online that I wouldn't want people to know I had said.

Some places where I've stretched that boundary: I've written erotica under a variation on my real name, but I never really expected that to be a total secret; I just didn't want to make it easy for people I knew in professional contexts to run across my erotica. I subsequently decided it was okay, though. I also wrote an anonymous guest-blogging-like piece some years back, on a particularly controversial topic (I believe that piece is no longer available online); I would be uncomfortable and unhappy if my name were associated with that, but it wouldn't be the end of the world. Oh, and I've occasionally used joke names for a mini-persona or two. And I use the username "elysdir" (my middle name) in a fair number of online forums, for uniqueness, but I don't think I've ever tried to hide the fact that that's me.

At any rate, from my point of view, all of the stuff in this section is just my own personal preference; it doesn't override any of the compelling reasons that people post anonymously or pseudonymously, including the perfectly good reason "because I feel like it."

Maintaining a secret identity online

Despite all of the above, I feel obliged to mention something that I think most people know but that a lot of people try not to think about:

If you post pseudonymously or anonymously online, chances are pretty good that if someone is determined enough, they can find out your "real" name (for whatever value of "real"). There are an awful lot of tools available for such things in the modern world. (And someone who's really determined might even go hire a private investigator.) And because of search engines, if only one person posts your real name online (in connection with your pseudonym or with something you've written anonymously), chances are good that anyone who subsequently wants to know will be able to find out that information.

And it doesn't even have to be a determined attacker; this can easily happen accidentally. You might slip up and post from the wrong account. A friend of yours might accidentally mention your real name when they link to your LJ. You might have mentioned enough about your real life that a news article has the accidental side effect of outing you. (That's what happened to Tiptree, when her mother died.) A search engine might conceivably notice that your real name appears in a lot of the same places that your pseudonym appears, and make a correlation between the two.

It's sometimes possible to recover anonymity/pseudonymity after a breach or outing, especially if the people who outed you excise your real name from their postings. But information is hard to expunge once it appears online. Even after deletion, it often lives on in search engine caches, in the Internet Archive, in automated feeds and reposts of various kinds, in places where other people quoted it. You can attempt to disguise the information, or obscure it behind a smokescreen of false information, or various other tactics, but there's no guarantee that you'll be successful.

I definitely don't mean to blame the victim here. Intentional outing sucks. I don't condone it, and if it happens to you, it's not your fault.

But I am saying: if keeping your real name secret is important to you, be careful out there. All it takes is one disgruntled friend or determined antagonist, and your secret may be permanently lost.

We all take risks, and balance them against rewards. There is value in anonymity and pseudonymity. I don't want to shut anyone up by making them scared of being outed; plenty of people have spent plenty of years using pseudonyms without a problem. But do be aware that, on occasion, outing can and does happen, both accidentally and intentionally.

Outing sock puppets

On a side note, there is one context in which outing people's pseudonyms online is widely considered right and proper: when the person is, or appears to be, a sock puppet or a troll. Ben R has an excellent discussion of this issue wrt RaceFail '09 (scroll down a bit to his item #2); as he points out, serious problems can result from a misdiagnosis of trolling. I would add that people who have to deal with a lot of trolls and sock puppets may be more likely to make such a misdiagnosis.

Background for this entry

Way back in June of 2006, I wrote most of an entry in praise of anonymity and pseudonymity. As often happens when I try to address contentious topics, I got tangled up in disclaimers and roundaboutness and trying not to touch off arguments with friends who disagree with me, so I set it aside to finish another time.

A while later, I realized that the main thing I really wanted to say in that entry was about defensiveness--the way that a lot of people online (including me) tend to use various arguments (like "anonymous statements are cowardly"), often contradictory arguments at different times, to sound reasonable in response to an insult or attack, when what we really mean is "you said something that upset me."

So I wrote and posted that defensiveness entry, and never got around to finishing the anonymity one. I have explicitly stated my support for anonymity in a couple of entries over the years, but usually only briefly in passing.

In the wake of various events in RaceFail '09, I started to put together a new entry in praise of anonymity, and rediscovered the old one, and expanded it into further discussion. (Only a few paragraphs of the above were in the original.) It took me a long time, to the point that it's long past being a useful part of the RaceFail discussion; but here it finally is. Given that anonymity and privacy have been contentious topics for a very long time, I figure these topics are likely to come up again, so I figured I might as well post this for future reference.

2 Comments

Well put!

There's also an excellent screed on the matter by "azurelunatic" on LJ. Lighter on the theoretical underpinnings, but viscerally satisfying. :-)


Wow--that's a great entry, Shmuel; thanks for the link. I don't agree with all of it, at least not on first read, but I agree with most of it, and it's really thought-provoking.

I think its implications are philosophically fascinating. It's providing me with a new paradigm for thinking about this stuff; I don't think I've seen much discussion framed in terms of what people are "entitled" to know about each other.

I find myself wanting to argue with some aspects of it in terms of a kind of generalized version of Grice's conversational maxims--the assumptions that we tend to make about things we hear people say. But then I point out to myself that (as azurelunatic notes) wanting to know something and being entitled to know it are very different things.

Anyway. Good stuff; thanks again.


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