Throughout history, there have been a number of reasons why individuals have taken to writing or producing art under a pseudonym. In the 18th century, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay took on the pseudonym Publius to publish The Federalist Papers. In 19th century England, pseudonyms allowed women—like the Brontë sisters, who initially published under Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell—to be taken seriously as writers.
Today, pseudonyms continue to serve a range of individuals, and for a variety of reasons. At EFF, we view anonymity as both a matter of free speech and privacy, but in light of International Privacy Day, January 28, this piece will focus mainly on the latter, looking at the ways in which the right to anonymity—or pseudonymity—is truly a matter of privacy.
Nearly four months after first announcing it would support pseudonyms, Google rolled out changes to the account creation process for Google+ yesterday. The changes will allow users the option of choosing a nickname/alternate name to display in his or her Google+ profile, or choosing a pseudonym which is not linked a real name.
For users who want to use a real pseudonym—a name that is in no way associated with one’s commonly used name—there is an alternate procedure and a potential pitfall. Names that trigger Google’s pseudonym-detection algorithms, such as Doctor Popular or Skud, send users to a form that requires them to demonstrate that this name is part of an established online identity with a “significant following.” Such users can link to a website, a blog, an account on an online forum, print media or news articles, or a Twitter account to demonstrate an established identity.
Later in the article is a link to an explanation for the change of heart, which has a lot of comments and clarifications that are worth reading for the curious.
The writer Salman Rushdie hit Twitter on Monday morning with a flurry of exasperated posts. Facebook, he wrote, had deactivated his account, demanded proof of identity and then turned him into Ahmed Rushdie, which is how he is identified on his passport. He had never used his first name, Ahmed, he pointed out; the world knows him as Salman.
Would Facebook, he scoffed, have turned J. Edgar Hoover into John Hoover?
“Where are you hiding, Mark?” he demanded of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, in one post. “Come out here and give me back my name!”
» via The New York Times (Subscription may be required for some content)
Huzzah! :) (It’ll be interesting to see how they do this…)
Proponents of pseudonymity scored a major victory today [10/19], when Google executive Vic Gundotra revealed at the Web 2.0 Summit that social networking service Google+ will begin supporting pseudonyms and other types of identity.
Transparency vs. Anonymity
(I’m in favor of pseudonymity myself, as you still have a consistent ‘name’ but don’t have to use the name you were given at birth.)
Three years ago, after the suicide of a popular actress who had been bullied via the Internet, South Korea introduced a radical policy aimed at stamping out online hate. It required contributors to Web portals and other popular sites to use their real names, rather than pseudonyms.
Last month, after a huge security breach, the government said it would abandon the system. Hackers stole 35 million Internet users’ national identification numbers, which they had been required to supply when registering on Web sites to verify their identities.
The South Korean experience shows that “real name” policies are a lousy idea, and privacy threats are only one reason. Online anonymity is essential for political dissidents, whose role has been highlighted in the uprisings in the Arab world, and for corporate whistle-blowers. In the United States, the Supreme Court has found a constitutional basis for protecting anonymity.
Why, then, are the calls for restrictions on Internet anonymity growing?
» via The New York Times (Subscription may be required for some content)
Here’s why we need a critical debate about Google’s Real Name policy: first, because it embodies a highly controversial theory of human behaviour, that the way to maximise civility is to abolish anonymity – even though everyone knows Muammar Gaddafi’s real name (though not how to spell it) and no one knows the name of the kind driver who slows to let you cross the road.
Second, because it embodies an equally controversial theory of identity: that our lives are best lived when we have a single identity that persists in all contexts over time, so your grandparents get the same experience of you that your lover does, your boss sees the same side of you that your toddler does.
Next, because social services exert pressure on non-users – when all your friends join G+, the pressure mounts on you to do the same.
And finally, because the policy Google espouses is likely to exact costs on its users long after they made their “use/don’t use” decision, and those consequences are not easy to discern in advance.
This last reason is the most important one. Google suggests that our internet use is a series of fair trades: I’ll give you the management of my identity if you give me easy social experiences and easy logins across multiple services.
The post that linked me to this article makes an excellent additional point: “Lewis Carroll wrote fiction yet Charles Dodgson wrote mathematics textbooks…even though both happened to be the same physical person.” This separation of identities would not be possible on Google Plus, even with the Circles functionality, since Circles still require that all of your contacts see your ‘real name’, even though you can compartmentalize the interactions you have with groups of those contacts.
The result was, unfortunately, predictable. René was ordered by his superiors to cease all blogging, Twittering, and other social network activity related to public health. Having just last year been the subject of an e-mail and telephone campaign to try to get my university to fire me for my online activities, I completely sympathize with what René went through. Government and corporate organizations can be completely obtuse about the Internet, blogosphere, and the new social media, and, quite frankly, what one does in one’s own time should in general not be so restricted. That I’m fortunate enough to work for a university that values free speech for its faculty (the dean herself called me to assure me of this) does not mean that others are that fortunate.
Here lies the huge irony in this discussion. Persistent pseudonyms aren’t ways to hide who you are. They provide a way to be who you are. You can finally talk about what you really believe; your real politics, your real problems, your real sexuality, your real family, your real self. Much of the support for “real names” comes from people who don’t want to hear about controversy, but controversy is only a small part of the need for pseudonyms. For most of us, it’s simply the desire to be able to talk openly about the things that matter to every one of us who uses the Internet. The desire to be judged—not by our birth, not by our sex, and not by who we work for—but by what we say.
Behind every pseudonym is a real person. Deny the pseudonym and you deny the person.
This post is fantastic. Among other things it lists some of the real-life situations that lead people to conduct their online activities pseudonymously and examines the arguments against using pseudonyms.
…Then along comes Google Plus, thinking that it can just dictate a “real names” policy. Only, they made a huge mistake. They allowed the tech crowd to join within 48 hours of launching. The thing about the tech crowd is that it has a long history of nicks and handles and pseudonyms. And this crowd got to define the early social norms of the site, rather than being socialized into the norms set up by trusting college students who had joined a site that they thought was college-only. This was not a recipe for “real name” norm setting. Quite the opposite. Worse for Google… Tech folks are VERY happy to speak LOUDLY when they’re pissed off. So while countless black and Latino folks have been using nicks all over Facebook (just like they did on MySpace btw), they never loudly challenged Facebook’s policy. There was more of a “live and let live” approach to this. Not so lucky for Google and its name-bending community. Folks are now PISSED OFF.
Pseudonymity, and password-protected spaces, let me do both. Pseudonymity lets us do the same thing that meatspace and its constraints have let us do for millennia: present different aspects of ourselves in different social contexts while remaining within social norms — even when the presentation of those same aspects in other contexts would violate norms. Meatspace lets us do this all under the same name because sound fades in time and space, because meatspace is seldom recorded or indexed or searchable, because meatspace typically shows us the people we’re interacting with and lets us make choices accordingly. The post-Google internet gives us none of those affordances, but gives us — has given us — instead: names. We can name and group our contexts and aspects to give us the shelter of local social norms. We can be a part of the social norms that matter most to us, even when they are out of favor with some more culturally dominant norm that has the potential to hurt us if we violate it.
…Persistent pseudonymity is importantly different from anonymity and I do wish people would realize that.
But there is one person for whom insisting on the use of real names on social networking sites is not enough. Unsurprisingly, that person is Facebook’s Marketing Director, Randi Zuckerberg. Speaking last week on a panel discussion about social media hosted by Marie Claire magazine, Zuckerberg said,I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away. People behave a lot better when they have their real names down. … I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.
Wow. Just wow.
There are myriad reasons why individuals may wish to use a name other than the one they were born with. They may be concerned about threats to their lives or livelihoods, or they may risk political or economic retribution. They may wish to prevent discrimination or they may use a name that’s easier to pronounce or spell in a given culture.
Online, the reasons multiply. Internet culture has long encouraged the use of “handles” or “user names,” pseudonyms that may or may not be tied to a person’s offline identity. Longtime online inhabitants may have handles that have spanned over twenty years.
Pseudonymous speech has played a critical role throughout history as well. From the literary efforts of George Eliot and Mark Twain to the explicitly political advocacy of Publius in the Federalist Papers or Junius’ letters to the Public Advertiser in 18th century London, people have contributed strongly to public debate under pseudonyms and continue to do so to this day.
I have been using pseudonyms online for years, for a variety of reasons (and while Cali is not my real name, sometimes it feels like it is, with how much I have done online under that name instead of my given name).
…We’re all supposed to cultivate our online personae nowadays — albeit carefully — right? But there remains a long list of reasons why people might prefer to use pseudonym online. Please read this Geek Feminism post to see who is harmed when we enforce a “real names” policy.
A lot of these arguments about pseudonymity come down to questions of safety. “Safety” can mean a number of things: job safety, privacy, avoiding stalkers, avoiding violence.
We talk a lot about the safety of students when it comes to their online behaviors. But it is often in terms of protecting students’ privacy, protecting them from cyberbullies and predators. Safety could (and should) also refer to providing students with a place in which they are free to express themselves, without the prying eyes of parents, teachers, future employers or college admissions officers, places where they can explore a multitude of identities — kids do that anyways, you know — as they figure out who they are, who they want to be.