After some thought, I have decided to change my comments policy. When I first began this blog, I ran an open comment section where comments posted immediately. I really hated to have to permanently turn on comment moderation. I liked the spontaneity of an open comments section, but it had been heavily abused both by spammers and by malicious people. So with some regret I began requiring that comments be held for approval.
Today, I go one step further and have the courage of my convictions. I will no longer publish pseudonymous comments. Yes, some of my best friends are pseudonymous, and all kinds of people say they have all kinds of good reasons for not using their real names. And I've had lovely, insightful, valuable comments from people who don't use their real names online. But I've had a lot more abuse and harassment from the pseudonymous, and on occasion my trust and willingness to believe that someone had a good reason for concealing their identity has been horribly abused. Enough is enough.
On average, people behave worse when given the opportunity to conceal their identities. You yourself may well always be on your best behavior when undercover, but you give cover to others' dreadful behavior and to loathsome creeps. I will no longer be offering up web space to pseudonymity, though I will not be purging the site of past comments left under the previous policy.
I am getting incredibly sick of having to use special tools to sort out who is speaking. I don't care if your hundred best friends know you by the name of a Tolkien character or some such, if I don't know who you are and you aren't willing to share that information, I am no longer willing to publish your comments. If you need the witness protection program, you are in the wrong place.
While I do not dispute your right to use an alias on the Internet, cyberspace is large, and if you need to do that, you can do it elsewhere.
- Esther Dyson
Esther Dyson recent equated Internet anonymity with abortion. It may be a right, but should be seldom used. The long time observer and tech investor initially thought anonymity was cool but now believes it invites bad behavior:
“It’s like a lot of things. I’m pro choice, but I think abortion is an unfortunate thing. I think the same thing about anonymity: Everybody should have the right to it, but it’s not something one wants to encourage. And that’s not weasel words, that’s the reality of it.
“There are two big things: First, I was a much bigger fan of anonymity then than I am now. I thought it was cool. And it is, but it turns out anonymity really encourages bad behavior. I’m not in favor of the government tracking everybody and so forth, [but] at least persistent pseudonyms and communities and stuff like that makes everything a nicer place.”
- John Gabirel
- John M. Grohol:"Anonymity and Online Community: Identity Matters"
Anonymity is a double-edged sword when it comes to an online community. While anonymity may allow people to feel more free and disinhibited to discuss otherwise embarrassing or stigmatizing topics, it can also be a community’s biggest enemy. Anonymity allows people to hide behind their computers while saying whatever they want with little ramification. Psychologists know that online community is far more disinhibited than face-to-face communications.1, 2, 3 Pair that disinhibition with anonymity and you have a recipe for potential disaster.
- Three recent cases illustrate this point. Last week, John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, the natural foods supermarket, was exposed as "rahodeb," a frequent poster in the Yahoo! finance message boards for years. When he wasn't anonymously touting his own company in the postings, he was often attacking his main competition, Wild Oats. And now that Whole Foods is trying to buy Wild Oats, his anonymous postings have come back to haunt him.
Late Friday, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced an "informal investigation" into rahodeb's postings to see if any laws had been broken. But even if no laws were broken, many business experts have raised questions about the ethics of Mr. Mackey's actions, and more than a few say it has damaged both him and his company.
In another example of anonymous posting gone bad, a well-known Boston pediatrician's penchant for anonymous blogging produced what The Boston Globe referred to in May as a "Perry Mason moment." Under cross examination in a malpractice trial in which he was the defendant, Dr. Robert P. Lindeman admitted that he was the blogger known as "flea." Most jurors had no idea why such information was important and probably ignored it.
Yet the very next day, Dr. Lindeman settled the case against him. Why? As "Dr. Flea," he had made several derogatory postings about the jury hearing his case on his medical blog.
- John Suler: Getting Known Through Anonymity
I'd like to give a slightly different spin to this "disinhibition through anonymity" concept. My basic premise is this: NO ONE WANTS TO BE COMPLETELY ANONYMOUS. No one wants to be totally invisible, with no name or identity or presence or interpersonal impact at all. Everyone wants and needs to express some aspect of who they are, to have others acknowledge and react to some aspect of their identity. In some cases, it's a benign feature of who you are. In some cases, not. Anonymity on the internet allows people to set aside some aspects of their identity in order to safely express others. Snerts need someone to react to and affirm their offensive behavior. This need is a bit different than simply catharting their frustrated drives, as the "eros-ridden" idea suggests. Snerts are trying to express some unresolved and warded-off feature of their troubled identity in an (often desperate) attempt to have it acknowledged. Unfortunately, they do it in a way that abuses other people. Under ideal conditions, they may be able to accept and work through those inner feelings and self-concepts that torture them. If not, they will continue to vent that ooze through their online snert identities, while safely dissociating it from their "real world" identity.
Does greater anonymity result in greater deviance? It's an interesting question. Because greater anonymity usually is associated with less accountability for one's actions, the answer would seem to be "yes." In the world of Palace, new users must register (pay) for the software before they can permanently acquire the ability to give themselves names and create custom avatars. Until then, their name is a number ("Guest 232") and their avatar a generic smiley face. The greater anonymity for guests does seem to result in their misbehaving more often than members. But members misbehave too. So there are other factors at work.
- Oliver Reichenstein: "What is a Real Identity?"
Unless you intend to be a cheap coward that throws stones out of the dark, you need to give the attacked person a chance to strike back.
Language is something we share. You borrow it in exchange for the only word you own: Your name. Anonymous language is cheap.
See also the Wikipedia article on Cyberbullying, especially the section entitled "Comparison to traditional bullying."