"On Pseudonymity, Privacy and Responsibility on Google+" (excellent Nym Wars rant)

Read Kee Hinckley's terrific essay on why pseudonymity matters. Inspired by the Google+ nymwars debate, but will be a valuable and viable set of observations long after this internet-storm has passed. Snip:

"Using a pseudonym has been one of the great benefits of the Internet, because it has enabled people to express themselves freely—they may be in physical danger, looking for help, or have a condition they don’t want people to know about. People in these circumstances may need a consistent identity, but one that is not linked to their offline self."

That quote is from Google's own policy blog. The question isn't whether Google gets it. The question is why on earth they thought that wasn't a useful feature of a social network.

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.

(Via Bruce Schnieier)


  1. I beleive we are at about one article a week about this subject while the engineers at google are doing something actually useful, which is figuring out the right way to implement the feature to google+

  2. Does this not promote an unhealthy and hypocritical society however? Both in the sense of one potentially preach values that one does not practice (e.g. using a persistent pseudonym to stress the importance of ‘family values’ while cheating on one’s significant other or abusing one’s children), and in the sense of allowing existing discrimination to fester rather than addressing it head on (e.g. imagine if the suffragettes focused on figuring out how to get women to vote while disguised as men, as opposed to arguing for women’s rights to equality and equal political power)?

    Pseudonymity is an easier, more readily adaptable answer to some of the injustices present in today’s world, but it covers the symptoms while allowing the causes to be more deeply entrenched. Indeed, one of the enabling factors for discrimination is that those who discriminate in anonymous and not directly visible ways. In all, it seems that pseudonymity is a case of one step forward, two steps back – it may have some scope for existence in the current transition period, but we should never treat it as a desirable end-state.

    1. No. 

      Shadowfirebird is who I am online.   If I were to post under my real name, **then** I would be being sneaky and dishonest — because no-one would be able to link this comment to all the other comments that I have made…

      1. It’s not a question of what name one chooses to use – whether it’s shadowfirebird, or sunnysnowfish – it is a question of whether the outcome desirable over the long term is one of a single, persistent identity or one of multiple identities with varying levels of persistence. My argument was that multiple identities promote over the long run the very problems they solve in the short run.

        There is also a tangential issue of whether there is any difference between online and offline identity, but the way I see it, it is just an issue of convention. I.e. if we accept multiple identities per individual then one should be able to choose to have multiple identities both offline and online (e.g. Jack in the country and Earnest in the city…), and if it is one identity then it is one identity everywhere.

        1. People will always be dis-honest, that fact has been with us since the beginning and it will continue until the end of time. The internet does not, and should not provide us with the tools to prevent such simple acts of dishonesty. We must abide that fact through skepticism.   

          Total anonymity is completeley disassociative (and in my view only a mask for malicious acts) but that is not the issue.

          Let me ask you, have you ever had a nick-name? The internet has done just fine up until now as troll has been given new meaning. Really, who cares if trolls use their real name or their pseudonym?  They’re still trolls and you’re still whoever you are wether you use your given name or a nickname.

          1. Exactly – I’m routinely “trolled” by someone.  They often insult my character, spread lies about me, and have tried to get me fired based on these ridiculously easy to disprove lies.  This person has never, for one moment, hesitated to sign their full, legal name to these harassing e-mails.

            The only time people are afraid to use their real names is when they are afraid of persecution.

    2. Having given the issue some further thought in light of the comments here, I think I need to modify my original position.

      In early human history, there was not so much anonymity or privacy – if one was born and died in the same small village, most of one’s community knew most of everything there was to know about you. Over the past couple of centuries, however, society has allowed for quite a lot of privacy through obscurity – most communities grew so large and with such fluid membership that the only thing most people know about you is what you choose to reveal (hence the importance of references and letters of introduction even 30 years ago). As a result we could claim to hold and judge others by the same parochial views we had in the village, while becoming empowered to act significantly more freely in our newly-acquired privacy.

      Privacy and anonymity (which are very closely linked in my eyes) are something with inherent tradeoffs – decrease the traceability of reputation and you get more freedom, increase the traceability of reputation and you have more trust. With the Internet is removing privacy through obscurity and requiring whatever privacy and anonymity we will have in 20-30 years to have to be actively constructed, there is scope for future social structures to be radically more free or radically more trusting than what exists today. Because of the inherent tradeoffs, however, I was wrong to suggest that the solution would have to fall, a priori, on just one of the sides. Each community should be free to decide for itself what minimum degree of reputation disclosure it would hold its members to, and each individual should be free to decide for him- or herself which of his or her reputations a particular action reinforces or detracts from (and also which communities he or she would want to participate in). There might still be some resultant disagreement between ‘singulists’ (only one identity and reputation for everything) and ‘multi lists’ (who are willing to trust people even when they know those people may be hiding a consistent and potentially important side to themselves), but it will probably sort itself out.

  3. 1. No, if you really want to hide yourself, it’s a really bad idea to be identifiable across multiple sites by the same pseudonym. For when you are revealed once, everything is revealed. If you are in danger (by government or by some gang) you’d really want to prevent that.

    2. Stop pretending like there cannot be both – places, where you are anonymous and places where you are just who you are offline, too. And because social networks like Facebook (and maybe G+) are bridges between offline and online (or at least could be) it really makes sense to have a RL identity there. There’s place for both on the internet.

    3. Yes, for a long time nicknames and pseudonyms were the single rulers of the internet. Why? Because it was quick, easy and a known user name policy for most tech savvy people (Unix user names looked quite similar). Now other solutions are possible. So why shouldn’t we have both?

    4. Think of Google+ as a village where people can meet. Noone knows what they are doing in their houses or when they are somewhere else (unless they decide to make it known) but what they say or do in the village is known to everyone. Often you hear the argument “I will go where my friends and collegues are so I don’t have a choice!” – well, my dear friend, if those people (your family, friends and co-workers) know that this account belongs to you (otherwise the whole argument would fall to pieces) then there’s not much of a pseudonym left, is there? And making a second account? That they don’t know about? Erm, why again has this second account to be on that same service..?

  4. I would divide this into two issues. One is saying that you should use your real name for reasons of “honor”, or “owning your opinions”, or some such thing. This seems to be a tic of a certain type of “integrity conservative”, and I don’t really get it at all. The other is that you need to be able to be tracked down by the authorities in case you say something bad and need to be punished. This seems to be a concern of a different sort of “anxiety conservative”. I understand this a bit more, but it seems too paranoid.

    The first I don’t get because I “own” my opinions (and  I “pwn” yours j/k) through a persistent pseudonym. My real name is no better for this. Thousands of people have my real name. Only a few have my pseudonym. If I’m in your online community it makes no difference at all whether I use one name or the other. If anything, the second is more identifiable.

    The second I think is cracking a walnut with a sledgehammer. If you insisted on tying my actual identity in some publicly verifiable way to everything I say online, I just would never say anything. And why should the public be able to track me down and punish me if I did something illegal? If law enforcement wants to get me, they can do it through my IP. Random vigilantism is obviously a bad idea.

    I have probably tens of thousand of comments tied to this name (even after about 4000 comments got nuked by Digg for no good reason when they changed systems). I care way too much about being “judged” through this pseudonym, especially when I think about stuff I post after a fifth of bourbon.

  5. In addition to the usual reasons for pseudonymity, a big part of my desire for pseudonymity is more because I don’t want myself to be judged by certain friends I keep.  There are friends from the Nevada desert that my church group really doesn’t need to know I associate with…  while google+ superficially helps with being able to ‘talk’ to only one group at a time, it still makes it a little too easy to make the association through web searches, etc.  If I’m known as redherring to one group, and JoeBlow to another, it’s much less likely that it will be easy (though not impossible) to connect the two, even though both groups may know who I “really” am in real life.

    Besides, it’s only a matter of time until someone famous g+’s a picture of their Anthony Wiener to the wrong circle…

  6. I quote Brian O’Blivion from Videodrome: “”That’s my television name. Soon, all of us will have special names — names designed to cause the cathode ray tube to resonate.” ”

    Screen names. There you go, Cronenberg nailed it, although not with cathode ray tubes. ;)

  7. I’m not going to comment on the comments here, since so far they were all addressed by the article. (And I can certainly understand if you didn’t read the whole thing, but I deliberately bolded the key points for people who want to skim. :)

    However, could someone correct my last name and add the “c” into it? Thanks!

  8. If you really can’t imagine any good reasons why you or your friends would want or need to use a pseudonym, I would say you are either very lucky, or very boring. Or possibly both.

  9. Tangentially, I really like that with the new system I can sign in with Disqus, since this allows people to recognize me from conversations I’ve had on other blogs as ‘anarres’.

  10. “I.e. if we accept multiple identities per individual then one should be
    able to choose to have multiple identities both offline and online”

    Srsly? Online we are not talking about entering into a legal contract like a mortgage where you need to be identifiable. We’re talking about giving your opinion, and nothing more. Not buying stuff from Amazon, who won’t accept a fake identity. Just saying what you think. It’s obviously a false equivalence.

    If you restricted me to one online identity, I wouldn’t really care, so long as it couldn’t be traced back to my real name. But for all the trouble you went to, what really would you gain by doing that? If I were a troll by nature I’d just become famous as a troll.

    Make it traceable by anyone to my actual identity (not to my real name that’s shared by many thousands), and I’d say nothing. Literally, I would never post anything online again. Internet comment would be reduced to bland pablum.

    1. Srsly? Online we are not talking about entering into a legal contract like a mortgage where you need to be identifiable. We’re talking about giving your opinion, and nothing more.

      But I also do not spend most of my offline time entering legal contracts. So why not have a single identity (both online and offline) for legal contracts (mortgages, Amazon), and the option of multiple identities (both online and offline) for everything else (e.g. opinions)? What is the inherent difference between changing one’s identity when one is on the Internet and changing one’s identity when one is on vacation? I am not saying that changing the identity is inherently bad, but I do think that to be consistent, if you support one, you ought to support the other.

      If you restricted me to one online identity, I wouldn’t really care, so long as it couldn’t be traced back to my real name…Make it traceable by anyone to my actual identity (not to my real name that’s shared by many thousands), and I’d say nothing.

      Why? What’s so special about one’s real name? Why the break between online and offline? Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I really do not understand why one would fundamentally prefer to separate one’s online reputation from one’s offline reputation. I can understand separating reputations between one group of people (again, online and offline) and another group of people, but not by the methods used to take actions affecting that reputation.

      1. I don’t want to associate my real name identity with my online pseudonym because someone might actually appear in my real life and confront me with something I posted online. It’s not that I don’t stand behind my online comments (as Mujokan) but I can control who listens to me in real life. When I post on BB, I have no idea who’s listening to me. Online, all they can do is flame me. IRL, well, it goes well beyond that. I have met a lot of schizophrenics online. I do not want to give them a single clue as to how to meet me outside my door. And it does not take much info to track someone down.

        If all you want to do IRL is start calling yourself “Santos L. Halper” when you are on vacation, then more power to you. So long as the contact is limited to a five minute conversation in a bar, I don’t think it would do any harm at all. That’s the equivalent of reading an internet post. Of course, if you tell your credit card company that’s your name, that’s a different matter.

        1. It’s not that I don’t stand behind my online comments (as Mujokan) but I can control who listens to me in real life. When I post on BB, I have no idea who’s listening to me. Online, all they can do is flame me. IRL, well, it goes well beyond that.

          Ah – this, I think, is an incredibly important point. It is not so much about having a fluid reputation, it is about who has access to the full extent of one’s reputation and what power they have to do something about it. I would agree that right now we have a far too big informational imbalance – the Internet makes it much easier to gather a lot of information about someone, while still keeping it impossible for a person to learn that someone is gathering a lot of information about them. As a result, the former (‘stalking’) party could acquire the potential to significantly hurt the other individual.

          But what if you could immediately know all of the details of any attempt by someone to check any of your information? Would social ostracising of the excessively nosy (and the preemptive prosecution of the criminally obsessive) be able of modulating the negative effects?

          I’m not talking about practicality here, but more of a thought experiment…

          1. Man, it’s easy to track someone down, even if they use a pseudonym, if they are careless.

            I still remember some guy who came into a forum where I was a member, using a pseudonym, and claiming this ridiculous backstory which invited debunking. I tracked him down using other times he’d used some variation on the same name, WHOIS on avatar images he’d hosted, and stuff like that. I was looking down at a Google satellite picture of the building he worked in. It felt scary. Or a guy on Digg who boasted: Hey, find out who I am! I got down to reading records for graves in the cemetery where his father was buried. Looking through family photographs of relatives. That also creeped me out, but hey, he asked! I wish he hadn’t, because his life was sad as f***.

            If you want to find someone, down to the street address, it will take you a couple of hours if you have half a brain. As for whether you can police the stuff above — how are you going to frame that law? “Unpleasant knowledge”?

  11. Why do I use a pseudonym?   I have told people that it is because I am an atheist whose employer is the Catholic Church.  But while that is true, it is not the full story.  I created this Pip R. Lagenta name ten years ago while debating with creationists on talk.origins when I realized that some creationists are seriously nuts.  But that is not pertinent now.  No, the issue for me, these days, is my fifteen hundred images on Flickr and my four hundred and fifty videos on the YouTube machine.  The critics of my video and photoshop creations can hate on Pip R. Lagenta all that they want, and I don’t have to take it personally.  The pseudonym is very liberating!  Google+ does not want to afford this kind of freedom.  I don’t get it.  Luckily, I don’t need Google+ at this time.  I can barley find use for my facebook account.

    1. But don’t you see that the same anonymity that is freeing you up from all the flickr and youtube hate is what is freeing up those people to be hateful in the first place. Clearly you haven’t spent any time on Google+. People on youtube and flickr are assholes, they’ve all got pseudos and can say whatever they want. On G+, it’s real names or nothing, and you have to live with whatever you say. I’ve interacted with thousands of photographers, and have both given and received critique, and I’ve yet to see a case of someone being even rude and unkind, let alone to the d-bag, assholery that you find on flickr and youtube. It’s a sociologically proven fact that anonymity removes conscientious objections. I’m fully behind Google’s decision for real names, and so far it seems to be creating a heck of a community where people actually treat each other like fellow humans. There are plenty of other places where people can use pseudonyms and be jerks.

      1. Hateful people will be hateful, regardless of whether they give a name or not.  A name does not automatically validate or invalidate someone’s opinions – I would have though the minds behind Google would have been intelligent to know that.

      2. Point in fact, Ben Fullerton, I think it’s incredibly rude of you to say, “clearly you haven’t spent any time on Google +”.  INCREDIBLY rude.  Your full name didn’t stop you from posting that, did it?

        For the record *I* had spent a fair amount of time on Google Plus – until they started this banning mess.

        1. While you’re certainly welcome to feel that way, that was not how it was intended, nor do I think that comment falls within the realm of “INCREDIBLY rude”. But to each his own opinion. 

          All I was saying is that his argument was that he needs a pseudonym since people on flickr are so mean, and it’s easier for him to just let people flame a fake name, rather than his real persona. I was just saying, clearly he hadn’t spend time on G+, single it’s immediately apparent that it’s a completely different space, where so far I’ve encountered a 99.9% friendly and respectful vibe, largely due to the fact that whatever people say, they have to abide by with their real name. This would largely do away with his claimed need for a pseudo. 

  12. The comparison to women fighting to dress as men to vote versus fighting to vote is silly.  It’s more like wondering what would have happened if women had been able to communicate easily and anonymously with one another across the country to organize for and support one another in their cause. 

  13. Never have I been more baffled by an internet argument than this one.  Yes anonymity is important to the internet.  I don’t want to post this under my real name.  But I do want a real name space on the internet.  A place where I know who is saying what and who is listening to what.  I think that would be a good space for some of my internet interactions.

    Demanding anonymity in a certain part of the internet is an imposition on me.  You don’t have to join Google+ if you don’t want to interact in that kind of environment, however if you force Google+ to accept anonymity there is no way for me to have a RL identity space online, since any other attempt will be equally shouted down.

    Reading this argument it sounds like people think that the entire internet will become real names only if this goes through.  

    1. I do want a real name space on the internet.  A place where I know who is saying what and who is listening to what.

      And I want a unicorn pony.  Unfortunately for you, while the internet is more than capable of providing me with uniponies, it’s pretty fundamentally incapable of verifying peoples’ identities on a large scale.
      It’s easy to make some rule that says “real names only”.  But to actually authenticate those names, the cost and trouble of doing so is prohibitive.  Communities which do verify identities rigorously are usually small, virtual, and ultimately still gameable by someone with enough motivation.

      Besides, why do you care what people’s legal names are?  If they’re your RL friends, then you know who they are either way, it’s not like having their legal name on their profile will help you.  And if they’re someone you don’t know IRL, what use is their legal name?  You planning to look up their tax records or something?

      1. I don’t mean an absolutely verifiable real name space (although such a thing would be both easy to create via credit card info or similar, but also crazy unpopular), but you can create a real name culture with the sort of rules currently implemented.  I don’t care if you sneaky sneaky sign up as John Bull, the vast majority will see the rule and respect it, the few that break it obviously will be banned and the sneaky anonymity types can get what ever buzz there is to be had.

        And why do I want real names, because I don’t want it to be twitter.  I don’t want it to be a place people spout off opinions they aren’t prepared to be associated with in real life.  I don’t want it to be a place of heated controversies and overly personal revelations.  I love that the internet has places for that, in fact that most of the internet is that.  But I also want a place that’s quieter, where I know who said what, where people are civil to each other, and where they are accountable for what they say.

        I accept every argument about the benefits of anonymity, I wouldn’t be typing this post if I had to tie my real name to it.  But what anonymity advocates are saying is that I’m not allowed to have both.  You’re not saying “if you don’t like it set up something else”.  Someone has set up something else and now you’re sulking until they change it.

    2. So here’s the problem – what if I want to join Google Plus, and WANT to use my real name on Google Plus….but don’t want it to suddenly change the name I’ve had for half a decade on Gmail, Picasso, Docs, etc.  That’s impossible – Google wants you to be able to divide your social network into “circles” but want you to condense ALL your google products under one, single, legal and publicly searchable name.

  14. I just had the wierdest feeling of deja vu… Honest, I’m sure we’ve had this debate before. Creapy.

    Anyway what I said then, I think, was that anonymity is for some a real need. But its easy to solve for google without doing it badly and thats setting up accounts based on your real name but keep it hidden. My phone numbers there somewhere. Ye olde google has it, I wrote it in so they got it. They don’t show it to anyone though and you can’t search on it so everythings fine. Same could work with names – you set it up by using your name and change the privacy to “I wanna be called Scarlet O’hara” (or “Fleetfox” or “Dancer2000”) and a little notification on your profile that says “Handle” or something so we all know you wherent named “Dancer2000” if thats relevant to googles policy.

    For those who can’t even feel safe admitting their name in secret (and some can’t), can use a plausible fake name. Don’t call yourself “that_anonymous_coward” use “John Tobie”. Problem solved.

    As for not “walking a mile in your shoes” (_anonymous_)not that you said it to me, but to be fair you haven’t walked a mile in anyone elses shoes either… We could be a thread full of beaten spouses, or chinese dissidents for all you know … so why be so aggressive?

    I think demanding something of a service provider is something good though, and we should avoid arguments like “you dont have to be there” since google would most probably not agree with the retoric. They rather we did I think. But there is a third road between “only real names” and “don’t tell me what to call myself”.

  15. I understand the appeal of posting with a pseudonym, and the article discusses many of the reasons why. 

    In some places this gets conflated with posting anonymously, which is not the same as using a pseudonym. Posting anonymously gives people license to unleash their inner sociopath. People seem to enjoy tossing firebombs from behind their anonymous shield. If they don’t have any personal skin in the game, they can be as cruel as they like.

  16. Given that there are 23,000 people in the US with my first and last name, how exactly would this real name policy work for me?

  17. I was naughty before so I apologize for my outburst.  But I keep running into people who just do not seem to think anyone has an experience that is different from their own. 

    And I think this is part of the myopic view that Google has.

    Everything will be fine as long as we all have to be known as who we are.
    Except for those undesirables we don’t care about anyways.

    Well I am one of those undesirables, and I think I bring alot to the table.

    Under this name I talk alot about Bittorrent, copyright trolls, current events, and I do not have to worry about getting sued by a lawyer who feels mocked. (there is a list)

    Under another name, I fit into a much different community who accepts me for who I am when much of our great open society thinks I am a deviant and they get to vote on if I can marry someone I love.

    I have no desire to merge my online persona’s.  They are very separate, very unique but still aspects of myself.  I have no desire to have people who hate me for who I am crashing into my meatspace (again), and that would happen if I was forced to use my real name.  I learned that hard lesson long ago when I first found teh interwebs.

    Everyone uses multiple persona’s in a day, you don’t talk to your boss like you would your best buddy.  You don’t talk to the waitress like you do your girlfriend.  Your buds use your nickname, your business contacts use your proper name.  I’ve known people online for around 20 years, and they all know me by my nickname.  They accept me as that name, they know who and what I am from that name. 

    That is my identity and to suggest that it needs to be verified so they know they are actually talking to me… they can do that with a single message back and forth.  Confirming my “real name” will get me… um… pretty much nothing.  I am fully invested into my online name, I’ve spent a great deal of time using it.  It works for everyone I encounter, except Google.

    How shallow and empty the circles must be when people have to be hyper-vigilant to not say anything that might cause problems in their real life.  Companies already datamine Facebook, if you think they won’t find ways to datamine G+ to check out employees or applicants… your living in a fantasy world.

    But then I’m just That Anonymous Coward, what I say can’t matter because I won’t do it with my real name.  Does it make my points any less true?  With my real name, I have no voice.  I prefer a world with true voices, not just the voice that is correct for the real names world.

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