The evanescence of pseudonymous online identity

Paul Raven @ 23-08-2011

Charlie Stross:

Google are wrong about the root cause of online trolling and other forms of sociopathic behaviour. It’s nothing to do with anonymity. Rather, it’s to do with the evanescence of online identity. People who have long term online identities (regardless of whether they’re pseudonymous or not) tend to protect their reputations. Trolls, in contrast, use throw-away identities because it’s not a real identity to them: it’s a sock puppet they wave in the face of their victim to torment them. Forcing people to use their real name online won’t magically induce civility: the trolls don’t care. Identity, to them, is something that exists in the room with the big blue ceiling, away from the keyboard. Stuff in the glowing screen is imaginary and of no consequence.

That’s a brief aside from a longer post in which Charlie joins the (largely unopposed) chorus of people trying to make Google aware of just how dickish they’re being with this whole pseudonyms business*; worth reading for the borrowed list of programmer assumptions about human names alone, though it’s all good stuff.

[ * For my part, I’m more astonished by the Big G’s uncharacteristic tone-deafness on the issue than by the issue itself (which is simply a hallmark of contemporary concerns about identity in the network age); they’ve responded faster and better to much smaller outcryings in the past, which lends a certain weight to the suggestions that this is a push to monetise enforced canonical identity… a push that “if it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly”; after all, if that really is the plan, they must have known there’d be a push-back against it, and that resistance would only increase with time. But again, it seems very out of line with the usual corporate character on display from Mountain View… so, if it’s the mask slipping, why is it slipping now? ]

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5 Responses to “The evanescence of pseudonymous online identity”

  1. Dave says:

    I like pseudonyms fine, but I feel like Charlie is running different points together here. If the problem is the “evanescence” of a given online persona, requiring the use of real names does fix the problem — because real names can’t just evaporate when the trolling is over; they don’t evanesce. A real name is of necessity a “long-term identity.”

    So what he must really be saying in the “trolls” paragraph is that trolls will just go around the name requirement by making up plausible false identities and throwing them away. Here’s where the identity-verification apparatus that he’s just spent a couple paragraphs trashing might come in useful. But we needn’t even consider that. Because trolls are not just a hardcore of committed vandals. Trolls include all manner of ordinary people freed from the constraint of identification. Have a look at the comments on Youtube or a shitty newspaper site, or the hateful emails that pour in whenever a columnist writes something controversial, etc. The numbers are staggering; these are examples of masses of ordinary people behaving badly. They’re not career trolls, it’s not their avocation; they’re trolls of circumstance. Social psych tells us that regular people behave differently when free from scrutiny. The environment of G+ is designed to be one that discourages this pattern from occurring.

    Charlie’s argument works when describing the hard-core trolls, the Al-Qaeda of trolls, who set out to behave badly and are willing to go to lengths to do it. But most bad behavior is done by ordinary people who would never misbehave in sober daylight.

  2. Chad says:

    I agree completely Dave. Stross seems to miss some of the argument.

    Also, Google may actually be right and think the same as Stross, but they choose a different solution. One that is probably easier to explain to the masses than Stross’s.

    How bad is it that you have to use your real name? Seriously, is that torturous for people?

  3. deadmanjones says:

    Good article but even better headline.

    It’s certainly true that those that value their online identity frequently base it around a different monicker; flesh names are anonymous online, lost in a forest of limited fore and surname combinations.

    But the trolls I know never “throw-away” their identity, they just don’t care about the shit that sticks to it. In fact, the more that sticks the better, it’s all part of the fun. These are friends of mine under the big blue ceiling, who simply don’t see that their online identity has any worth or value past sending scatological tweets to minor celebrities. Would that behaviour change if they thought their avatar was cast in stone, matched their real name and would follow for them forever? Yes. They wouldn’t sign up for the service in the first place.

    So there’s a faint echo of legitimacy in Google’s claim they’re doing this to stop the trolls. Faint and distant.

    But, as you point out, that the policy for real name exists is nowhere near as interesting as the fact it is being policed, being policed aggressively by deaf, blind mutes, and being policied to the detriment of non-beta services. It takes an enormous effort to do, will inevitably throw up more false positives than positive falsehoods, and is absurdly easy to circumvent.

    Everyone keeps pointing the finger at monetization, but I can’t get my head around why knowing the real name of your customer and refusing to let anyone else see your advert would be financially attractive. The only way it would have financial merit is if they were illegally selling your identity…oh…

    The only optimistic nugget I can mine is that Google of late has refused to knee jerk. In the case of Thomas Monopoly (http://www.twitlonger.com/show/bvqdos) they kept silent regardless of the bad press they received in the interim.

  4. Khannea Suntzu says:

    Google’s needs as well as the needs of the Nymian can be squared by creating a Nym registry, along the lines of a game. Those who want Nyms might ‘level’ their Nym according to a set of ‘classes’ and along ‘somewhat’ formalized pseudo-psychotherapeutic pathways. As much a discover of the other in self and the self in all others. Google has now learned this flavor of expression won’t go away, despite what the corporate, government or moralist autocrats have decreed.

    So now they must facilitate and curtail it. The Nymian is the new pink, and it should be a treasured consumer expression. So flow with it, respect it and make it blossom.

  5. Khannea Suntzu says:

    Chad, yes, I won’t ever use my ‘real’ name again. I’d rather die, as in literally.

    I ask you to respect this what you do not yet have the capacity to understand. Trust me that 2 hours of select scenes of my live on Video would make you understand and probably traumatize you.

    I can only exist in escape.