Monday, December 26, 2011
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.
Pseudonyms are not new to the computer age. Authors use them all the time. Our founding fathers used them. Anonymous and pseudonymous speech have been part of democratic society since its beginning. What is new is that more and more strangers, whom we have never seen and never spoken to, know our names. What is new is that a name, with just a few minor pieces of information (birthdate, friends names, employer, industry, town…) can in a few seconds provide thousands of personal details about who you are and where you live.
I leave you with this question. What if I had posted this under my pseudonym? Why should that have made a difference? I would have written the same words, but ironically, I could have added some more personal and perhaps persuasive arguments which I dare not make under this account. Because I was forced to post this under my real name, I had to weaken my arguments; I had to share less of myself. Have you ever met "Kee Hinckley"? Have you met me under my other name? Does it matter? There is nothing real on the Internet; all you know about me is my words. You can look me up on Google, and still all you will know is my words. One real person wrote this post. It could have been submitted under either name. But one of them is not allowed to. Does that really make sense?
For what it's worth, I don't really have an issue with anonymous commenting and I actually like the online culture of the persistent pseudonym. I just would prefer that people not be jerks, even if I realize the impossibility of that ideal. After all, my name is on everything I write and I'm willing to expose aspects of my life, personality, beliefs, etc. as part of what I do for a living and I hope that's part of what people appreciate about my writing, but it takes about a minute for someone to respond to something I've thought about for a few hours/days/weeks with a curt "this sucks and you suck too" retort. It's sort of funny, because at this point in my online writing career, I'm not really phased by insults - someone beat you to whatever you're going to say, I assure you - but it sucks a little that someone won't assign even the most vaguely defined identity to their criticism. That doesn't suck enough to change the rules of interaction, but it does seem worth challenging people choosing to interact online to do a little bit better, to aim a tiny bit higher.