Monday, April 28, 2008

Why internet anonymity is a bad idea, especially for writers

I recently joined yet another online community. As always, instead of adopting a cute nickname like "Lives2Write," I've been posting under my real name, Brenda Coulter.

Blogs, message boards, and social networking sites can be useful and entertaining. But I've always been bothered by the ease with which people who participate in those forums can insult and even threaten others while hiding behind made-up names. So I'd like to see a trend toward using real names online. It's just more comfortable to exchange messages with people who don't appear to be hiding anything.

A good internet citizen should not be afraid or ashamed of attaching her name to the words she has written online. Unlike cowardly trolls who love to hit and run, decent people who post honest opinions don't usually stray far from civility because they know they're not anonymous--and hasty words lobbed into cyberspace can rarely (if ever) be recalled.

What about privacy? If you're worried about people finding out your kids' names and ages and where you live, perhaps you should stop chatting about those things in public forums, where anyone might listen in. Internet anonymity offers far less protection than we assume, anyway; countless people have seen their true identities outed by their online enemies--and even, occasionally, by their bumbling friends. On the internet, nobody can count on being anonymous forever. So why not acknowledge that and switch all of your online community and message board accounts to your real name? That would be a step toward making the internet a nicer place for everyone.

If you're a writer, are you taking advantage of the myriad promotional opportunities afforded by online communities, or are you dropping perfectly polite and interesting comments and then failing to fully identify yourself? Agents, editors, publishers, and other writers use the internet, too, you know. So why sign "SusanA" when you can sign your real name, Susan Author, and perhaps catch the eye of someone who might further your career? Posting informative or thoughtful or humorous comments under your real name (or your literary pseudonym) is a good idea for both those who hope to get published and those published authors who wouldn't mind picking up a new reader or two.

Sure, you might be well advised to post anonymously when you go to a medical forum to ask about your hemorrhoid problem. But in general, wouldn't it be better for the internet community and for your career if you stopped calling yourself "BobWrites" and allowed people to see who you really are?

If you are moved to comment on this post, I dare you to do so under your real name.


Marianne Arkins said...

Okay... this is one of my "real" names, LOL... It's my pen name. And, to be honest, I'm fairly certain more people know me by this name than by my legal one.

After watching a recent train wreck of hundreds and hundreds of mostly anoymous comments on another blog, I don't disagree with you. I do allow anonymous comments on my blog, because I have friends who don't have a blogger identity.

Still, it is easy to say or do things you wouldn't otherwise do when you don't have to own up to it. Despite this being my pen name, it's still me. It's who people know me as (just like Jennifer Crusie or Tess Gerritsen are pen names). I'm owning this name.

And, I own all my comments. Or I don't make them.

Arethusa said...

Eh. I think this must be a generational thing. Whether one would (erroneously) like to link being "decent" with using a "real name" I, the other user, have no way of verifying whether it's real or not. And for simple blog and forum discussion there's no incentive for me to do so. So what difference does it make? Anyone determined to be rude can simply give a fake "real name" or register under a different moniker. It could only ever count if the community one was involved already knew other members personally and so could pick up on details that would make it clear to them that you were you. How could that apply to the wider web?

There are quite a few reasons related to occupation or simple personal preference why someone would at least like to develop a distance between the two lives -- and they have nothing to do with being "ashamed". It's obviously not full proof but it's not necessarily more sensible than to have it all out there. That's like telling me that people can break an encrypted wireless connection *anyway* so why not just leave it open and deal?

I have no issues with people who prefer to use their real name or choose to interact in communities that are geared towards such standards. Every decision has risks. Upon selection one simply takes on different kinds.

Brenda Coulter said...

Whether one would (erroneously) like to link being "decent" with using a "real name"....

Oh, I'm not doing that. Certainly we have no guarantee that an individual who appears to be using her real name is who and what she claims to be. I'm not talking about what the internet can do for us, but about what we can do for the internet. I'm talking about leading by example.

If you see "Brenda Coulter" on a message board, you won't know whether it's really me. It could be some other Brenda Coulter (it's hardly an uncommon name) or it could be an imposter. But *I* will know the truth, and some of my friends will know, and that will hold me to a high standard of civility in online conversations.

And you appear to have missed it, but I did give an example that showed the "real name" policy might not be desirable in all situations.

Marianne, I can't count the times I've seen enlightening, spirited discussions on blogs interrupted again and again by anonymous individuals who add nothing interesting to the conversation unless you count the hundreds of ways they can think up to call people idiots. It just amazes me how eager those trolls are to hurt somebody.

Maria Zannini said...

I've always used my real name, though I had thought once of using a pen name so I could keep my day job separate from my writing career. Sometimes I get the strangest questions at work when they find out I'm a writer. LOL.

Nice to meet you, Brenda! I've had you on my reader for a while. I stopped in only because you touched on a subject that has been on my mind as of late.

Good post!

Brenda Coulter said...

Maria, I'm so glad you said hello. Thanks for reading NRJW.

Anonymous said...

I always use my real name online (in forums I usually use trudyj or trudyj65, but my profile always links to my blog where my identity is revealed). Partly it is because of the shameless self-promotion aspect of being a writer, but it's also because I want to be able to stand behind every word I write and be able to held accountable for it. I don't like hiding behind anonymity and then have the fear that someone might say, "Well on your blog you claim that X, but over her on this forum you said Y .. aren't you being a bit of a hypocrite?" I try to be as "real" as possible in the online world and using my real name is part of that.

That said, I do understand why some people feel the need to hide behind anonymity and can only feel safe posting on forums under a made-up name. It might have to do with issues in their "real" life that the don't feel safe talking about, etc. I don't have a problem with it unless someone uses their online anonymity to hurt or deceive others. But it's not my choice.

Julie said...

Good points, Brenda. After a writing conference a few years ago, I spent a lot of time thinking about pen names and whether I'd use one if I ever get published some day. Then someone challenged me to be real. To live my life in such a way that I don't feel the need to hide behind anything. So I've been blogging under my real name, owning up to my bad days and crazy ideas and half-thought-out opinions. I usually use some form of my first name on forums, which I don't consider anonymous.

It's been a good challenge for me, knowing that I'm accountable for everything I put out on the internet, for better or worse. I agree, the internet would be a much nicer place if everyone had to own up to everything they said. But then, I've never posted on a hemorrhoid forum, so who am I to criticize?

Brenda Coulter said...

I've never posted on a hemorrhoid forum...

Hmm. I could've sworn "itchy34" was you, Julie.

Of course, it should be pointed out that literary pseudonyms aren't usually adopted to conceal the author's identity, but for other reasons. For example, maybe the author's real name is difficult to spell, hard to pronounce, or impossible to remember. Or maybe the author's real name is unfortunate in some way. (Would you buy a book called How to Get Along with People by Dr. B. A. Meaney?)

In most cases, the author's real name can be discovered easily, so a pen name isn't much good for hiding behind.

Brian said...

Anonymity is one of the greatest things about the internet. One can express views without their peers or Government finding them and attacking.

The reason China's in such a bad way is the fact that anyone there who posts anything against their Government is arrested (and sometimes killed if important information is leaked). That includes those against slavery, against the killing of innocent people, etc.

So, now, tell me Anonymity is a bad thing. When Anonymity is lost, so is free speech (or what's left of it). Do you honestly want to live in a society where everyone is just sheep to the slaughter? Where, whenever someone speaks out, their known and can be found with ease?

Sure, in certain cases, anonymity isn't necessary. However, to say it's bad is wrong.