Anyone who has spent time online has run across comments sections on websites that make you feel like taking a bath and then shutting down the Internet forever. People have always behaved like asses, of course, but there's something special about the Web that turns otherwise reasonable folks into mindlessly gibbering obscenity delivery systems.
That "special something" seems, at least in part, to be anonymity. In a piece on Slate, Farhad Manjoo pointed to several social science studies which show that people tend to act less civilly when they don't have to use their real names.
"Letting people remain anonymous while engaging in fundamentally public behavior encourages them to behave badly," said Manjoo. He added that the Internet should move towards real name policies in all venues, whether comments sections, restaurant reviews or Reddit posts.
"In almost all cases," he argues, "the Web would be much better off if everyone told the world who they really are." There's certainly a lot of anecdotal evidence for Manjoo's position. Sportswriter Jeff Pearlman, for example, writes about tracking down a particularly vicious anonymous troll — and discovering that, in person and under his own name, the guy was both pleasant and deeply embarrassed.
For my own part, the worst troll I ever dealt with on my site, The Hooded Utilitarian, started off using his real name…but eventually decided that he didn't want people Googling him and discovering his online unpleasantness. So he adopted an alias specifically so he could say whatever he wanted without fear of the consequences.
I did eventually ban my troll. But I never forced him to use his real name. In fact, I allow anonymous comments and even anonymous contributors on my site. No doubt Manjoo would be appalled.
And yet, while I'm sure he'd disagree with me, Manjoo himself actually explains why I believe that, despite the possible uptick in incivility, it is important not to require real names policies online. This is what Manjoo says:
" In all but the most extreme scenarios—everywhere outside of repressive governments—anonymity damages online communities."
That exception, slipped between the hyphens, seems to me to be extremely important. What Manjoo is admitting there is that anonymity functions to protect the vulnerable. In certain situations, in certain societies, some people cannot safely speak out. Anonymity can help protect them (though sometimes, of course, even that doesn't work.)
Again, Manjoo limits the need for protective anonymity to people living under repressive governments. The presupposition, then, is that our own government and society is so free, and so equal, and so fair, that such protections are not necessary.
But one only needs to state this theorem clearly to see that it is nonsense. The US is not a utopia. Power disparities and injustice exist here, as they do in even the best human society. Some people have less power than others. Some people face discrimination and prejudice. As long as that is the case, some people will be in a position where anonymity is a necessary protection.
As just one example, consider the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, which required gay men and women to hide their sexual identity on pain of being expelled form the armed forces. Though Don't Ask, Don't Tell was repealed last year, there is still prejudice against queer people in our society. Gays and lesbians may face harassment or even the loss of their jobs if they come out to acquaintances, family, or coworkers.
As a result, many gays, lesbians, trans and queer folk still hide their sexuality because of entirely reasonable fears that revealing it would put their jobs or their well-being at risk. A real name policy across the web would mean that these people would either have to out themselves to every passing search engine or else avoid speaking about their sexuality online — effectively turning the Internet into a giant closet.
Along these lines, Kirrily “Skud” Robert did a survey of people whose accounts were suspended due to violations of Google+'s real name policy. Here are some of the reasons respondents gave for using aliases online.
- “I’ve been stalked. I’m a rape survivor. I am a government employee that is prohibited from using my IRL.
- “I use the pseudonym to maintain my online anonymity because I am polyamorous and have no desire for professional acquaintances to discover this.”
- “I enjoy being part of a global and open conversation, but I don’t wish for my opinions to offend conservative and religious people I know or am related to. Also I don’t want my husband’s Govt career impacted by his opinionated wife, or for his staff to feel in any way uncomfortable because of my views.”
Again, I'm in contact with quite a few people who use aliases online, and their reason are similar to the ones Robert found. There are queer people who aren't out to friends or family, or who simply don't want their queerness to be the first thing that shows up when people Google them. Others, mostly women, are concerned about being stalked or harassed. There are teachers who don't want their students learning every detail of their lives. And so forth.
Danah Boyd, a social media researcher argues that "The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalized by systems of power. 'Real names' policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people," she said.
She adds: "Just because people are doing what it takes to be appropriate in different contexts, to protect their safety, and to make certain that they are not judged out of context, doesn’t mean that everyone is a huckster. … And you don’t guarantee safety by stopping people from using pseudonyms, but you do undermine people’s safety by doing so.”
The fact that anonymity may further marginalize the powerless doesn't change the fact that it may also promote incivility. Anonymity allows people to evade social norms. Often this can be bad. In most cases, you don't want people evading social norms that bar profanity, or rudeness. Nor, for that matter, do you want them using anonymity to evade norms that bar racism or sexism or homophobia.
On the other hand, social norms are often the norms of people in power. Social norms, in some cases and communities in the United States, say that individuals should not be gay, that teachers shouldn’t say anything controversial, or that women who speak up are fair game for harassment. For people who are disempowered, the anonymity of the Internet can be a partial release from the norms that disempower them.
One recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Haifa found that teenagers actually benefited when they used pseudonyms online. "The sense of anonymity and invisibility experienced by Internet users promotes their confidence to express thoughts and feelings," the study argued.
In her discussion of these findings, Erica Newland at the Center for Democracy and Technology also highlighted findings from a study by Google that suggest that anonymity may not be the spur to incivility that it seems to be. When Google+ loosened their real names policies, for example, they found that people did not behave all that differently. As Yonatan Zunger, a Google employee commented, "bastards are still bastards under their own names."
Rather than becoming ever more draconian in their real name demands, then, sites might consider trying to compromise. They could, for instance, require registration to comment, but allowing people to register with aliases. They could simply close comments, perhaps printing selected anonymous emailed reader comments in posts, as blogger Andrew Sullivan has long done. Or smaller sites could do what I do — which is let anyone comment, but moderate threads closely so they don't deteriorate into name-calling or abuse.
Certainly, there's no one answer to dealing with these problems. But I do think it's important to acknowledge that real names are not a cure-all for abusive behavior. If we lived in a perfectly just, perfectly free, perfectly equal society, perhaps there wouldn’t be a reason for people to be anonymous online. But we don't, and there is.