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Why The Argument That People Using “Real Names” Are Better Behaved Online Rings False

I got two words for you: Will Shetterly.

Yes, yes, yes, I know, using his full name will bring him down on this blog faster than saying Beetlejuice three times. If he shows up, ignore him. The larger point I’m trying to make is this:

Will Shetterly behaves abominably on the Internet and has been doing so for some time. He harasses people; he shows up where he’s not wanted and, in some cases, has been explicitly banned; he engages in stalker-like behavior; he’s just a big ass. However, he does this all under his real, parental-given, legal name. He is not ashamed of his actions. In fact, he is quite proud of himself.

If I were to list all the shenanigans Will has got up to over the few years I’ve known of him, some might assume that he was a troll hiding behind a name like ClassWarrior22 or whatever. But no.

While it is true that the Internet does cause many people to act in ways that they might not in meatspace, the whole pseudonym/handle/nickname thing is not the cause of these actions and does not indicate a higher instance of them. Mostly because any name can be a pseudonym or even just fake and not meant to indicate a unified identity. I could go by the name Joanna Smith on any number of blogs, say all kinds of shit, harass all kinds of people, and totally “get away with it” because that’s not my name.

Going by names alone, legal or otherwise, is not a sound method for cracking down on “fake” identities on the web. It’s just not. And if you work for a ginormous Internet corporation of doom such as Google and you don’t understand that, how the hell am I supposed to trust you with any of my online identities?

Google needs to get their damn act together on this. Like, right now.

17 thoughts on “Why The Argument That People Using “Real Names” Are Better Behaved Online Rings False”

  1. ithiliana says:


    As soon as I read the policy info, I decided not to go with Google (but then I am mostly anti-Google these days except for search engine use).

    Linking and noting as well!

  2. Peter da Silva says:

    I think the biggest reason you get more jerks on the Internet is the same reason you get more jerks in bigger cities generally. The proportion of jerks isn’t any higher, there’s just more in absolute numbers simply because there’s more people, and you interact with more people.

    The Internet is the biggest big city there is. Given that, I find it remarkably well behaved.

  3. David Dyer-Bennet says:

    Sure, some people who argue badly, or argue unpopular positions, do go by their real names (I’ve known Will since he was much better in person). I still see a very clear tendency the other direction, over thirty years of observing this both in person and online.

    And I do acknowledge pretty much (weasel words, I haven’t memorized the article) the whole list of ways a legal-name policy disadvantages women and minorities and others that’s going around.

    To the extent that these two major, real problems are in opposition, it’s unfortunate. Especially, I don’t think the people arguing for easy pseudonymity really understand how much that creates the very hostile environments they object to. I also don’t think they give adequate consideration to the fact that a pseudonym can be breached by one mistake on their part, one choice by an ex-friend, often an hour of detective work, a court order, or any of a number of other events. And, once breached, the full online record of both (all) identities is tied together. Hiding isn’t really a very safe long-term strategy, if you’ve got something to hide.

    I wish people were thinking positively about creative ways to solve both problems, instead of insisting on one or the other of the existing not-very-good but better-than-nothing approaches that they feel best fits their own needs. Of course, I’ve tried, and don’t really have one to offer myself. Google may actually have the creative horsepower to solve this, if they put their minds to it. But a solution that involves trusting them (or any one spider sitting in the center of the web) won’t be acceptable to very many people.

    1. Julia says:

      In my personal cases of online harassment and stalking, it’s been about 50/50 people using “real names” vs. fake names. I had someone stalk me using their college e-mail account, and continued to do so after he returned from being suspended for harassing women. This eventually led to expulsion from school. And getting booted off of two ISPs because he would not stop stalking.

      Male and female people have really different experiences of harassment both online and offline.

      Also, regardless of how “nice” someone is offline, when they do things like post people’s phone number and/or address (which Will Shetterly has done) they have just done something online with *serious* offline consequences.

    2. Peter da Silva says:

      My experience over the last 30+ years online has been that bad behavior is not all that closely associated with whether people use real names, “real looking” names, or “funny looking” names. It’s primarily associated with the size of the community and whether people have a stake in it. If they can immediately sign up for a new throwaway account after being sanctioned or bad behavior isn’t sanctioned at all, for example, there’s no stake in good behavior.

      I think it’s this latter point that tends to associate pseudonyms with bad behavior. I don’t think there’s been an indication it’s likely to be a problem at Google.

      1. David Dyer-Bennet says:

        I definitely agree that investment in the identity is an important factor — “easy” pseudonymity causes lots of problems.

        One of the the things, in my experience, that makes an online community work is a good network of people who know each other in contexts beyond that community — in person, or at least in other online venues.

        In some areas, it just sounds like my experience differs from some of your experiences; so it’s not surprising we’re going to have different opinions. (I’m not viewing this just as a participant, I’ve moderated online forums including the old Fidonet SF echo for 10 years.)

    3. The Angry Black Woman says:

      There are a couple of wrong assumptions going on here. The biggest one I see is that people using pseudonyms are all doing so to hide something. That’s not true. On one of the blogs or posts about the G+ issue I read an awesome statement (and now I’m sad I didn’t bookmark it) where someone said that one of the privileges of being an adult is choosing the name you want to go by. And that’s so true.

      People call me Tempest, but it’s not my given name. It’s the name I chose to have certain people address me by, and not because I wanted to hide. I just don’t like my given name. If I so chose, I could ask everyone to call me by that name. (I choose to only go by it in certain contexts, because calling me Tempest is a mark of familiarity I don’t wish to share with just everyone.)

      But even when a pseudonym is about keeping your legal identity from being mixed in with your online/fandom/political identity, the argument that it’s not 100% security is still not an argument against using it. I live in New York City, a terrorist can attack at any moment. That doesn’t mean I’m better off moving away.

      And I’ll join with others in saying that real name/fake name trolling and harassment are about even in my experience. I don’t think having a handle makes people more likely to harass and act badly, I think it’s the Internet itself.

      1. azurelunatic says:

        I made a statement like that, and if by chance it was mine, bookmarking would not have done much good as I have since deleted my Google+ account (though not before backing it up).

        I know Skud. Specifically, I know Skud as Skud. There’s no hesitation in my mind as to who is meant when someone says “Skud”; if someone says “Kirrily”, I have to page through the Kirrily/Kiri/Kari/Carrie (Keary)/Carrie/Khas sound-association file in my head to figure out that oh, they meant Skud. At a community management meetup with +Van Riper, we were trying to figure out where else he’d seen me besides the Silicon Valley Google Technology Users Group meetups. “Do you know Skud?” he finally asked. Of course I knew Skud! Everyone knows Skud!

        +Iroshi Windwalker once had a conversation where she was asked about a name. That name rang a faint bell, but it was only when her boss asked about the diminutive did she realize that oh, it was Azz. That was the name my parents gave the school district when they enrolled me, and I had to learn to answer to it at school. It was never comfortable on me, so I save it for tax season.

        One of the books that helped build my ethical stack as a teenager was the Star Trek book Uhura’s Song, by Janet Kagan. In the alien-society-of-the-week, youths took a rite-of-passage multi-day survival hike to confirm their adulthood. Completing the Walk with all the party alive renders one an adult.

        “…And Catchclaw, I’d appreciate it if you and Rushlight would just call me ‘Captain’ like the rest.” He was not about to listen to ‘James Tiberius Kirk’ all the way to Eeiauo.
        “As you wish,” said Catchclaw. “Your name is now your own choice, Captain.”

        Being an adult means that you can choose your own name, and insist that people use it to address you. The person best positioned to declare what a person’s name actually is, is that person themselves. Certainly there will be people who abuse the system, as there are in any system, but choosing a name that does not resemble a legal name is not inherently a bad thing. Our names are our own choice.

    4. Yael Tiferet says:

      It’s not that hard to figure out that my pseudonymous identity and my real-name identity are the same person, David, but it still saves me a lot of grief, because it means that if someone does what Sh!tterly did and links them in a public post, they will face censure. It means that if someone doesn’t feel like doing the work they’re not going to make the association, and I’m not really worried about the people who really want to do that work–I just don’t want, when I look for a job, for the top ten hits to be my porny fanfic, or some argument I got into with somebody about why I like Jim Profit and Dexter Morgan, because these are not things non-fannish people need as a first introduction to me.

      I also do not want people who are annoyed with me over fandom stuff (and this has happened) to be easily able to find me IRL. I work for a university system with a public staff directory. I in fact started using a nym in large part because a guy who also works for this university system stalked me after reading a post I wrote under my real name on a Japanese BBS in Japanese about our favourite singer, who is Japanese. Had there only been a nym, I’d have been treated to maybe some annoying emails, but instead this tinhat who believed that Ozaki was murdered by government conspiracy had my work phone number and knew where my office was.

      Sure, it’s possible to link my identities. And I’ve been really annoyed by people who don’t understand why I don’t want to be facebook friends with every one of their facebook friends that I only know from their livejournal, where those people can’t see my real name and my job etc.

      If you are not actively being stalked by someone who wants to kill you, maybe you don’t need absolute pseudonymous security, but it’s still convenient to have parts of your life that you wouldn’t want to be the first thing a job interviewer sees segregated from your professional life by a nym and to not have your professional identity easily accessible to people in fandom who may not like you and have lost all sense of perspective to the point where they really think it is important to discuss your commentary on Voldemort with your supervisor–because no matter how silly their argument is, the fact that your supervisor had to deal with extraneous silliness in the middle of a busy day will not reflect well on you. (I don’t know how much of the story is true and how much of it came from the same place as a lot of the Ms Scribe mythology, but I remember hearing in the mid-2000s about people losing jobs due to fandom-based harassment at work.)

  4. millie fink says:

    Um, Google did what? I can’t tell what you’re talking about.

    1. The Angry Black Woman says:

      search for Google+ real names policy.

  5. Ide Cyan says:

    And Paula Brooks and Amina Arraf sounded like real names but weren’t those of the men using them, either.

  6. Noir says:

    Seriously, that dam is disgusting.

  7. John P. says:

    While I’m no longer a fan of CAD-comic, this topic did prompt me to bring up the following comic.
    Little heavy on the cussin’.

  8. NancyP says:

    Many people use pseudonyms because they express unpopular political or social opinions that could cause them trouble at work. I am one of those people. Sure, I suppose that someone could easily crack my one and only pseudonym, but as there is no direct link to my employer, both the institution and myself can claim plausible deniability. The institution cares less about an employee’s off-hours opinions than about wide public exposure of certain opinions that go counter to the institution’s stated policy on those issues.

    I live in a conservative and highly religious state. I imagine that many LGBT/questioning youth use pseudonyms for safety and concealment from family.

  9. Kai Dracon says:

    The “there’s no privacy on the internet” thing is a red herring. There’s a difference between technical privacy and social privacy. Sure, someone *truly* determined could likely find a way to track one down via IP addressed, mined data, search techniques, and general snoopery.

    But social privacy, the capacity to choose your identity because you’re a freakin’ grown-up, is what is really valuable. Some sources are trying to pitch us the line that we don’t have control of our identity. That identity amounts to little more than a name and photo ID on a government issued piece of laminated paper. Ah… no.

  10. azurelunatic says:

    I wonder how many pseudonymous people deliberately avoid online bad behavior so as to reduce the motivation for people to crack their pseudonyms.

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