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.

why pseudonymity matters

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 project: I’m extremely honored to have been asked to contribute.