[Note: I may come back and revisit this post…it’s a bit scattered, maybe not as clear as I’d like it to be. Hope it’s not too bad, and I welcome any comments and critique that might help me focus this a bit more. :-)]
Many critiques of “the Internet,” or “the blogosphere,” or Wikipedia, involve the question of anonymity. The argument usually goes something like this: “The Internet would be so much better if only people were forced to speak under their real names. This way, they would be accountable for what they say and do.”
Leaving aside the huge question of how we might ever “prove” who is who online, the binary opposition between anonymous and “real” generally misses a third identity space, an incredibly crucial one — that of pseudonymity.
In a previous online life, I spent several years participating within a lively blog community. I blogged under a pseudonym, and got to experience firsthand both the best (genuine deliberation and debate, building of community) and the worst (troll-fighting, in-fighting) of online forums. I used a pseudonym at the time I started blogging because, well, that’s what most people seemed to do. Looking back, though, it’s apparent why this practice is not only important, it’s actually crucial to the health of the “public sphere” (more on that term in a bit).
I think most people who choose to participate in this manner do so for several reasons, especially within the political blogosphere (which is where my experience is…). None of these reasons are based on anything empirical; they are just my anecdotal observations based on discussing this with other bloggers in the past.
The most obvious is that people may not want their political views connected to their names. Given that what goes online stays online, that the things we do and say and post persist in databases for a very long time, people may have jobs, or relatives, or friends in real life that they may keep separate from their political beliefs. That said, given the traceability and surveillance that’s built within the very infrastructure of the net, this separation between your “real” identity and what you say online is tenuous, at best. While the separation can be maintained for most users, someone who wants to find out who you are probably can, because of the traces one leaves around the net. Still, this idea of pseudonymity is probably “good enough” to make users feel comfortable enough to speak their minds online.
People may also feel safer. Given the politically charged and polarized atmosphere of the last eight years, you never know when battles with trolls on a blog might seep over into real life. Those who tend to be vocal in online communities, by down-rating inappropriate comments and calling out troublemakers in the community, tend to make enemies — it just kind of goes with the territory. Who knows how far people might take things? Even outside of the blogosphere, the transparency of data in a Web 2.0 may have unforseen consequences — for example, the home addresses of California’s Prop 8 donors are now published on a google map.
A final reason for creating a pseudonym, for many, is way to shorthand one’s identity, a way to give a first impression, to share part of their identity right up front. (“FreedomFighter” or “LegalEagle,” for example…)
So why is a pseudonym different from being anonymous? In both cases, you’re still not using your real name. The answer lies in the notion of reputation.
The point was explained well by the blogger Marcy Wheeler, known online as emptywheel:
You know what? Someone who mistakes pseudonymity for anonymity is missing just a few critical things about blogging that go right to the core of its importance. Pseudonymity is the maintenance of a consistent identity, one to which credibility–or lack thereof–attaches just like it does to the name Bob Cox or Marcy Wheeler. Anonymity is something different, one that doesn’t exist in any fully formed blog.
A blogger’s reputation rest solely on the persistence of his or her identity. Bloggers “get to know” each other within a blog’s community, the same users come back, day in and day out, to argue and debate and share the news of the day. Within this type of virtual community, it hardly matters if I’m called “Carlo” or “cscan” — what’s important is the consistency of my online identity. Anonymity, on the other hand, is fleeting. A member of a blog community cannot be anonymous, by definition — if no one “knows” the blogger, then he or she is not part of the community.
The difference may be a bit nuanced, and I hope I’m explaining it sufficiently.
A new paper in First Monday helps draw out this point a bit further, in the context of Wikipedia. Wikipedians, as they are called, share the same qualities of pseudonymity as bloggers, and in the end, it is what they bring to the wiki in terms of contributions that not only defines who they are, but builds their reputation within the community. In short, the Wikipedia community works because the wikipedians can work together:
The Wikipedia community makes the project work, not its collection of individual contributors, and not its technology — though it helps. Whereas the wiki technology allows for mass archiving of activity, it is the people who value infinite transparency and utilize the archives accordingly. Whereas the technology allows anybody to easily edit, it is the community that has produced a comprehensive set of processes through which quality articles can be formed. Whereas the Wikimedia Foundation allows individuals to access its content for free, it is the community that embraces the cause and labors towards shared goal.
…There is a small element of credit that comes with good contributions, though. Each editor has a “user page,” with which she can basically do as she pleases as long as it’s loosely related to Wikipedia. Accompanying the user page is a “talk page,” as is the case with every article on Wikipedia. Whereas article talk pages serve as a place to deliberate about the content (what needs to be done, what should be removed, what should be moved, structure, organization, and so on), one of the most common uses for a user talk page is a forum in which members of the community reward hard work via words of praise and awards (usually in the form of a “barnstar” image). According to one editor, “[i]n some ways you get recognized, you get some respect, recognition from your [peers] … here’s somebody who knows his stuff, who writes good articles and so on and so forth, and you feel happy when one of them puts a posting on your talk page.” (Forte and Bruckman, 2005)
In a world where original research is disallowed in the name of neutral point of view, people are recognized not for ideas, but for diligence, organization, and hard work performed to further a common goal.
Wikipedia would not work without the reputational factors that allow users to “size up” others (e.g., review their Talk page); there is a healthy respect not for “who you are” but for “what you have done.” If users on Wikipedia were “anonymous,” there would be no history of past efforts to which one could refer.
The deliberation and discussion and reputation-building that goes on within Wikipedia is in many ways analogous to what happens on a comunity-based blog, and in both cases, they raise a point about the viability of free speech on the net — if people feel intimidated, for whatever reason, they will not speak out, they will not post. Returning to this issue with respect to the blogosphere, Marcy Wheeler, in the previously cited blog post, goes on to say:
…pseudonymity is one of the most important aspects to retaining the vitality of the blogosphere. Pseudonymity guarantees that citizens whose jobs or other life circumstances would not permit them to speak politically, to do so, using a consistent identity, but one that does not endanger their livelihood. This country was built on the importance of citizen speech–built by a bunch of guys writing as Publius. In this day and age, that critical aspect of our democracy is getting harder and harder to sustain. Blogging has brought it back, to a degree. And I, for one, don’t want to belong to any organization that discards such an important tool of democratic speech without even understanding the difference between pseudonymity and anonymity.
Pseudonymity helps engender this type of free speech, and helps push these spaces of dialog and debate (which take many forms, including blogs and Wikipedia, but would also include sites like Twitter) towards the idea of a “public sphere.” Without getting into the media theory behind it — if interested, Howard Rheingold has an excellent video primer here, and this First Monday article is excellent — the basic premise is that, for democracy to flourish, there needs to be public discussion and debate. Habermas, who wrote about this idea in his text, “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere,” argues the public sphere has been diminished, through the commodification and consumerization of the news media (you know, the group that had that whole First Amendment thing written for them…).
It’s an easy connection, then, between this idea of the public sphere, and the blogosphere — a space for individuals to come together to debate the issues, and share knowledge. While the political blogosphere is certainly not a perfect implementation of the “public sphere,” it is clear that without pseudonymity, if people were inhibited to speak their minds because of fear of retribution, blogs would not be making their mark on politics, as they are today.