Do People Have a Right to Anonymity?

This morning while I was busy with other things, an individual who goes by the nickname “Crude” got into a dispute with a commenter named Stuart32 here on the blog, and posted about it on his own blog “Crude Ideas.” In the process, the question of whether one of them knew something about the other’s actual identity and could let their employer know came up.

I have no idea what Stuart may or may not know about Crude. But I do know that I myself have had people who read my blog and do not agree with what I have to say write to my university or to my church pastor to complain. I personally think that such actions really ought to be reserved for something more than mere disagreement. Otherwise, they are at best a potential source of amusement, and at worst a waste of people’s time.

I began blogging back in 2003 precisely to work my way towards being comfortable talking publicly about topics that I had, in the past, only commented on privately, or not at all – precisely because I had previously taught at a conservative institution where saying the wrong things would cost one one’s job. Learning to be free to discuss things openly can take a surprisingly long time when one is used to the authoritarian way of doing things that characterizes much of conservative Christianity’s churches and educational institutions. And often, people within that framework assume that across the aisle things work in the same way, except in reverse. The idea that a community or institution can engage in vigorous disagreement, without it meaning that one’s friendships or job will be at risk, sometimes seems inconceivable to them.

I’ve often been surprised or even appalled by the way anonymous bloggers and commenters sometimes interact with others. I have often suspected that the same people would interact at least somewhat differently if they knew the other person, and conversely, if they had to be accountable under their own name for the way they speak.

And so I thought I would invite discussion of the broader topic. Do you think that there is such a thing as a “right” to remain anonymous online? Should there be? I appreciate that anonymity in some national contexts may be a matter of life and death, and in some conservative contexts even in the United States may be the only way to say what you see and what you think about it without immediately losing your job. But even in those latter cases, how often does real change not occur because everyone is playing the role of loyal party member out of fear?

What do readers of this blog think about this topic?

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  • TomS

    Americans should be reminded that the Fathers chose to write the Federalist anonymously, under the name, “Publius”.

  • histrogeek

    I do tend to believe that people should be allowed to comment anonymously or, preferred in my opinion, pseudonymously. The latter allows an online persona to develop without a sense that a person’s comments could bite them in the real world.
    I work for an educational publisher and it’s always a little dicey in the world of public education to comment on just how stupid some people or states can be. Saying, as an employee that state X is led by ignorant pinheads that want everyone else to be ignorant pinheads, could cost us sales. And believe me the idea that I spoke as an individual not as an employee holds no water. Or is basically an encouragement to fire my ass. So anonymity is not bad from my perspective.
    I’m also a colossal introvert in real life so it makes commenting way easier for me.

    • MrPopularSentiment

      That’s a very good point – there is a difference between anonymous and pseudonymous. I’ve cultivated my reputation as MrPopularSentiment. I’ve made friends (even some who’ve become “meat-space” friends) by posting regularly on the same blogs and developing a relationship.

      But the importance is that I have the barrier between my at home self and my professional self. I can speak out about issues that matter to me, I can express my opinions and get feedback, and I can do it without compromising my hire-ability or physical safety.

  • Michael Wilson

    I don’t mind people being anonymous. You may have good reasons for it. If people are being rude and disrespectful, warn them, then block them.

  • Melanie Davidson

    In some cases, anonymity is necessary for safety. As an example, recently the website XOJane published a “It Happened to Me” article about a young woman trapped in an abusive household, and failed to protect her anonymity, which led to a firestorm of angry comments. People were appalled that the article was run with the woman’s picture and her real name, and she may have been put in real danger by speaking out. Fortunately the identifying information was removed from the article and steps were taken to ensure the writer’s safety, and the editors issued an apology of sorts.

  • markmatson

    I personally prefer to offer my name, especially in a context like this. And in part it is so that I can take responsibility for what I say. I think it is too easy to fall into incivility in these electronic discussions.

    Having said that, some topics are dangerous to have open discussions using one’s name. I am politically liberal, but live in an hyper-conservative state and region. So I tend to be hesitant in voicing my opinions on many matters, and would not do so on a signed blog.

    So I think there are reasons for a pseudonym. But there are costs, and one cost is incivility

  • Neil Rickert

    It’s a complex question.

    Here’s an example from real life. I can visit a distant town, and walk around within the shopping mall, in complete anonymity. But if I pull out a gun and start shooting, I will quickly lose that anonymity.

    I’m troubled by the way that I have seen anonymity used on the net, particularly when it is used for abuse.

    We are wild beasts with a thin veneer of civility. But allow too much anonymity, and the wild beast emerges.

    I’m all for anonymity when people act within the reasonable limits of social norms. But if they want to flout social norms while remaining anonymous, then I see them as having abused our tolerance for anonymity.

    The difficult part, is in deciding what are the reasonable limits.

  • Crude

    How about we ask another question, James.

    Why do you allow people to threaten others with talk about the possibility of Real Life repercussions for their daring to disagree with them, on your own blog?

    How much respect should people have for you when you happily, gleefully tolerate someone who is threatening me for daring to post critical comments on your blog, revealing what they mistakenly believe to be my Real Life details, and repeatedly making references to just how much harm I may experience in Real Life if I dare to keep making comments?

    Stuart32 – hereafter, Skippy – took it upon himself to reveal what he believes is my first name – wrongly, as it stands, but he apparently doesn’t know that. Then he started to talk about the sort of bad things that may happen to me RL if I don’t shut up and stop disagreeing with him on the internet. Here’s a few choice samples:

    Do your employers know about your double life of spouting nonsense on the internet?

    I’m glad it was of interest. Ironically, our visitor, Ed, or “Crude”, as he calls himself, is the very person who could help you with this. If he stopped pretending that he knows about evolution he could, instead, tell you something about the nature of belief.

    I have no intention of revealing any further information. It is enough that you know that I know.

    Ed, you have a reason for not wanting people to know your identity. You know that many people will take a dim view of your behaviour. If I can work out your identity then so can others. Then you will have to deal with the consequences. You should have thought of that before. When I said that it’s enough that I know, I obviously meant that it’s enough that I know the truth.

    Here’s the real question for you, James McGrath. Is it right for you to tolerate these kinds of threats to commenters on your blog, for the high crime of daring to disagree with you and them regarding things like Intelligent Design, and your hateful comparisons of Christians critical of gay marriage to nazis and the like in the past?

    Now, again – Skippy (joined lately by Matt Brown, aka Francis) doesn’t even have my information, which happens to be one reason why I am laughing at his threats. But the fact is, Stuart32/Skippy does, in fact, believe he has my information. He’s made it clear he thinks that I’d be harmed RL if my anonymity were cracked – and he proceeded to partially reveal what he thought was that anonymity. He’s repeatedly talked about the repercussions I may experience if my employers were to find out, making it clear that he has that information.

    Oh, he’s expressed *concern* for me. You know, a little bit like a wannabe thug talking about how a given shop may, just may, burn to the ground or have its windows smashed if the shop owner doesn’t play ball and buy the right kind of insurance. It’s pretty easy to see what he’s doing, playing the game of internet stalker.

    So, why do you tolerate this? Why are you trying to shift this to an intellectual discussing about the merits of anonymity when someone in your own blog – where you can ban people as you see fit – is actively, happily threatening someone?

    Is it that you think threats of real life repercussions for daring to criticize someone or take a political belief (in my case, thinking that Intelligent Design arguments, while not being science, nevertheless makes some noteworthy points – horror of horrors)? Is it that you approve of people attempting to intimidate others into silence by partly revealing what they think are real life details about an otherwise anonymous person?

    Is the reason you have a dim view of anonymity online the fact that it prevents people like Stuart32 from being able to effectively shut up people who disagree with your views?

    • Crude

      By the way, for all those reading – and knowing that I’m not going to get the most sympathetic ear here, because I’m in “progressive” town – I highly suggest you read the interactions I had with James. Show me the threats I made against him. Oops, wait – there aren’t any. And I’d call out anyone who made threats, who talked about calling his employers and getting him fired for the mere expressing of opinions (even opinions I find foul) deplorable.

      What you’ll see is me arguing aggressively, pointing out the inherent hate in drawing a line between some social conservatives, nazis and klansmen, while tolerating state punishment of them for failing to dance to the desired social tune. I’ll certainly cop to having a blunt and animated way of speaking, particularly when someone is condescending or rude to me to begin with – Stuart32 became ‘Skippy’ quickly. But I offer no threats, I reveal no real-life details of anyone laboring under anonymity. Nor, might I add, do I tolerate such.

      But James does. Stuart32 can drop what he thinks is my RL name, make threatening allusions to possible repercussions to my real life, gleefully brag about how he knows all these details about me that could cause me and my family and my children pain and suffering if, oops, someone were to let it slip or simply act on those details… and James’ response is to opine about whether anonymous people have the right to be anonymous after all.

      So tell me this: who here is going to stand up and say James, as a blog admin, is right to tolerate this? Is it really acceptable to turn a blind eye to threats, to constantly “helpful reminders” about the RL repercussions that may well come if I continue the grand crime of giving my opinion about Intelligent Design and social issues online?

      Someone, please, come forth and say that such threats are justified, that such toleration of them is acceptable. Stand and be counted, even if you’re anonymous.

    • James F. McGrath

      By the time I had a chance to become aware of the conversation, you had already indicated that Stuart did not in fact know your name. It therefore did not seem to require further intervention on my part.

      • Crude

        So, let me get this straight.

        Your blog rule is that it’s completely and totally fine to threaten people, to reveal what you believe are real life details about them even as they’re anonymous, to repeatedly talk in ominous terms about the sort of bad things that may happen if they speak out… so long as you think they’re ultimately incorrect?

        So the only way I could have possibly expected you to act is if I were to *confirm* that Stuart had dirt on me?

        Seriously? Stuart’s threats, his attempted reveal of RL information, all the talk about what may happen to me RL if I continue to comment… it’s totally okay, purely because I allege he’s mistaken?

        This is the move you’re making? Really making people feel safe here, I gotta say.

        • James F. McGrath

          Perhaps in the many comments from this morning I missed something. I admit that I did not have time to read them all. All I saw was Stuart calling you “Ed” because he didn’t think “Crude” was an appropriate address, and then you said that you would then repay his desire to call you by an actual name by calling him “Skippy.” Then in the other relevant comment, I saw him asking what your employer would think if they knew you were posting the kinds of things you are, which seemed to me to be a vague reference to the fact I mentioned in my blog post, that anonymously people post things that they would not if they had to actually own them. At no point did I detect a threat, until you began reacting in the surprising manner you did, which mirrored the surprising manner in which you discussed things in your blog post about me. If I had seen something that I understood to be a threat, I would have addressed it. If such was in fact articulated, I apologize that I missed it.

          • Crude

            At no point did I detect a threat,

            Seriously, James? You don’t find talk about the nasty things that could happen to me if my employer were to find out what I was saying under an anonymous handle to be a threat? You don’t find someone revealing what they believe are RL details about me, while they *make clear* they know that I am writing anonymously, to be threatening, or even so much as worthy of a warning?

            See, that’s funny. Because from where I sit, it’s pretty damn obvious that Stuart was trying to intimidate me, dropping threatening references to what could happen if my anonymous comments got back to “my” employers, complete with revealing what he thought were anonymous details about me. I’m far from the only one who thinks so.

            So, I suppose anyone reading this can take away this point: are you writing anonymously on this blog? Do you want to keep your online person separate from your real life? Then be warned, because someone revealing what they think are real life details about you, suggesting that they have more that they could act on, and talking ominously about the bad things that could happen if that information fell into the wrong hands? Well, apparently that flies around here.

          • Crude

            Well, since it’s made clear here that someone like Stuart will have the wagons circled around them if they try to “out” people and make threatening allusions to employers finding out about anonymous opinions, it’s hard to see where else to go here. But I gotta say – this conversation has been enlightening.

            First, I really love how my tepid defense of Intelligent Design, of all things, was apparently what brought on this attempted outing and witch hunt. Gosh, how could anyone ever get the impression that there are people motivated to silence ID proponents when a guy like me (who thinks ID isn’t science and is, at best, a reasonable non-scientific inference) starts seeing threats for speaking positively about it? It is a mystery.

            Second, there’s something particularly quaint about wondering whether anonymity is worth tolerating – why, it makes some people so rude – when someone, on your own damn blog, is talking about all the possible repercussions (again, complete with pointed references to one’s employer) should word get out.

            Wouldn’t it be better if we were all forced to air our opinions with our homes address and places of work listed, so motivated offended parties could engage in harassment campaigns to get us fired if we crossed the line? What a polite world it would be..!

    • $41348855

      Perhaps I should spell out what the real life repercussions would be. They don’t include violence, by the way. Neither do they include being fired. The repercussion would be that your reputation would be tarnished. It is clear that you wouldn’t speak to anyone face to face as you do on the internet. In real life the cost of being uncivil is damage to one’s reputation. You obviously regard the chance to avoid this cost as one of the benefits of anonymity.

      • Crude

        Sure, Stuart. That’s why you kept talking about whether my “employers” would be happy, right? Funny how you kept singling out the people you think employed me – with the right to fire me – as the ones who would be particularly concerned with my opinions.

        And let me be blunt with you: I would, in fact, speak with people the same way I do online. Because I am actually entirely polite and civil, until someone starts to get rude and snippy, or does something ridiculously offensive. Yeah, you put up a picture comparing ‘Christian baker who doesn’t want to make a cake for a gay wedding’ with nazis and the like, and surprise, I may not strive to be the most soft-spoken man.

        What I really find funny here, however, is your cowardice. You went from the big man who had an ace up his sleeve that you thought would be sufficient to bully me into silence – but it didn’t work, and instead of being cowed, I’m just pretty damn offended at your nasty behavior. Of course, I’m almost amused since you had wrong information too, though I don’t want anyone else held accountable for my words. But now that you’re being stood up to, you’re trying to walk it all back – typical bully.

        Here, let me fast forward a little for you: maybe what you should do is apologize to me. Namely, apologize for threatening me, for making allusions to RL repercussions and damage you may cause with the information you had, for trying to cow me into silence for daring to, of all things, say something positive about Intelligent Design. And most of all, for daring to reveal what you wrongly thought was RL information about me, all because I laughed at your mistakes about freaking ID – an altogether petty topic – once you started getting all snippy and curt.

        But wait – on second thought, I don’t think you’re man enough to even apologize. The best you could do is some passive-aggressive ‘I’m sorry, Ed’ bit where you make sure to get what you wrongly believe is my name in there, in some faint hope that maybe I’ll finally get weak in the knees, despite laughing off your antics up until this point. You don’t believe you did anything wrong. Your own regret here is that your attempts to threaten me with RL repercussions (for daring to disagree with you, horror of horrors) didn’t go as planned.

        • $41348855

          I did apologise and I meant it. The remark about your employer was foolish. I might have given the impression that I could say something to an employer but that wasn’t my intention. I apologise again for this. I still think that your reputation would be tarnished if people knew how you behaved on the internet, but again I have no intention of trying to out you.

          • Crude

            I did apologise and I meant it. The remark about your employer was foolish.

            Foolish? Why? Because it made it a bit too clear what you were doing? Because it didn’t work?

            Your “apology” was expressly and sarcastically delivered to “Ed” – and let me tell you, nothing smacks of sincerity for threats and attempted reveals of RL information quite like including that very information in the apology. Perhaps right now it’s finally sinking in that, like I told you from the start, your info was off base. I’m not exactly cowed by the threats, now am I?

            I still think that your reputation would be tarnished if people knew how you behaved on the internet, but again I have no intention of trying to out you.

            So you say, after partly outing who you thought was me. The only saving grace here is that your details were wrong. I have no fear of you outing me, because you apparently can’t even tell who you’re actually talking to.

            You know what? Save it. I don’t need an apology out of you, and what I’d get would never be sincere. But I will thank you for showing your true colors, and for highlighting what the costs are for daring to express so much as muted sympathy for Intelligent Design in some quarters. Or perhaps it was my inference to a creator which really ginned you up. It hardly matters.

          • $41348855

            I should remind you that it was your rudeness to which I objected, not your endorsement of ID. You mentioned irreducible complexity and I gave the standard scientific response of people like Russell Doolittle. Behe may think that he is right and Doolittle and the rest of the scientific establishment are wrong. If this is in fact the case then you can claim to have “won” the argument.

          • Crude

            I should remind you that it was your rudeness to which I objected, not your endorsement of ID.

            Gee, that’s funny, since you kept going on about how I was ‘spouting nonsense’ and so on, and wondering whether my employers would find it interesting what opinions I had about ID.

            Behe may think that he is right and Doolittle and the rest of the scientific establishment are wrong.

            Skippy, you couldn’t even accurately represent the ID position, and you’re hot on the heels of having spent a day delivering sloppy threats to a guy whose identity you didn’t even have right. Suffice to say, my view of you across the board is pretty low.

            But don’t worry – you’ve got James’ protection. So the next time someone speaks up with a view you dislike, well, you’re clear to threaten away. Tip: next time, try actually identifying them correctly. Maybe it will work better.

            Then again, maybe it won’t.

          • MattB

            Just how big ol’ boy are you Crude?

          • James F. McGrath

            I don’t see how I supposedly have the ability to protect anyone. And without knowing what line of work you are in, I find it impossible to imagine how a complaint from a random anonymous person on the internet could jeopardize your employment.

      • MattB
  • arcseconds

    The community censure you hope might encourage people to behave better works both ways, though. Communities encourage what the community thinks is good behaviour, not what you think it is.

    Frankly, James, while you do have a scholarly reputation to protect, you also have a job which permits you a great deal of freedom in how you spend your time, what topics you write about, and what opinions you have. My understanding that in an American university with tenure, your job is very safe and you can in all probability keep it for life. You certainly won’t be fired for being a filthy liberal.

    For most of the rest of us, interacting on public-facing websites under a transparent identity comes with risks. It’s becoming increasingly common for employees to web-search potential or actual employees. While of course the threat of censure from their employers might be enough to keep people civil, it’s also enough to keep them silent or keep them away. This is particularly true in America, where an employer can ‘fire at will’, and there have been several high-profile cases of people being fired for having the wrong political ideology or religion where that is completely irrelevant for the job they are doing.

    Even if one is fortuante enough to live somewhere with decent employment laws or has common ground with their employers might not want to prejudice any future employment negotiations by having the ‘wrong’ opinions connected with them.

    This is not a hypothetical risk, and it’s not restricted to highly conservative contexts.

    Another risk that one might want to avoid that you haven’t mentioned is harassment over the internet. Again, there have been plenty of examples of individuals who have made comments under their own name that haven’t been popular (even though you’d agree with them), and their lives have been made a living hell.

    It’s surely up to the person involved what level of risk they’re prepared to accept, and whether that risk is worth it to contribute to a potentially healthier environment everywhere by being open about who they are and what they believe. Not up to anyone else to force them.

    Even if you’ve taken on more risk than I would have by commenting publically, you still should respect my decision that I don’t want to take that risk.

    Another factor is a cultural one: online aliases have been around since before the internet was really publically available, on bulliten boards and such like. Being able to choose your online name and identity and persona has been an important part of people’s lives for decades. Why should they give that it up just because you don’t value it and see it as a way of controlling people’s behaviour?

    So to be honest I get annoyed whenever you fall back on ‘how cowardly of you to use a pseudonym’. It’s not really relevant to the situation (that they’re wrong or that they’re behaving poorly), isn’t likely to make any difference to them except maybe annoy them more, and by doing so you’re implicating all of us who do choose to post under pseudonyms, for whatever reason, whose behaviour is unproblematic.

    • James F. McGrath

      Thank you for this feedback! It certainly is true that academics with tenure have a great deal of protection. But I always thought that was because we need it more, because it is our job to provoke and challenge and discuss controversial matters. And I know that, for instance, when a student wrote an article on a conservative site about a colleague’s statement about inclusive language on her syllabus, the internet went wild and she and university were inundated with e-mails, often rude and inflammatory. Such consequences are not ones that tenure shields one from – and if anything, I suspect that academics are more likely to garner such attention. It is much rarer, I think, that a Wal-Mart employee will have a blog discussing serious matters at a serious level that is widely read, and I doubt that Wal-Mart will particularly care that someone says they don’t like an employee’s blog, although I suppose that if enough people disliked it, and very few indicated that they liked it, Wal-Mart might consider the potential impact on sales. But is such a scenario likely? If so, then perhaps I unfairly judged Crude’s situation, since it seemed to me that, even if an anonymous complaint were offered to Crude’s employer, assuming such information was actually known to the complainer, there is no obvious reason why the employer would take the complaint seriously, unless Crude was actually violating some code of ethics or creed stipulated by the employer.

      • arcseconds

        They don’t shield you from those consequences, no, sure. But that doesn’t mean it’s not reasonable to want to be sheilded from those consequences.

        As part of your job you do need that protection, because you can’t do your job effectively if you don’t. But I think I’d want to challenge the notion that other people don’t need that protection, even within their own workplace, but particularly in the public sphere. Are academics the only people who should be able to give their opinions publically without the possibility of censure from their employers?

        It seems vaguely classist to suppose that Wal-Mart employees don’t write blogs about serious issues. Wal-Mart has a huge number of employees, a vast many of them are surely students, and in these times, I imagine there’s a large contingent of people with advanced degrees who have (or, unfortunately probably quite frequently, had) scholarly aspirations working there.

        Anyway, even if it is highly unlikely, the sheer numbers mean that it’s likely to happen in significant numbers. Even if only 1% of them are interested in ‘serious’ topics and 1% of those blog about them, they have 2 million employees. That’s still 200 people who might be at risk because of their opinions.

        (Also, is it really only ‘serious’ speech that deserves protection? What if I want to bitch and carp about my work and call my boss a donkey?)

        If you want first-hand exposure to this kind of thing, you should hang out on Fred’s comment page more. All the regulars seem like very well-read, intelligent folks, several of them run blogs, and many of them are, or have recently been, in low-paid, low-status jobs.

        And why should it matter how rare it is? Surely we want Wal-Mart employees to run websites discussing serious matters, and someone with such a site criticising Wal-Mart’s use of inculsive language or lack thereof is running about the same risk of internet harassment as a student does, and is running a risk of getting fired.

        The fear, by the way, is not that your employer will make a rational economic decision to fire you on the basis of an outcry or anything else that might concievably affect profit. The fear is that they will fire you because they don’t like your opinion, and they certainly won’t like it if it’s company policy that you’re disagreeing with.

        Maybe you need to familiarize yourself with a few cases of this kind of thing.

        People have been fired for having a Kerry bumper sticker, liking the facebook page of their boss’s political opponent (also there, complaining that the council they worked for had two many office workers and not enough front-line staff), and supporting the wrong sports team.

        There are also case of people being asked for their facebook login information during job interviews.

        Is this common? It doesn’t matter too much, the point is it happens. I imagine a lot of websearching goes on behind closed doors when looking for people to hire and fire (or promote) that we just never hear about. Nothing’s stopping anyone from doing this, so why wouldn’t they do it?

        The example of internet harassment I had specifically in mind was Rebecca Watson, who blew the whistle on misogyny within internet atheist circles. I don’t think she was ‘hiding behind a pseudonym’ when she did this, but given the preposterous, vile, and embarassing backlash she recieved, I think it would be quite reasonable for any woman (or man, for that matter) to want the protection of a pseudonym if they want to interact with major online atheist communities and have any interest in standing against these attitudes. At least that way the torrent of abuse won’t follow them home.

        • James F. McGrath

          Those are fair points about Wal-Mart employees.

          The main reason for anonymity that strikes me as having particular validity is the whistleblower’s situation. But oh, how I wish we lived in a society where it was not merely theoretically possible but realistic for someone to defend their job against unfair dismissal under such circumstances, and where a victim of any sort of abuse would be surrounded with support, rather than having to resort to anonymity, which seems to me to itself grant a sort of victory to the bully, whose threat is allowed to drive one into hiding. I understand and support those in such situations. But I would much rather that we work to make a world in which it need not be so.

          • arcseconds

            Cyberstalking is also a lot more common than it should be.

            There’s evidence that some troll visitors to Fred’s site have followed some of the regulars from forums to forums. We just had problems with one particularly destructive troll who fortunately didn’t seem particularly interested in individuals, but was prepared to use other people’s handles in an effort to spread mistrust and confusion and raise people’s ire.

            You only need to combine the two to have a real nuisance on your hands, and if you add to that access to your real name, it turns into a frightening situation.

            One person I have particularly in mind here from Fred’s blog is poor, of an alternative sexuality, feminine in appearance, alternative in dress, and estranged from their family.

            Someone like that is much more vulnerable to this sort of thing than white, middle-class, fairly mainstream males who are reasonably well set up in life. It’s reasonable for them to want the protection of anonymity. The point is not that otherwise something will happen, but that it’s an easy thing to do to minimize the risk.

          • James F. McGrath

            In the interest of clarity of the thread’s progression, I am responding to this comment, even though what I write will focus more on the one above it.

            I am not persuaded that people have an inherent right to complain about their spouse or job publicly with no consequences by using anonymity. To what end? If you want to change things at work or home, how will that help? And if you are seeking advice in dealing with the problems you face, rather than merely griping, are other anonymous people on the internet the place to turn for such help?

            I appreciate the issues of bullying, harrassment, and cyberstalking. But I think the anonymity of the potential victims is a result of fear of what others can use anonymity to do to them with no consequences. In real life, with real people whose names are known, the same things could happen, but there is recourse to authorities in a way the internet makes much more difficult.

          • arcseconds

            Honestly, James, it sounds like you’ve never had any friends or been on the internet before.

            Does every social interaction have to have a clearly defined end? Should I be presenting a business case every time I say something on your ‘blog or make a passing remark in the lift to someone?

            And is talking about problems only justfied if it’s aimed at a solution?

            Are you telling me you’ve never told anyone about a problem you’re having, not because you want advice or think they can help you solve it, but just because you want to get it off your chest, or maybe you want a bit of sympathy and emotional support? Or they’re you’re friend and you’re updating them about your life? Or perhaps it’s just in your mind and you’re voicing that?

            Has no-one ever done the same to you? Or maybe they have done, but you’ve embarked on helping them formulate a 5-point plan towards a solution, much to their exasperation!

            I’m sure you don’t actually think these things, but it seems plain that you either don’t actually value this form of interaction very much and either haven’t recognised or don’t care that others do (which seems unlikely), or that you’re just keen to discount it in your zeal to make us all comment with our name, date of birth, and social security number.

            And yes, anonymous people on the internet are the place (well, one of them) to turn to for help. Why not? People tell each other about their problems all the time on the internet, and on the right forum you can expect a lot of virtual hugs, statement of support, and prayers offered. Again, Fred’s blog is a fair example of this.

            I’m frankly a little uncomfortable about it myself, as I don’t feel I know anyone all that well there myself and it seems weird knowing these details about people, but that’s just me. I’ve never been one for that kind of openness, but clearly other people are, and I’m not going to tell them that they can’t have it because everyone has to be publically accountable to everyone in the world personally from now on.

            These are just fundamental forms of human interaction in our society (and others), distilled into the myths of one’s bartender, one’s hairdresser, confessing to mates at the footy or to girlfriends at the home makeover session, or even opening up to a stranger at a bus-stop, who’s valuable precisely because they don’t know you or any of the people involved.

            People clearly value these forms of interaction highly, so why shouldn’t the internet support them? For some people, it’s the only way they can really have them!

            Anonymity on the internet just helps to make online interaction more akin to face-to-face interaction. We don’t always know that much about the identities of the people we deal with face-to-face. I’ve got plenty of friends I only know the first names of, and sometimes of course they’re not really their first name but actually their second or a nickname or something. And if we talk to someone while waiting for the bus, that’s unencumbered by the thought of our boss or our spouse being able to find out what was said by using google.

            Would you be in favour of everyone wearing networked voice recorders at all times, with the recordings uploaded and available to all, completely with amazing search capabilities? Surely the same arguments apply, don’t they? Everyone would be accountable for everything they say to anyone all the time! It would be great! No more bullying in private, no more back-room deals, no more non-solution-oriented negative statements about anyone you know personally, no more turning up to the Junior Evolutionary Science Society’s monthly meetings incognito because you’re starting to have doubts about evolution, no more turning up to church incognito when your mates are all atheists…

          • James F. McGrath

            Networked voice recorders that are monitored could be really useful – I often lose my train of thought, and being able to ask the security monitors to remind me what I was saying could help a lot. :-)

            But seriously, I was not suggesting that anonymity be eliminated, as though that were genuinely possible. I’m just wondering whether it is a right, something that ought to be protected by law, for instance, so that if someone reveals your identity which you have not disclosed through your own deliberate action, they might be subject to some sort of consequences.

            Even when someone uses their own real name and some identifying employment info online, e.g. “Jim McGrath at Butler University,” they might still be confused for the James McGrath who teaches religion, blogs, and has the more prominent online presence. The fact that I know some names of commenters here because they use them as their nicknames, does not mean that I can figure out which of the many people with that name they happen to be.

            I do feel like I’ve made meaningful connections with you and several other anonymous commenters here. But I’d say that is the exception rather than the rule. And I have managed to feel like I have genuinely become friends with someone whom I had not met face to face in instances in which I knew that minimum of information that one gets on a first introduction – a name, a face, and perhaps a few other tidbits. I’ve had the experience of meeting people face-to-face for the first time at a conference and feeling like our friendship was already well underway, because we had interacted significantly online.

            But a lot of that is besides the point. What I was really asking is whether, if someone is anonymous online but does not obscure their identity so that a little bit of googling can connect their pseudonym with their actual identity, is someone who discloses that information culpable, when all it took was a bit of searching online? Or were they simply connecting dots that were already public? What is the status of online anonymity, legally and morally? Is it the individual’s responsibility to hide their identity, or the responsibility of others to not look too closely? Those were the sorts of questions that I thought it might be really interesting to explore.

          • James F. McGrath

            P. S. I do have a few friends. Honest…

          • James Walker

            I can only answer for myself, but I treat online interactions the same way I do chance encounters with people at bus stops or other social situations involving strangers. I take whatever personal information the person provides (name, occupation, etc.) at face value but maintain a sense of distance and of skepticism because they could, literally, be anyone other than what they’ve told me. I don’t take for granted that anyone is who they claim to be, whether met online or in person.

            until I have reason to “lower my shields” because I’ve been able to verify the person is worthy of additional trust, I keep that distance and that skepticism firmly in place.

          • arcseconds

            I do feel like I’ve made meaningful connections with you and several other anonymous commenters here.

            Thank you for this.

            Your second-to-last paragraph sounds to me that you continue to privilege face-to-face interaction on a real name basis. That’s fine, and there are good reasons for wanting solid face-to-face interactions, but you should at least understand that for many people, things are different. Many people have significant relationships that are conducted almost entirely online, and know each other primarily through their pseudonyms.

            There’s nothing particularly new about rich, non face-to-face interactions, people have been doing that since writing. What’s a little different these days is that this actually fosters community — lots of people can participate in the same interaction.

            I’ve been a fringe member of social groups that, while they were in the same geographical area, interacted primarily online (I was a fringe member in part because I didn’t, or at least, not with them). They all knew one another primarily through pseudonyms, and they’d use them face-to-face, too. To me the difference between using a real name and a persistent pseudonym has little bearing on how well I feel I know a person.

            And I think you may be putting a bit too much weight on this information, at least if I’m right in interpreting you that you give it a fair amount of weight. You’ve even illustrated some of the problem yourself. What exactly do you know about someone on being introduced with their first name? All you really know is exactly what you know when you know someone through a pseudonym or a nickname: how they’re prepared to be addressed by you, and in all probability how they are addressed by other people in similar social environments.

            Your comment is suggesting that you’re just asking the question ‘is it moral to disclose someone’s identity, and should it be illegal?’ in a kind of a neutral, unprejudiced way. With respect, this isn’t exactly how you’ve framed the debate. You’re complaining about the behaviour of anonymous commenters and you’re musing about the potential of non-anonymity to reign them in. You don’t take any pains to distinguish the many pseudonymous internet uses who are as well-behaved as any that act on their own name from the few that use anonymity to behave like jerks. And you’ve a history of bringing up not using real names as a debating tactic.

            That’s asking not for an answer to ‘is it OK to disclose the identity of someone who prefers to remain anonymous’, but rather a defence of the whole practice of anonymity, which is what I’ve been providing.

            But to answer that question, no, I can’t see how it could be possibly practical to make it illegal, for the kinds of reasons you mention: the information is often publicly available.

            But it is extremely rude. For a start, by doing the searching you’re starting to pry into details about their life that they’re not offering, and that’s immediately pretty dubious behaviour if you’ve only just met them. Then you’re disclosing that to other people in front of them. On top of that it’s something that they may be sensitive about, and you’re trampling all over that, and then finally you may be doing them actual harm.

            So at best it’s incredibly rude and insensitive and kind of dangerous. I suppose I could imagine that someone might be so clueless as to not realise that it might be an unwelcome intrusion, but really a more likely motive is spite or some other will to upset or harm them. So the most likely scenario I would say it’s actually morally wrong to do this.

            The analogy that springs to mind is being introduced to someone at a face-to-face engagement, and then immediately googling them, finding their name on a gay dating site, and loudly announcing this to the rest of the party. Legal, almost certainly. OK to do? Certainly not. Sure, they might be openly gay, single, looking, and completely open about their personal life, and everyone present may know this, but chances are pretty good that they’d strongly prefer to have at least some of this out of public discussion.

            These sorts of things are the tactics of a nasty sort of social bully, and it’s difficult to imagine circumstances that would warrant this.

          • James F. McGrath

            Indeed. Nevertheless, in real life, as online, sometimes people don’t realize what is generally known and what isn’t. I’m reminded of the storyline about Oscar and Michael on The Office. Of course, the moral of that story, and of that series, is “Don’t be like Michael.”

          • arcseconds

            OK, let me push you on the casual reasons for anonymity.

            At the moment, I can carp and vent about work all I want. My boss is an idiot and an asshat, and no-one seems to be able to make even halfway rational decisions. There! Said it!

            Doing that is pretty safe. But it wouldn’t be so safe if I was doing this under my real name. While I can kind of, at a stretch, imagine a world where whistleblowing about a serious issue would never result in a net bad to the whistleblower, I can’t imagine a world where no-one ever has minor gripes about work (I can imagine a world without work. But then it would be minor gripes about whatever other activitiy you’re productively engaged in. Maybe the conductor of the local community orchestra is really starting to get on your wick), or where someone discovering one’s minor gripes about that person would never affect one’s relationship with them.

            (Or, if work doesn’t suit, what if I want to bitch and moan about my spouse?)

            I think almost everyone does this all the time in person, and that this has been surely going on forever. It’s an entirely natural and even healthy thing to do, but everything being permanently on display on the internet for everyone to see makes it difficult when it’s associated with your real name.

            Also, as you don’t know where I work, it’s hard to argue I’ve done any real damage to my employer by saying these things, so it works that way too.

            So why shouldn’t I be able to whinge all I like about the marshmellowheads I work for?

          • James Walker

            sadly, Wal-Mart is one of the employers known to fire employees for the content of their social media accounts, if those accounts display any link at all to Wal-Mart and if Wal-Mart believes the employee’s postings on that account reflect poorly on their business.

  • James Walker

    As some others have mentioned below, there are several reasons commenters and bloggers may have for posting anonymously or under a pseudonym, all of which are legitimate. I myself am somewhat protected by having a very common first and last name, plus I have no connections to my employer in my social media accounts and I make aggressive use of the in-built “privacy” controls of my social media presence. This makes me feel “safer” than I might if my name were less common or if I knew my employer could look in on my comments at any time.

    I do, however, also have a pseudonym I’ve used for years in online gaming. I comment under that name on articles and forum postings related to gaming and role-play. Fellow gamers are far more likely to recall my in-game name than my real-life one in those contexts. It isn’t at all dishonest to use that name. In a gaming forum, in fact, it’s probably a more honest presentation of myself to that community than my “legal” name would be.

    All that said, the “discussion” between Crude and stuart32 is cringe-inducing. It began ugly, it continued ugly and it ended (or, perhaps hasn’t quite ended) uglier still. The ugliness had nothing to do with their use of anonymity or pseudonyms although that did get dragged in as an excuse for further bad behavior. It’s been a while since I’ve seen two people argue “sideways” at each other quite like that, never realizing neither of them was truly addressing the other’s points and winding up embroiled in personal attacks instead of productive give and take. In my not-so-humble opinion, I think the whole “conversation” should be deleted and both placed on moderation so future comments require approval.

  • Sabio Lantz

    Well, I just read the post and the comments. And found two major conclusions:

    (1) Anonymity’s virtues far outweigh any potential pitfalls. People who don’t see have opinions and writings which are usually much safer.

    (2) If someone is making threats on a blog, the blog owner should ban them and not just use the material for yet another post.

    • James F. McGrath

      Thank you for chiming in, Sabio. I didn’t perceive a threat in what Stuart wrote, otherwise I would have responded differently. Perhaps as someone whose identity is known online, I don’t pick up on or interpret some such things the way anonymous people would. And given that Crude had characterized as a “hate campaign” my sharing of an image which recalled the discrimination against Jews and blacks and related it to proposed legislation pertaining to gays and lesbians, I find myself unable to rely on his reaction to something as a basis for a fair and reasonable assessment of what actually transpired.

      • Sabio Lantz

        So I take it you agree with my two points, but that you are saying you are not guilty of #2. I won’t argue the details of #2, since I really have no interest in the chap or in fighting.

  • Pseudonym

    I feel qualified to answer this one.

    “Pseudonym” is an online identity that I have cultivated since the late 1980s. None of it is fake; it is 100% me. And, in fact, anyone who runs a website that I post to could easily find out my real name.

    You won’t want to, of course, because a) I’m nobody (i.e. you haven’t heard of me), and b) I never say anything that might make you want to contact my employer to complain.

    I do it partly out of habit, but mostly so that if you put my real name in a search engine, what you’ll get is professional and family stuff, and not my random musings on topics like religion. It’s not as if something that I don’t want to be associated with, but it’s also not any of my employer’s business.

    I believe that I have the right to pseudonymity, and I have a very laissez-faire attitude to this. However, I do not believe that I have the right to post comments to your blog. That is a privilege that I take seriously.

  • Ian

    There isn’t a vast amount of research on this, but what there is indicates that anonymous commenting significantly increases the amount of abuse and bigotry:

    However, other research has shown that those propagating that abuse or bigotry under anonymity are not generally nice civil people, but have much higher incidence of significant personality problems:

    Which suggests that anonymity makes the internet a safe place for psychopaths, sadists, and narcissists to be themselves.

    Which is the flip side, because it also makes the internet a safe place for oppressed groups, those with counter-cultural views, those who might otherwise be silenced, to speak out.

    And that is the problem. Take away that safety, and you’ll get more of the civil, polite, middle of the road, nothing-to-see-here commentary by people who know their views will be socially acceptable for years to come. The little Machiavelli’s will not post, but neither will the closet atheists. If the aim is to give a voice to people traditionally denied them, then pseudonymity is essential, and another tool is needed for silencing the psychopaths (like more intense moderation and banning).

    I personally don’t want my career as a porn actor, tied to my interest in church and theology, tied to my job in technology. There is no possible world in which those three things have a healthy coexistence.

  • MrPopularSentiment

    All well and good for non-marginalized groups. But as an atheist who may have been fired from a job after the CEO found out about my (lack of) religious beliefs, I see things rather differently. Being able to speak online anonymously means being able to speak online. Otherwise, simply by virtue of being me (I don’t think I’m generally a jerk in my interactions – online or off – but I’m probably biased), I could face some pretty serious financial/social consequences.

    If it were just about me, fine. But I have a family. Not being able to get a job because my (very easily google-able unique) name may trigger a potential employer’s prejudices could mean not being able to provide for my kids.

    And while I’m at it, not all names are created equal. If my name were something common like Jane Smith, there is some inherent anonymity even when interfacing online under my real name. But with my name, that’s different. I am willing to bet that, with over 7 billion people in the world, there is not a single other person that has the same first name / last name combination. Heck, even just my first name alone is fairly rare. So it’s a lot easier for me to be targeted than it is for a Jane Smith.

    (It’s not just atheists. Trans people, for example, could very easily be in physical danger if they speak openly online under their legal names.)