My friends are an interesting bunch. I’m not talking about their brilliance, creativity, and charisma, although they have that in glorious abundance. I’m talking about their hacking (in both the computer and the MIT sense), their naked parties and their bondage parties, their experience with all manner of drugs.
I’m glad I know people who have had these sorts of experiences, and are willing to talk about them publicly. The things you learn, you know? I like having friends who come from a variety of experiences and perspectives so that my world can be bigger than my own experience.
But I used to be a teacher. And let me tell you, when I was a teacher, there was no way I would have admitted that I knew these people under my own name.
To be quite clear: I’m not ashamed of knowing them. I don’t think these activities are anything to be ashamed of. I don’t think (given some common-sense boundaries about consensuality of sex and reversibility of pranks) that they’re immoral. But they are occasionally illegal, and they are certainly hard to explain. And when I was a teacher, I lived in fear that some parent would discover I associated with people like that, and insist I be removed from contact with their children. Or that my students would discover these things and use them to demean me or destroy my authority in the classroom. (In fact, I was at one point harassed by students based on the results of a Google search.)
In short, had a real names policy been ubiquitous while I was in that role, I would have had to choose between my job (my career, my livelihood) and engaging with my friends online. Not “I could have had to choose”, if some parent had googled me and hit the ceiling. I would have had to, because the chilling effects of that policy would have prevented me from engaging online with my friends at all.
Pseudonymity, and password-protected spaces, let me do both. Pseudonymity lets us do the same thing that meatspace and its constraints have let us do for millennia: present different aspects of ourselves in different social contexts while remaining within social norms — even when the presentation of those same aspects in other contexts would violate norms. Meatspace lets us do this all under the same name because sound fades in time and space, because meatspace is seldom recorded or indexed or searchable, because meatspace typically shows us the people we’re interacting with and lets us make choices accordingly. The post-Google internet gives us none of those affordances, but gives us — has given us — instead: names. We can name and group our contexts and aspects to give us the shelter of local social norms. We can be a part of the social norms that matter most to us, even when they are out of favor with some more culturally dominant norm that has the potential to hurt us if we violate it.
This is what danah boyd means, I think, when she says “Real names” policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people. Policies that force us to present all aspects of ourselves under our hegemonic, dominant-culture name are policies which threaten our expression of the aspects of ourselves which are not in conformity with that dominant culture, and to engage with communities of the same. And the degree to which that is a threat to people is exactly the degree to which they are already out of conformity with that dominant norm. It is the reason why lists of who is harmed by a real names policy are teeming with people who belong to some sort of minority, espouse a locally unpopular belief, or are already vulnerable for other reasons: lesbian and gay teenagers; women who have experienced stalking or violence; members of minority religions; dissidents. The reason they most need a pseudonym to engage with their communities is the reason they are most threatened — truly, physically and economically and psychologically, in the real world, threatened — if pseudonyms are not allowed.
Some people express concerns that, without real names, the internet teems with awful people; real names are needed as a safeguard against that. This is poppycock.
Firstly, the internet teems with awful people because some people are awful. They are awful under their real names, too. The most cursory glance at history or the world around you will reveal that.
Secondly, per Anil Dash, if your website’s full of assholes, it’s your fault. There are tools, grounded in both code and norms, for promoting positive culture online. He goes into them in depth. Not one of them is “real names”. “Accountable identities”, yes — people who engage with a community under a persistent pseudonym accrete a reputation around that pseudonym and will act to protect it, and be treated by the community in accordance with that reputation. Persistent pseudonymity is importantly different from anonymity and I do wish people would realize that.
I was on a mailing list in the 90s that was central to the intellectual and emotional lives of many of the people on it; its founder operated pseudonymously. I have participated in numerous online communities under persistent pseudonyms — whether because as a teacher I wanted to separate those aspects of myself from my public persona, or simply because I have the world’s most google-able name and I don’t want everything of me to be available and traceable to everyone else — and in this capacity I have formed relationships, real relationships, with other people operating under pseudonyms. I met two people I like and respect tremendously in a community where I have been rigorous about never associating my real name; nor did I know theirs for years. So when people say real names are important for accountability, or culture, or engagement, I could not be more blistering and sure when I say, poppycock.
This post has veered off inevitably into the personal — naming is one of the topics I am most deeply passionate about — so let’s veer more. As some of you know and others may have guessed, “Andromeda” is not what I was named at birth. (Really, now. My parents are wonderful and interesting, but they’re not crazy.) Andromeda is my “real name” in every way that matters: I have been going by it since I was 13, which means nearly everyone I know has only ever known me under that name; it has been my legal name since I was 18; it is what is on my passport and driver’s license and social security card, even if it is not the name on my birth certificate. It is the name that is associated with nearly all of my professional and social accomplishments. It is my name.
This has made me profoundly sensitive to what other people wish to be called. If people say their name is danah (uncapitalized) or Skud or Jennifer 8. Lee, if they tell me they’re transitioning and going by an opposite-gender name now, that is damn well what I am going to call them, because anything less would be a mark of profound disrespect.
Anything less would be me trying to colonize their identity: to tell them that their assessment of who they are matters less than mine, and that my norms dominate their understanding of themselves. And this is what real-names policies do. They posit that some normative concept of our own identity and self-presentation has primacy over our understanding of those things; they rip away structures that allow us to participate respectfully, or even acceptably, in communities with diverse norms, and in doing so privilege the most mainstream of those norms; they threaten people who are already vulnerable by removing their ability to engage with communities where certain parts of themselves are safe, or risking reprisal from more powerful people and norms if they do. And they are not necessary. The internet can be civil without them, or uncivil with them — and either way civility is not a more important value than free expression, or employability, or physical safety. Sometimes some of us are lucky enough to not have them be in conflict; let us not assume this is, therefore, true for everyone, at all times.
Edit: There is now a version of this at the wonderful my.nameis.me project: http://my.nameis.me/227/andromeda-yelton/ I’m extremely honored to have been asked to contribute.