Anonymity and the web

Over at Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne has posted a new rule regarding anonymity and pseudonyms – specifically, that he no longer allows someone to link to his site from another when critiquing his posts, unless they’re using their real name. I will stress that as a policy, it’s a relatively minor change, because it only affects the ‘trackback’ links that might pop up at the end of his posts (an automatic webby thing when someone posts a link to his post in their own post,) and occasions where he might specifically mention that someone has produced a reply/rebuttal to anything that he’s published, including his book and frequent appearances on other sites. Since he hasn’t stopped any pseudonymous comments in the slightest, all in all it’s not a big deal.

His stated reasons for this, however, bear some examination, especially since the word “cowardice” was actually tossed out. His commenters have presented a lot of very salient points, so perhaps he’s seeing where his viewpoint may have been rather narrow, but the current state of our media deserves some recognition.

First off, pseudonyms are not even remotely new with the interblobs, and have been used very frequently for centuries, for a large variety of reasons. With a name like ‘Al Denelsbeck,’ I fully understand those who adopt a pen-name to have something easier to say or remember, or that appeals better to people from a book cover. And as unfortunate as this is, I also understand those female writers who use a male name, especially in science fiction, where feminine names are often taken to indicate a girly-style story. John Wayne would never have become what he was if he’d remained Marion Morrison.

[Short diversion: When I moved away from my home state in 1990 and was considering both writing and photography, I had plans to change my last name to “Reynolds.” People, at least, wouldn’t be embarrassed to call me because they had no idea how to pronounce my name. But on moving into North Carolina’s tobacco country, the name “RJ Reynolds” means tobacco, not something I wanted to be associated with. And it took too long for Malcolm Reynolds to come along…]

But then, we can’t forget the nature of the web, where anything may remain indefinitely and finding information only takes the right search terms. As one example, identity theft occurs largely because it’s very easy to find pieces of information. Several years ago when I was active on photography newsgroups, I drew the ire of an inept-yet-pompous participant after I reviewed several of his lackluster images, and had a cute little internet stalker for a while. This even stretched to receiving phone calls from the dipshit, whispering to disguise his voice. I found it amusing, but not everyone would (which is why it was even being done in the first place.)

And then there’s the bizarre perspective seen too often, at least in this country, where having a private life isn’t allowable. Employers will scour the web looking for information on potential and current employees, apparently incapable of realizing that they’re responsible only for work performance, and any public figure is subject to a ‘dirt’ search. While it might be nice if people could maintain a perspective and differentiate job description from personal life, that’s not practiced often enough – apparently a lot of people need to apply labels to everyone to save themselves the herculean effort of thinking about actions instead.

Again, my own experience comes into play here. I advertise photography instruction, on the same site where I’m an outspoken atheist in the bible belt – I know damn well that I lose potential students over this (the church that contacted me and then, suddenly finding this info while they were on the phone with me, was the funniest – I have rarely heard anyone stammer and struggle for excuses so comically.) Yet, what does my viewpoint on religion have to do with photography? Does anyone worry that their auto mechanic might be a jehovah’s witness, or perhaps a Hummel collector? I have thought, numerous times, about switching such posts to another site, and yes indeed, if I think those posts affect business in a negative manner, they would be under a pseudonym as well. That might be considered “cowardice” if most people were capable of rational consideration in such manners, but if you’ve noticed, I place a lot of emphasis on being realistic – too many people just aren’t capable.

[If it helps, no, I don’t discuss religion at all during instruction, and I don’t insist they drink Pepsi at those times either. But you know, if anyone is scared that I might convert them during a lesson, they probably have reason to be, since it sounds like their faith isn’t very useful to begin with.]

It’s fairly common knowledge that public figures and celebrities gather more than their share of questionable followers, some of them quite fucked-up (the followers, not the… actually, never mind.) Popularity is a kind of class-consciousness, and public figures are often seen as some higher level of person, worthy of fanatic devotion. This actually has two parts. The first is, anyone public enough can find themselves under the attentions of someone far out of touch with social acceptability, and who could blame them for wanting to avoid this? Part two is, even without being a ‘public figure,’ you can still gain such attentions, perhaps far worse, when you dare to criticize a public figure and thus raise the ire of their sycophants (go over to Pharyngula and call PZ Myers anything at all, if you want an example.) And several prominent bloggers simply gave up on posting, tweeting, and other forms of mediabation when the trolling got too intense.

Nestled deep among all of this is a very simple idea, one that too few people ever master: it’s the content of the post or comment that deserves the attention, not who makes it. As much as anyone else, I’d like to be recognized as the guy who can produce thoughtful, incisive content, even if no one can pronounce my name, but it’s true, I write some stuff that’s not very useful sometimes (you might have to look hard for examples, though.) But overall, it should never be about who, just about what. It doesn’t matter if there’s even a name attached. Anonymity is the only way to get people to do this routinely. Though sometimes, we really do want to hear more of what someone says, so knowing how to find them again is useful – but that’s their choice, and they have to weigh all of the consequences themselves.

Finally, sometimes a pseudonym is simply a nickname, something cool or clever or appealing. We don’t get to choose our names, otherwise there would be a lot more Slut Bumwallas around, so adopting one for being online is a functional choice – sometimes even representing an online persona that’s not wholly accurate. In fact, it’s safe to say that online personae are never entirely accurate (I’m even more dashing in real life.) Anyone believing a pseudonym indicates that there’s something to hide just hasn’t realized that yes, there always is – but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.