Monday, August 8, 2011

Pseudonymity and Anonymity

There are so many different things going on right now that I don't even know where to start. There's tons going on with patents, software patents and copyright, there's been many things going on with internet freedom and Anonymity/Pseudonymity that I'm not sure where to even start. However, you have to start somewhere. So I'll start with this: Randi Zuckerberg said pseudonyms should go away. What's the big deal with that?

Well, Google and Facebook both require real names on their website. There are a few links that have commented on why this is a big deal. Tom from Myspace thinks it's a bad idea, he has a friend that is an expert in social media privacy policies, Danah Boyd, and she claims that forcing real names is an abuse of power, Tech Dirt agrees withBoyd's assessment indicating that there's a great amount of danger in moving away from pseudonyms. The Atlantic also notes how different with normal speech tying all actions to a single person online has become.

One of the common reasons for banning pseudonyms, which Zuckerberg argues, is that it changes online behavior. It basically forces users to comply with offline social norms. Norms that the person may actually be attempting to escape for whatever reason. Boyd also argues that Google + originally had a cultural norm without "Real names." She pulls in Lessig's Code book that I've mentioned on here a few times to support her claim. It's a really important point she's making. Cultural norms are established by early adopters. The early adopters of Google + didn't go with real names. They liked their nicknames.

While Zuckerberg claims that it's the users fault and their pseudonyms that cause the problem, others claim that the person who owns the website needs to control this. Basically by creating cultural norms that prohibit the ability to be an asshole/troll online. So when my friend bpost over at KBMOD talks about avoiding feeding the trolls, he's either reinforcing or preventing trolling behavior. A set stance by the moderators of KBMOD should be established to control trolling behavior.

De Spiegel notes that the actions of governments and corporations amount to a war on anonymity on the web.
Which has lead to the arrest of many members of Anonymous and other hacking groups like that. This war has a few benefits like the recent ring of 72 child pornographers that were caught. Unfortunately for most users the days of freedom to untag your photos may be passed. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon have developed off the shelf products to analysis people freely from pictures pulled from facebook. To me, this is really scary, as we have no control over the privacy settings of our friends. If I'm drinking a tasty beer in a picture it could have employment ramifications. Two years ago a teacher was fired for having pictures of beer while in Europe. This is one example there are many others. While, third parties will likely create applications to determine who is whom in a given facebook picture, Germany is suing facebook over their ability to do say, and are saying it's illegal.

So, what's all of this mean? There's been a lot of people talking about this and why should people care? Well, personally I have made a choice to use my real name. Well, it's still a nickname, but I made a choice to do that. However, since I was aware of the choice when I set my handle as my last name I am conscience of what I should and should not say on the public record online. The first three Google searches for "Kapsar" are for me. Sadly, none of them is for my blog. Thus my online activity easily follows me.

That being said, I fully support the right and the ability of people to use any different name or no name online. It's the right thing to do morally, and for freedom of speech.

In my next post I'll discuss some of the speech issues a little bit more. Many of the people I've linked too have commented on these issues as well.


  1. Love the article Ryan, like to say some words on the matter. I do agree with Zuckerbergh that having to write your real name forces you to comply with offline standards. However problems with anonymity usually don't occur on websites like facebook of google + since people have to accept friend requests and usually don't do so if they are not familiar with the person requesting. People are therefore already complying with offline social standards. Problems with anonymity usually occur on blogs or news pages where people can react. Often no registration is needed and anonymous comments can be made easily and common decency is gone within seconds. However these websites have a broad audience and having to comment with your real name won’t help since it is still a relative anonymity. Social control has to be done by the website owners in this case. Do you have any comments on the difference between social meeting places and blogs?

  2. I agree that there are differences between social networks and blogs. However, you can still use a pseudonym, which makes it more difficult for some one to find you, like a perspective employer, your current employer or the government. You could have personal reasons why you use the pseudonym, which is different than the choice of being anonymous.

    I also agree that there is something of relative anonymity with what is called the "John Smith" problem. Which happens when there are multiple people with the same name, which becomes difficult to determine which John is which.

    I agree that it is the duty of the website/blogger to mediate and control the behavior of the website. They are able to construct social norms for the site and prevent trolling and outrageous behavior. Real names will mostly control push people that care about their reputations to care a little more.

    Basically, I think the importance of the ability to be anonymous or using a pseudonym comes from the context. You might still accept me as a friend on Google + or Facebook if you're familiar with my pseudonym and know it's me. If i'm trying to be completely anonymous then you would not.