Anonymous has given anonymity a bad name. Pseudonyms, aliases, nom de plumes, all have lubricated social communication for centuries. Famously, several female authors wrote under male names, but other reasons given for changing one’s name include feeling free to write about people you know without recrimination, attempting to mute obvious cultural elements of your name so that people don’t view you through the lens of a particular worldview, or just plain wanting to have a different persona.
The battle has been waged on several fronts — unsurprisingly, as the internet is spreadeagled across nations with many different laws and perspectives on privacy. The more online we become, the more we realise how ungoverned — and ungovernable — the space really is. Now, Facebook and Google+’s “real name” demands seem to be forcing us into ever more public online presences.
While Facebook seems primarily to target those inclined to put daft and pseudo topical middle names onto their profiles, and Google+ has displayed some worrying cultural biases such as not realising some people really only HAVE one name, there are more serious considerations to online anonymity.
Behind The Mask: the cons
1. Being nastier
Simply put, you’re more likely to fire off that hate filled tirade under a false name than you are under your own. Interestingly, a lot of the people that @alittleracist calls out for their twitter racism are operating under very unusual (read largely unintelligible and ungrammatical) pseudonyms. We are much quicker to incite when we know the neighbour doesn’t know it’s us, and our boss isn’t watching.
2. Not claiming your awesomeness
Say what? People often start something anonymously, because they’re afraid of the response they might get. But if they become acclaimed or adored, they find that they do want people to know who they are after all. Sometimes, it seems, we only want to be anonymous in the hard times, not the good.
3. Distributing filth
Several attacks on online anonymity, for example laws in New Zealand, have taken the shape of clampdowns aimed at curbing child pornography and nailing the bastards committing these offences to, well, their own legal names, the full legal consequences, and if most of us had our way, to the wall by their wobbly bit.
4. Coordinating the blowing up of stuff
Obviously, the top reason for not being anonymous. Well yes. Clearly, we don’t like it when people blow stuff up. That is a given. And being anonymous online – a whole different level of anonymous than most of us are used to – enables bad people to make bad plans, and decreases the chances of the good guys catching them. Don’t mistake my simplicity here for callousness – where real crimes are being committed online, I am all for cybersleuths hunting them down.
An air of mystery: The pros
1. Degrees of pseudonymity
An article around Google+ usernames explores the fact that a lot of people, in every aspect of their life, are not known by their legal given name. Perhaps this is because they married and acquired a new surname, perhaps this is for work reasons, or cultural reasons mentioned above. The bottom line is that it’s not sinister to want to be “Tim” if your name is “Timothy”. Or wanting to be “Bakkies” if that’s what people scream at you from the sidelines.
2.Blinds on glass houses
I write erotic fiction under a pseudonym, and I do this for two very strong reasons. The one is so that those results don’t come up first when people Google my name (and I am hyperaware those people could be my parents, or, in a year or two, my sons). The construction of online personas — brands, if you’ll forgive the shudderful term – is a real consideration for many people. Where it is possible to manage the results Google pops back for your name, people will try and do so.
3.Fun and fantasy
The other reason I write erotica under a pseudonym is because I don’t want anyone thinking of me for even a splitsecond while they’re reading those stories. Escapism should be removed from reality as far as possible. Every callgirl in History has known and followed this rule. Belle du Jour’s story plays out several of the reasons that names related to “sexytimes” are often not enacted under the same name your mum gave you.
4.Freedom of speech
Without fear. Here’s the problem with the bad guys principle above: who decides who is good and who bad? Where is the line between freedom fighters and terrorists of online speech drawn? The anonymous blogger might truly be someone who fears unjust consequences from their words. There are several reasons people wish to remain anonymous: sexual orientation, abuse, illness, fear of attack, previous victims of stalking, protection of the people they love. “Anonymity had a purpose then – it will always have a reason to exist, for writers whose work is too damaging or too controversial to put their names on” – Dr Brooke Magnanti (aka Belle du Jour)
Interestingly, I had on my pro and con list “disconnect from reality”. I think the bottom line is that the internet itself is a disconnect from reality, and this can be a good thing or a bad thing. Personally I would protect anyone’s right to be anonymous – or pseudonymous, in the virtual realm. “Free your mind; and your ass will follow”.