Article on anonymity and pseudonimity – and connection with APP 2

April 29, 2014 |

Australian Privacy Principle 2 provides that an organisation or agency should provide individuals with an opportunity to be anonymous or use a pseudonym except in specific situations.  It is not a default position of many organisations.   The benefits of anonymity and pseudonymity are rarely enunciated outside the tech zone.

In We Need Online Alter Egos Now More Than Ever Wired, per Judith Donath, sets out in eloquantly the benefit of on line alter egos (or pseudonymity in more technical terms).  It provides:

Online, I use my real name for many things. But sometimes, I prefer to use a pseudonym. Not because I want to anonymously harass people or post incendiary comments unscathed; no, I simply want to manage the impression I make, while still participating in diverse conversations and communities.

“Hold on!” some of you are saying. “Writing under a fake name is a form of lying. It’s cowardly and the tactic of bullies and trolls. We need to make people use their real names online to ensure civility and trust.” Indeed, whenever a new controversy about cyberbullying or anonymous rumors arises, a frequently offered “solution” is to ban anonymous comments and insist that people use real names. But this approach focuses on the wrong issue and creates a false dichotomy, presenting the choices as either fully identified, real names or untraceable anonymity.

Instead, we should focus on how to design for keeping online discourse civil and constructive. And this involves supporting the middle ground, pseudonymous identities, which can provide both accountability and privacy.

Online, words persist forever, in vast searchable databases. Anything you say or do using your real name is permanently attached to it.

Insisting that people use their real names online to prevent trolling and ensure civility ignores the fact that using real names online is quite different than using them in person. In the physical world, space and time separate facets of our lives, providing everyday privacy. Even though you use your real name in conversations you have in person with your podiatrist or pastor, those conversations and opinions are not accessible to your co-workers and neighbors. Online, however, the product review you generously provided for an underarm deodorant or for books about coping with binge eating or bed-wetting, will, if written under your real name, be part of your online portrait, what your neighbors, kids and random strangers see about you. Online, words persist forever, in vast searchable databases. Anything you say or do using your real name is permanently attached to it.

It is that very permanence that can be used to design better tools for online interaction. A persistent pseudonym establishes a local identity: you always use it on a certain site or sites, and you build up a history and reputation under that name. You might use one pseudonym to write all sorts of product and service reviews, another in a support group for a personal health issue, and use your real name in discussions on professional forums and to comment on news stories.

The key to making pseudonymous participation productive is to inspire people to care about the impression they are making on others. In physical environments, the body anchors identity; online, one’s history of contributions and interactions functions as one’s “body”, but it can be difficult to see. We can fix this by designing visualizations – data portraits – that make identities based on words and data vivid and easily perceived. Data portraits encapsulate each person’s history and reputation within a community, and thus encourage people to take responsibility for their words, inhibiting bad behavior. At the same time, they can be pseudonymous, giving people the freedom to discuss things they would be reticent to do under their real name.

Many thriving communities allow pseudonymous participation, using various ways of making history and reputation visible. On Twitter, you can see users’ past tweets and number of followers just by clicking on their name. Disqus provides the commenting interface for millions of sites and allows people to choose whether they want to be anonymous, fully identified or pseudonymous. Their assessment? “Pseudonyms are the most valuable contributors to communities because they contribute the highest quantity and quality of comments.”
Yet our option to use pseudonyms is endangered. Online participation increasingly requires using a socially verified account, usually provided by one of the giant social networks — Google+, Facebook, Linked In, etc. – which insist that people use their real names, their users enmeshed in a network of friends and colleagues. Newspapers, blogs and many other sites require people to identify themselves with one of these accounts to take part in any discussion.

So, if persistent pseudonyms can both encourage civility and preserve privacy, why is there such a strong push for real names? One reason is that insisting on real names can seem like a quick and easy way to improve the quality of comments. Another, less pro-social one is that advertisers want them in order to aggregate all the details about you. Insisting on a single identity tied to your real world, credit-card-carrying self makes your comments and reviews into a monetizable package, fit to be analyzed and marketed to.

The chilling effect of insisting on real names stifles political and other controversial discussions, inhibiting people from stating their views on gun laws, feminism, terrorism, abortion, climate change and so on. When such debates are held face to face, in cafes and over dinner tables, there is little concern that, say, a future employer will learn what you said and decline to hire you (unless you have the misfortune to live in a regime with a Stasi-like network of citizen-spies), but as the internet increasingly becomes the venue of choice for such discussions, any opinion stated under your real name is trivially accessible. For anyone in a vulnerable position – people seeking a job, people whose beliefs are at odds with their neighbors or co-workers – the ability to participate in such discussions depends, effectively, on being able to do so pseudonymously.

Personas creates a portrait by analyzing Web search results for the subject’s name and attempting to characterize the person by fitting him or her into various categories of roles and interests (click to expand). Image: Aaron Zinman and Judith Donath

Insistence on real names also prevents people from seeking support for personal problems. Joe Walther, a behavioral scientist who studies online communication, notes that pseudonymity is vital in support groups because people need to develop trust in each other, yet do not want their private concerns to be revealed to the world at large.

Part of how we craft our identity is by choosing what we reveal to others about how we spend our time and what we worry about.

Part of how we craft our identity is by choosing what we reveal to others about how we spend our time and what we worry about. Even the most innocuous actions – such as reviewing a shoe or commenting on a gossipy news item – may seem inadvisable if they will be permanently part of one’s self-presentation, rather than disappearing into the nebulous haze of the past as they do face to face. Should everyone who Googles your name know that you worried that some sandals made your feet look pudgy or that you cared enough about a TMZ expose to spend some of Saturday night commenting on it? Using your real name indiscriminately can damage your privacy and dignity. (You may ask, is it such a loss if people rate fewer margarita bars and weigh in less on the latest Kardashian divorce? I would say yes – both for the writer and the audience. Reading online reviews – whether of books, dive bars, acne creams, etc. – provides a useful guide to new products and experiences. Writing them can provide the catharsis of publicly complaining about a bad experience or the warmth of giving the gift of glowing praise to someone who provided something good. And even commenting on celebrity news has merit – it is the chit-chat of everyday life, connecting people at the global village scale.)

Online, using pseudonyms is actually more like our ordinary face-to-face experience – and it is essential for managing the impression we make. Face to face, we develop relationships in separate contexts — and the things we talk about, the jokes we make, the secrets we reveal – vary tremendously . You may share, say, your feelings about the difficulties of caring for an aging, fading parent or a special needs child with others in the same situation; you may find things funny in the company of old friends that you would never admit to thinking humorous in front of your family. You present yourself differently to your neighbor, lawyer, teacher, children, grandmother — you use different words and talk about different things. This is not a lack of integrity, but a feature of being an adaptable person in multiple social contexts, understanding the varied mores of the different situations. Pseudonyms allow us to maintain such separate contexts online.

Furthermore, discussions among people using pseudonyms may be more interesting. Uncoupled from real world identity, people are quicker to talk about personal subjects, creating a rapid sense of intimacy and closeness. Forced to use real names, many people, aware of the privacy issues raised by this policy, choose to say little, their contributions politely, innocuously stilted. As users, we need to resist the drive for mandatory real name usage. We need to tell the owners of sites that persistent pseudonyms maintain civility while respecting the privacy of their users. Sites that see their participants as valued contributors – and not just as product for advertisers – should support the use of pseudonyms.

Designs for Pseudonymity

The mail portrays the history of a relationship. Words used with unusual frequency in the subjects’ correspondence make up the columns, starting with their earliest interactions at right to the time of the portrait, at left. A column’s height shows how much they were corresponding at that time, and the words in the background of the image are ones that characterize their overall correspondence (click to expand). Image: Fernanda Viégas, Scott Golder, and Judith Donath, Themail (2006)

A pseudonym without history is just anonymity with a temporary name. If I sign a comment as “Alyce” or “Dude69”, and this name does not connect with anything else I have done, the pseudonym is meaningless (other than the cue it provides about my taste and aspirations).

A basic – and useful – way to incorporate history is to have pseudonymous profiles that show all of a user’s contributions. Twitter works this way: accounts can be pseudonymous and you can have as many as you want. I decide whether I want to follow you based on the history of what you’ve already posted – if it seems interesting, I will; if I see that you are prolific yet dull, I won’t. (And of course people can choose to appear under their real name, and many do. But there is no requirement to do so, and many pseudonymous accounts are quite popular). But poring over pages of history is quite a bit of effort if you just want to get an impression of someone – or want to size up many people at once, such as all the commenters on a news story. A data portrait is a more compact – and evocative – depiction. Here, the key patterns and texts are used as the basis for an image; one that might, for example, depict the topics the person has discussed and their pattern of interactions.

Using one’s real name online, on the other hand, collapses contexts, as everything one has performed or written under that name can be quickly tied together though search.

Such a rendering might seem privacy invading if it were based on all of one’s data, but as a pseudonymous portrait, it is local to the community: it contains only data that is relevant to that space. A site which included such portraits of all its users would be a socially legible space, with vivid characters easily distinguishable from each other.

The Last Stand for Privacy

I said earlier that pseudonyms, being local, resembled our physical world experience where time and space effectively carve out separate spheres of interaction. Using one’s real name online, on the other hand, collapses contexts, as everything one has performed or written under that name can be quickly tied together though search.

Soon, however, the physical world will lose its local privacy. The coming ubiquity of cameras everywhere combined with face recognition means that the taken-for-granted ability to facet our lives in the physical world may be coming to an end. A glimpse of your face, a quick search and I’ll have access to your words – and your appearance in other cameras, from other times and places. And faces are harder to disguise than names. (Perhaps we will face this future wearing masks, the equivalent of the pseudonym for the physical world).

In that situation, the only private refuge will be online – and only if we have established a tradition of pseudonymity and ensured that there remain places where one can participate without identifying one’s real world self.


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