Anonymity as Virtue or Vice

July 24, 2009 | 32 comments
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Online anonymity is a topic that comes up regularly. Does if facilitate public discussion of controversial issues or just allow anonymous commenters to spread rumor and innuendo with no accountability? Does real-name posting or commenting improve quality via reputation effects or lead to self-censoring? These are valid questions for all online forums, not just blogs or the Bloggernacle.

Jeffrey Rosen covers some of this ground in The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America (Random House, 2000). He is primarily interested in the erosion of privacy, but in Chapter Five, “Privacy in Cyberspace,” he gives some general remarks about historical anonymity in public debate.

The right to speak and read anonymously has played a central role in the history of free expression in America. The Federalist Papers were famously anonymous — “Publius” was a pseudonym for Madison, Hamilson, and Jay; and other Federalist pamphleteers used names such as “An American Citizen,” “A Landholder,” and “Marcus.” … As Justice Clarence Thomas has noted, many of the defining battles over freedom of the press in the Founding era concerned the importance of anonymity in protecting unpopular speakers.

The most famous free-speech drama of all involved John Peter Zenger, a printer who refused to reveal the names of anonymous authors who had criticized the royal governor of New York. Unable to prosecute the authors, the governor prosecuted Zenger himself for seditious libel. In an early example of jury nullification, a New York jury refused to convict Zenger in 1735, and the acquital was widely viewed as a triumph for the related principles of anonymity and freedom of the press. [Paragraphing added.]

In the book, Rosen goes on to discuss the two general mechanisms for disciplining known speakers who violate community speech norms, formal legal redress (for libel or invasion of privacy) or informal social sanctions (direct feedback, gossip, and loss of reputation, for example). That split applies in many scenarios. In an LDS ward, there is formal discipline (via the bishop) and informal reaction to onymous public speech as well. If you give a sacrament talk titled “29 Good Reasons to Go Inactive” or publish such remarks in your favorite independent Mormon journal, you might end up having a chat with your bishop; or you might find your fellow ward members avoiding you on Sunday; or both. Even blogs have this split. There is formal discipline (your comments are so offensive you get banned) and informal discipline (fellow commenters unleash direct negative feedback and you may lose reputation points).

Applying this general issue and discussion to anonymity on LDS blogs, here are a few points to ponder.

First, anonymity is a way of avoiding real-world formal and informal sanctions for norm-violating speech. So requiring real names is a way of enforcing speech norms, a good thing if the norms are beneficial. But there are several responses to this position: (1) What the proper norms are is a matter of dispute (both online and in the real world), so what one person believes to be a defensible speech norm, another might view as an attempted suppression of important public discussion. (2) Even widely accepted norms will sometimes be abused, applied to further a personal agenda rather than the public purpose that informs the norm. (3) Online, even fully anonymous commenters are still subject to corrective informal feedback from other bloggers/commenters or to being formally blocked from the site. As most readers know, T&S requires permabloggers and guests to be onymous but has always allowed anonymous commenters, a compromise that seems to work for us.

A second point is that anonymity is not always designed to evade sanctions for transgressing speech norms. Some online speakers want to avoid attracting cyberstalkers or their real-life cousins. Some online speakers want to avoid not reasonable formal or unformal discipline but UNreasonable discipline. Imagine, for example, being an LDS blogger in Iran or China. It’s not the bishop you are worried about knocking on your door at midnight. Some online speakers do not want employers or potential employers to be able to track their personal discussions online, a reasonable precaution given that some employers or potential employers might (privately) disfavor an employee or reject an applicant they know to be LDS. So there are many valid reasons for online anonymity.

A final point is that anonymous speakers tend to have less credibility. It is one of the costs a speaker faces for the choice of anonymity. That is partly guilt by association — there are a lot of anonymous crackpots out there — but it also results from the lack of personal details that give context and substance to a speaker’s remarks. There are, for example, some long-time Bloggernacle participants whose religious affiliation, education, professional field, geographical location, and even gender are a complete mystery to me. They could be a computer-generated blogger for all I know. They could be clever monkeys with keyboards. The same lack of a human identity problem applies to some “corporate blogs” (here, for example).

My bottom line: There are plenty of valid reasons for online anonymity, more than I might have expected before this exercise. But anonymous speakers have to work harder than onymous speakers to establish credibility and provide a personal context to their posts and comments.

32 Responses to Anonymity as Virtue or Vice

  1. Ardis E. Parshall on July 24, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    There are a few anonymous commenters — queuno comes to mind — who have as much credibility as any onymous T&S blogger. There are others who use real names, or at least human-sounding ones — [self-edited] comes to mind — who lack credibility no matter how much they say.

    Then there are the bloggers who can use their real names and still be generally anonymous outside of their familiar playgrounds here. Someone googling them could not know with certainty that they had found the identical Steve Evans unless they spent a *lot* of time sifting through myriads of comments to find the ones with personally revealing information.

    That’s a form of anonymous onymousness that bloggers like Kaimipono Wenger and Ardis Parshall don’t have. If you think I behave stupidly online even when it can all be tracked back to me, imagine how stupidly I would behave without that awareness.

    Sometimes people think it’s funny to come up to me in public and let me know they know a lot about me because of what I’ve written online, without wanting to tell me who they are. That’s not funny, people. It’s juvenile, and a little too much like an anonymous, threatening phone call. I turn my back and walk away from anyone like that, just as I would hang up the phone.

    I’d be happier if everybody used their real names, although I understand why they don’t.

  2. queuno on July 24, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    Some random thoughts:

    I’ve routinely revealed my real identity to anyone who really cares to know. I’ve consistently used the same Internet handle. Hey, I’m even willing to add people as a Facebook friend (with my real name).

    Obviously, people like Ardis and Kaimi and Kevin Barney and Julie M. Smith add their personal reputations to the discussion by using their real names. My real-life identity would serve little purpose in either sense — my professional or academic accomplishments have virtually nothing to do with discussions about the gospel or the Church, unlike other bloggers. The name just doesn’t matter, either way.

    Perhaps I’m somewhat concerned about the real-life ramifications of using my real-life name on blogs such as these. Part of my reasons for staying more-or-less anonymous is because my family was once threatened over a letter to the editor I published. That, and occasionally I’ll post anecdotes about family members or friends, and I would like to preserve their privacy as well.

    I like Google to show as little about me as possible.

    And rest assured, Ardis, if I ever met you in real life, I’d announce myself with both my handle and my real name.

  3. Thomas Parkin on July 24, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    I used a pseudonym in online communities for many years, even though I was widely, personally known in those communities. I discovered that in using a pseudonym I expended a great deal of mental energy creating and defending a persona around the name, a persona that came to be very important to me – augmenting my ego and even distorting real world relationships. The same thing could be done with my real name, I suppose – but in my ongoing efforts to ‘be real’, I find it helpful to use my real name. ~

  4. Bridget Jack Meyers on July 24, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    We must not fail to mention the classic treatment of Internet anonymity…

  5. Chris H. on July 24, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    I am just excited that Dave is reading Jeffrey Rosen. This issue was discussed a bit ago at FPR where a number of folks assume secret identities.

    http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2009/02/the-virtue-of-pseudonymity/

  6. Starfoxy on July 24, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    Jack- I thought you were going to link to this (language warning).

  7. Justmeherenow on July 24, 2009 at 6:41 pm

    Hey! Coincidentally, before commenting I’ve filled in my “website field.” I’ve started a pretty revealing o’ blog(!)

    In some RANDOM bits and pieces: Mormonism to me has this incredible emphasis on personal accountability: doin stuff ya don’t mind ppl finding out about! (As they say, “God knows everything, anyway!”) But consider: authority ppl in the Church are entrusted with counsels and knowledge of ppl’s personal affairs that they’re expected to keep in confidence: also true, yeah?

    Why hide stuff [be discreet — as a Church leader]? Cos the effort it takes for ppl to “not judge unrighteously” is great; so it’s best to let God do the judging and be discreet with humans (at least in my opinion).

    In my case, I tend to too much self-revelation so my slight anonymity in commenting on-line hepz dis — ci — pline me to not just “let everything hang out,” as I am wont, ya know?! (Don’ rilly adopt a fake persona whatsoever, but am just as obnoxious as Just me as I am as “mister, ahem, SoAndSo Q. SoAndSo.”)

    Still there is something to be said for presenting bone fides:

    something I obviously — DON’T do…

    and the reason I don’t (drumroll) is cos I know they’re a “fail” in many ways; in fact the only thing I zgot goin is idiosyncratic contemplation. * * * (That said, if I’m truly true to myself, then I end up truly true to God, in my opinion.)
    _____

    DAVE, wonderfully intelligent, well written, informed, enlighted, post. Thanks to commenter-above: JACK, for the perceptions you express and your remaining true to your sincerest convictions;…thx THOS., thx QUEUNO for bein two good Mormon eggs; and ARDIS, thanks, for her sharply defined persona and sturdy defenses of truth, as well.

    Well, I gotta shower for visitors. (Coincidentally I’m learning about an eastern religious tradition!)

  8. Justmeherenow on July 24, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    (Now my websites filled in: oops.) And Chris H. and Starfoxy and commented now, too. Great! {smiles}

  9. Dave on July 25, 2009 at 12:35 am

    Thanks for the link to the FPR post, Chris. Looks like I unknowingly channelled that post … which I must have read but don’t recall.

  10. Chris H. on July 25, 2009 at 6:55 am

    Well, my comments over there were channelling Rosen, a book which I picked up at DI a few months ago, but have not yet read. This is an issue that I do find interesting. I have chosen the middle path, sort of. I do not list my full name anywhere. But Chris H, is part of my real name and I am very open about where I live and what I do for a living which would make it easy for anyone to figure out my full identity without much effort.

    For about a week, I used the name JJRousseau, but then I decided that if I had to hide my indentity from my employer (which was my concern), then maybe I shouldn’t work there. They have never mentioned my blogging, and for all I know are not aware of it.

  11. Bro. Jones on July 25, 2009 at 10:37 am

    #1 Yikes, now all of us with human-sounding pseudonyms are wondering if we’re the one who lacks credibility. :(

    I use my pseudonym 1) because I have a very distinctive real name, and I already tend to be on the outside of many wards I’ve been in. All I need is for the RS president to take my wife aside and tell her she’s a bad wife because her husband said on the Internet that being a SAHD is okay. (In our last ward, this wouldn’t have surprised me a bit.);

    and 2) I hold a fairly substantial position as a moderator on an Internet social forum where I am also mostly anonymous, and I’d prefer that people there not be able to identify me by other Internet posts.

  12. Chris H. on July 25, 2009 at 11:35 am

    SAHD?

  13. Justmeherenow on July 25, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    Stay-at-home dad

  14. Chris H. on July 25, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    Oh, thanks.

  15. Mike H. on July 25, 2009 at 9:15 pm

    On some blogs, I used a nickname since it fits better on those blogs. On other blogs, a first name is normally enough, but I use a last initial to get me separate from other Mikes. I do appreciate a little anonymity due to some of the anti-LDS cranks out there.

    But, on some non-religious blogs, there’s been some under handed actions if you question the actions of some large corporations. Like, one computer reviewer:
    http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/tom,21-2.html

    Then, one major bank was threatening to sue ANYONE who wrote anything bad about their bank in the 1980’s, even though they had a bunch of problems to fix. That’s one way to keep stock prices high & investors from panicking.

  16. Tatiana on July 26, 2009 at 5:07 am

    I see it as being like a nom de plume, with all the benign associations that has. Some people, like college professors or journalists, are in professions that give free reign to intellectual discussions of every sort. Other professions are more conservative and filled with people who might look askance at any public airing of political and religious opinions by a colleague.

    If one has quite a distinctive name, it can be wise to use a different name altogether in a different sphere. There’s not necessarily any attempt to be sneaky or to not own up to one’s ideas and opinions. It’s also true that anyone who searches diligently can connect the two together. But, just as you wouldn’t normally discuss your personal relationships freely with your company CEO, it’s sometimes smarter to keep the personal separate from the professional. Many writers have found that to be true in the past, and hence, the nom de plume.

  17. John C. on July 26, 2009 at 8:07 am

    I use my name because I’m actually Thomas S. Monson and you all are on notice. Also, I’m Napoleon every second Tuesday and Mozart on the full moon.

  18. karen on July 26, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    Only anonymity gave me the courage to post early on. I wrote first about repentant black sheep in my family. Since I think I am the ONLY one with my name in the world and, like queno, I prefer to be semi-anonymous, my first name is enough. More than a dozen old friends from former wards have recognized me from my later bloggernacle posts, and I am better friends with several members in my area because of what we have learned about each other.

  19. Prudence MccPrude on July 26, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    Anonymity is evil, and I for one won’t stand for it.

  20. Stephanie on July 26, 2009 at 9:56 pm

    I use my first name and never comment with another psueodonym. I hope that helps to establish credibility. However, I also don’t reveal any other names of my family members or my city/ward to try to maintain some amount of anonymity for safety reasons.

  21. Starfoxy on July 26, 2009 at 10:15 pm

    My first name is unusual, and I don’t think there are many other women my age who have it at all. Few of those women are mormon, and even fewer of them live in AZ. (I once looked up my maiden name on google, and everything it brought up referred to me. My married name is a little more common, but not much.)

    If I did not use a pseudonym online anyone who knew me and came across a comment or post of mine would immediately connect it to me. And as long as I’m going by a made up name I figured I may as well make it clear that it is obviously a made up name.
    The reasons why I don’t wish to be associated immediately and directly with my name is because my parents are very very conservative and I just keep my opinions to myself when I’m around them. If they knew the extent of my liberal leanings it would cause a rift between us. And also because my husband would, I think, be subject to some censure (since the only reason a woman is a feminist is because the men in her life treat her badly amirite?).

  22. Rameumptom on July 27, 2009 at 7:37 am

    Of course, some of us use pen names for fun, and will share our real names with those who ask.

    I personally do not mind people using nom de plumes in a world where there just are no more secrets. If it gives the person the ability to speak out, then good for that person. Of course, each site has the right to establish its own rules and give discipline as needed. Such gives a balance.

    As it is, how do we REALLY know that Steve Evans’ name IS Steve Evans? :)

    Gerald “rameumptom” Smith

  23. John Mansfield on July 27, 2009 at 8:05 am

    Dave Banack, perhaps you could let us know your own experience since you have been on both sides of this as a highly visible blogger, with several years as first-name-only Dave somewhere in Orange County, and now as the highly specific Dave Banack of Jackson Hole.

  24. anon for this on July 27, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Go screw yourselves.

  25. SilverRain on July 27, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    I use a handle first and foremost to protect my family and friends. There is no reason why my opinions should reflect badly on them. Secondly, I use a handle because people can be awfully unforgiving. I like to be taken for who I am now, not for what half-baked opinion I wrote two years ago. An actual published paper would be different, because I would have spent a lot more time formulating it. The internet is an odd fish because it is written (thus “permanent”) yet instantaneous (thus undeveloped).

    Thirdly, I like to use handles because I have had stalkers, both the internet and the real-life kind, unfortunately. Still do, in fact. It’s nice to be able to form some sort of barrier to limit crossover.

    But for what it is worth, I freely admit to my handle and my real name when I meet people from online. It can be amusing to see color draining from faces. ;)

  26. Velska on July 27, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    Let’s say first of all, that that’s my real first name you’re looking at. Well, sort of — it’s the name my friends and family have known me for the last four decades or so.

    Second of all, googling me still reveals little of me. Our privacy legislation is among the strictest in Europe, and anything I deem too personal I will immediately call out. Most of search engine hits for ‘velska’ are Polish, Czech or Scandinavian (S, N, DA) language sites talking about the Welsh (Velska or something in S, N, DA, PL, CZ etc.) people or language.

    That out of the way — smugly assuming someone would care — let me just say that I really don’t much care so much about the *who* of anybody saying anything as much of *what*. If you make sense, it doesn’t matter what your name is.

    Of course, if your name really is Thomas S. Monson and you’ve been sustained as a “prophet, seer and a revelator”, your posts will appear prominently displayed, with your picture with it, for all the world to hearken or to throw rotten tomatoes at, whichever we choose to do. I truly do not envy the GAs! To have your every word dissected and shaved under a microscope to find something negative to say about… But we are talking about a special case. There are few among us, who hold all the Priesthood keys.

    That last sentence gives away a lot of what I think, I guess, and I don’t mind. I have stayed a more or less faithful Molly Mormon (and proud of it, too!) for the last three decades through sheer hardheadedness and perseverance against serious opposition — real and imagined.

    But Internet anonymity should always be put thusly: “anonymity”. Because it’s really not such a trivial thing to fudge your IP and MAC addresses. And if you’re routed through US switches (I don’t assume T&S to be hosted in the US, but I guess it would not be a huge surprise), the NSA has a “legal” right to go on fishing expeditions in all your communications. I really feel for you (that’s between 60 and 80 per cent of all Internet traffic depending on the institution giving the estimate, by the way).

    So anyone with a big enough bone to pick with you will find you, if you posted on a blog.

    Otherwise, open comment boards are Hecklers’ Corner and Socrates combined. One example is Slashdot — consider yourself warned about the language. I like it for just that. And I use the same name there. I don’t mind the mockers in the Great and Spacious. The freedom of expression is precious beyond imagination. It was only relatively recently when people were jailed in my native country for such things as singing a hymn that was identifiably a Mormon hymn, let alone “preaching”.

    I have become quite a windbag, haven’t I? I just wanted to say that there are definitely times, when anonymity is desired and even necessary. I tip my fedora to anyone, who refuses to submit their servers’ logs to random searches under the guise of “national security”.

    I can’t remember whom I quoted about 25 years ago to a friend in business school, when I said, “I find your opinion utterly repulsive, but I would be willing to lay down my life in defense of your right to express it.”

    That statement stands. The benefits hugely compensate for the costs. It’s a bit like freedom to choose. Nobody decides for me — unless it’s on my knees between me and my Lord.

    –Velska Makila

    P.S. I just now realize how smug I sound here, and now if I find out that I am mistaken about my ability to format my text w/ (X)HTML tags, I’ll probably tuck my tail between my legs for a while again…

  27. Adam Greenwood on July 27, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    Upside of onymity: old friends have run across my blogging and gotten back in touch

    Downside of onymity: I’ve received dozens of hate emails about my blogging at my work email address making vulgar suggestions about my wife and my deceased daughter

  28. Velska on July 27, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    Adam, I feel for you. Have had some sticky situations because of my “unruly” tongue. I am seemingly unable to repress my sometimes heterodox opinions, and they can come back to haunt me… but I stand behind the seriously thought-out ones, while apologizing for any perceived offense. I have not meant to offend, but often seem to do it without meaning.

  29. Dave on July 27, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    John, I think my early experience blogging makes it easier to see both sides of the anonymity argument. Just for the record, I was always onymous. I used my own name, not a handle or a pseudonym.

  30. John C. on July 28, 2009 at 8:36 am

    Is that so, Bro. Underhill?

  31. Vader on July 29, 2009 at 11:31 am

    “Publius” played a vital role in the ratification debate over the Constitution. That makes it hard for me to make a blanket condemnation of anonymity in public forums.

    But few pseudonyms conceal minds and hearts of the caliber of Madison, Hamilton, and Jay.

    I find that I behave better when I post on the Internet under my true name. Regrettably, my employer has put irresistible pressure on me to post anonymously. I am not making this up.

  32. mlu on August 3, 2009 at 2:12 am

    In other places on the Internet I started posting under my real name. My main reason was that I began pushing explicitly Christian viewpoints in an atmosphere generally a little hostile to that (but without the right to be hostile, I thought). The sacrament prayer made me feel I should do so with my real name.

    I haven’t been posting here for a long time and don’t find the environment hostile to the Savior or in need of anything from me.