pseudonymity and the commons

In Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky quotes Elinor Ostrom, the economics Nobelist who studies the management of shared resources:

When individuals who have high discount rates and little mutual trust act independently, without the capacity to communicate, to enter into binding agreements, and to arrange for monitoring and enforcement mechanisms, they are not likely to choose jointly beneficial strategies.

This. This is what we’ve been saying about pseudonymity — both I, and people who disagree with me.

Internet civility is a shared resource: a backdrop against which we couch our online cultures that can be easily run to tatters by selfish actors.

And that blockquote is the concern about anonymity, isn’t it? The anonymous have the ultimately high discount rate: their fragment of identity does not persist beyond the moment of the quote, so they need bear no future costs at all. There’s no reason to trust the truly anonymous and no way to communicate with them. Moderation provides monitoring and enforcement, but that’s about it. So it’s easy for true anonymity to result in social strategies which are not jointly beneficial.

So that’s what people are attacking with things like real name policies or its computational proxy, sign in with Facebook. By affixing public identity they’re decreasing the discount rate, adding back-channel communication possibilities, and increasing enforcement options.

But the thing is, it’s the lazy option. Because if you’re doing this by affixing real names without having put any time into building community norms, what you’re doing is importing wholesale the most, well, normative norms: the idea we all have in our head of how we are expected to act in the most mainstream possible version of society.

And those of us who crusade against real name policies do so, I think, because we fear the strictures of that normativity. There are lots of interactions you can’t have if you have imported that set of norms. You cannot have any conversations from Hallin’s sphere of deviance — you cannot even have any conversations which intimate that you might hold views within that sphere — even if they are not deviant within some subculture. You cannot safely interact with modes of discourse or cultural touchstones that are normal and safe in some subculture, but are not so in the mainstream.

Real name policies reaffirm the power of those already in power, and re-silence those already wary of voice, by lazily and unquestioningly handing power to a particular set of social norms in a space — the internet — where it did not inherently have such power.

The magic of the internet for some of us has lain in large part in its ability to create safe spaces for new norms. It can get better because online we can have a space where elements of our identity are no longer deviant — but only if we can wall them off from places where they are — which means: only if we can avoid using the name attached to us in those normative spaces.

Social norms are important. We can, indeed, not generally function without them, and I have common ground with the anti-pseudonymity crowd there. But there are many sets of social norms, inhering to many subcultures (online and off), and I strongly condemn the inclination to privilege only one of them in all milieus. And social norms are a brake on innovation, because precisely of Hallin’s spheres — because they circumscribe what it is allowable to say and, therefore, restrict what it is allowable to think, and make it difficult and dangerous to form communities which could advance certain lines of thought. There are social norms littered throughout human cultures which would have me be illiterate, or unable to form contracts, or subservient to my husband or my womb. I do not feel any great need to bow down to mainstream norms simply because they are, for now, mainstream.

So: pseudonyms. Real names are the lazy way to get Ostrom’s criteria because persistent pseudonymous spaces can, and do, meet those criteria. Persistent identity of any form decreases the discount rate because it creates an emotional and practical bond with the future self and thereby increases the perceived costs of punishments it may bear. Persistent identity is required (though not sufficient) for communication, agreement, and monitoring. Pseudonymity isn’t enough for productive spaces — maybe or maybe not civil, mind you, but productive — you still need community-building. (Just as you do by importing real names, in fact! You get the illusion of a functioning space by early wholesale import of norms, but it doesn’t save you the need to do work to cultivate that space.)

I believe in spaces with cultures and norms. I believe in the power of the internet to create spaces with their own norms, with unique power to welcome and inspire and innovate and challenge and unite in ways the offline world cannot. A real-names internet, an internet that imports wholesale normativity and makes it into a stick to beat away the unusual in the name of civility, is an internet that leaches away nearly everything I have found beautiful and transformative.

A more open internet will show us seamy underbellies that humanity had anyway and feared to express, yes. But it will also show us more beauty. A more open internet is the one that welcomes the disaffected and the dissident. A real-names policy is a cheap, cargo-cult imitation of Ostrom’s criteria.

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