Why pseudonymity should not be a dirty word
How to value and judge the input of anonymous or pseudonymous contributors is a well-worn topic of debate, perhaps best summed up by a famous 1993 The New Yorker cartoon which bore the caption “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” 25 years on, naivety surrounding how anonymous we truly are on the Internet may have disappeared, but the argument continues.
This argument is particularly prominent within crypto circles, likely owing to the cypherpunk origins, financial stakes and often legally suspect ambitions, as a high proportion of contributors prefer to operate under aliases.
Arguments against pseudonymity — and for the rest of this article I will focus more on pseudonymity as opposed to anonymity — tend to boil down to:
- Without linking your argument to your real life identity (henceforth IRL) you have less skin in the game and you can subsequently discard your previous words and start anew
- It prevents community building
- Those who operate under the blanket of anonymity are ‘hiding’, as Arianna Huffington once lamented and therefore do not have the same level of credibility because we cannot judge if they are actually credible
- This lack of accountability also encourages bad behaviour, such as trolling
Added to this is a sense of injustice which pervades many of those who aren’t pseudonymous as they feel they are not operating on an equal playing field. This power dynamic is undeniable; anonymity is a powerful tool which puts the IRL opponent at a disadvantage; the most the IRL user can do is get annoyed through a screen, whilst the anonymous adversary can extend the dispute into real life.
However, none of this constitutes a good argument against pseudonymity — if anything, it is an argument for more to embrace it and what it signifies.
All the arguments against pseudonymity that I have seen ignore the truth that many of us have the same attachment to our pseudonymous handle as we do to our IRL identity. Indeed, I would argue that I choose my words under some online handles far more carefully than I do in real life. In real life I know I’m an alright person; I have a good group of friends, a great family and continue to receive gainful employment. I also know that those groups understand my words are never borne of malice. In pseudonymity, however, I am conscious both that I do not benefit from these associations and that the potential audience includes many I have no prior connection with.
Furthermore, I would argue that a pseudonymous actor who operates over a long period of time but maintains all of their writing shows more conviction in their beliefs than someone who gladly ties their writings to their IRL, but subsequently deletes much or all of their thoughts. This is part of the reason why I will never edit or delete anything of substance (unless legal reasons dictate as such) but prefer to add follow-up responses.
My passion has always been History. People often decry the subject as one that doesn’t prepare students for employment but it undeniably teaches a few core competencies, including to analyse the source as much as the content. As such, I have always come from a place of scepticism regarding any writers’ motives.
Crypto provides much material for such analysis, with motives frequently nakedly obvious.
This self-interest is part of the reason why many IRL writers focus on a narrow set of topics. They cannot afford to be exposed as unknowledgeable, so they stick to what they know. This likewise ties in with a reluctance to criticise other members of a network, even if they perceive them to be a bad actor. Such attacks risk negative responses from the wider group, adverse sentiment and — if nothing else — social awkwardness. For obvious reasons, many simply cannot be bothered with bringing this upon themselves. This is perfectly understandable, but it is a reminder that a lack of pseudonymity can lead to an aversion to risk-taking (although once established as part of a community, the pseudonymous will often fall into the same trap — this is an area really for the preserve of those impervious to social pressure, the anonymous or the extremely strong-willed).
The effect of social pressure should not be minimised. It is at the core of why many choose to operate pseudonymously, to separate their respective networks from one another. Sometimes this is because of the effect that being in one community would bring upon the other, often it is because the user’s background may reduce the impact of their thoughts, but other times it is simply a reversion to how the Internet initially operated, where users operated under pseudonyms in what were largely interest-driven groups.
Indeed, it is only really in the last decade or so that the Internet has moved from this model to an IRL driven standard. The advent of social media, and the acceptance of the Internet as just part of life rather than the refuge of the minority (with the treatment of online dating the most obvious example), have made IRL the default.
Perhaps my formative years being spent as a user of many pseudonym driven forums has led me to be more comfortable with the pseudonymous than most. In particular, I suspect I remember usernames more than I do real names. Usernames are often memorable and witty, and you can construct an image of the person behind them; real names are usually formulaic and encumbered by the baggage we all carry.
And yet, so too do the long-term pseudonymous become likewise dragged down by their prior actions. Except, in this case, the baggage is purely restricted to their words. This is why I will never be able to agree with the likes of Mark Zuckerberg when he claimed that “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” Integrity is earned through actions. I do not understand why one cannot earn integrity without being linked to a name and a face; it is illogical to me. We all wear multiple identities. Very (very) few are the same person in all of their social settings.
The argument that anonymity leads to bad behaviour, coincidentally also made by many who run social networks and have a lot to gain by accessing personal data, likewise bears little weight. Sure, maybe the lack of accountability leads to anonymous accounts being created to target someone — but that is different from pseudonymous accounts which are built up over a long time and which have their cards marked as soon as they engage in such behaviour. Besides, poor conduct online is by no means confined to the anonymous — a quick look on any political post on Facebook will tell you that.
In future years we may look back upon this era as the high water mark for IRL. Many are tired of their data and identities being exploited. Governments continue to introduce regulations designed to crack down on data sharing. And, perhaps most importantly, the widespread use and improvement of bots is slowly blurring the line between real and fake IRLs.
Perhaps the end to the desirous nature for an IRL only world will come with the improvement of bots to such a degree that a photograph and name will become devalued, to the point that only the much harder to fake history of content and thoughts will once again take centre stage.