Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

the ethics of self-naming

Rachel, the Velveteen Rabbi, says people should be free to choose the names they are known by, online and offline.

Well, we've been around this block a few times here at Text Patterns, but as I read that post a little thought experiment occurred to me. Imagine a person who comments regularly on certain blogs under a pseudonym, and writes her own blog under a different pseudonym, and then of course "IRL" or "offline" has an official legal name. Not an especially unusual situation, I imagine, and one that few of us would find upsetting or even noteworthy.

But what if that same person applied the principle of contingent self-naming to her regular in-person social circles? What if she told one group of friends that her name is Carol Watson and another that it is Tamar Weinberg, while at work and to her family she's known as Jennifer Esposito? Do we have a problem with that? My sense is that most of us would find that kind of creepy — even those of us who find the use of various online names perfectly acceptable. But why? If it's okay online why wouldn't it be okay offline? Is there just a residual "yuck factor" there that we ought to dispense with? Or what?


P.S. After writing this and putting it in the queue, I discovered that the estimable Alexis Madrigal has a different take on our expectations for everyday self-identification: "in real life, we expect very few statements to be public, persistent, and attached to your real identity. Basically, only people talking on television or to the media can expect such treatment." I'm not sure precisely what Alexis has in mind here, but our public identities are attached to a lot of what we do everyday: not just our written and oral exchanges with friends and co-workers, but most of our purchases now that we increasingly use cards rather than cash. More than at any point in human history, the average person's everyday life is made up of statements and actions that are "public, persistent, and attached to [his or her] real identity." So in that sense our expectations for online conversation are outliers. The question is whether they should be.)

20 comments:

  • What if she told one group of friends that her name is Carol Watson and another that it is Tamar Weinberg, while at work and to her family she's known as Jennifer Esposito?

    I think you're forgetting the question of nicknames. At high school, all my friends called me by my full first name, at another high school to which I moved to, I was called by my last name, some of my friends use a shortened version of my first name, my relatives use another shortened version of my first name. So, even in our "offline" life, we do get called different names by different people. Perhaps, the difference is that in "online" life, we get a little more choice about what we'd like to be called.

  • Our expectations for online conversation may be outliers, but they are outliers that conform to the expectation that was prevalent up until very recently offline. I'd argue (and apparently Madrigal is arguing) that the reason more people are concerned with online identity is that it is only online that they are aware of how easily their statements can be recorded, tracked, searched, and made accessible to the entire world. Though technology has brought the offline world closer to the online world in this respect, the average person seldom realizes the extent to which they are already recorded and tracked.

    A thought experiment: if someone was to visibly follow you around all day, every day, recording every word you spoke and every action you took, to be made accessible to the entire world, and you had the option to have it listed under your own name or under a pseudonym, which would you choose?

  • Yeah, and not just nicknames that are takes on our real names, as scritic mentions, but other monikers you pick up: "Skipper," "Huck," "Bono." Those sorts of names are more closely analogous, I think, to your average online pseudonym -- you don't find that many people online going by two totally different firstname lastnames (unless the pseudonym is a fairly obvious pop-culture allusion, maybe).

    The other thing is, these different online names are generally used by people who are writing (or making some other kind of media). And it has long been totally acceptable for writers and other artists to use more than one name.

  • Michael Straight said...

    If it's okay online why wouldn't it be okay offline?

    This is mostly just social convention. In an online context where lots of people use pseudonymns, like "scritic" and "Anonymous," no one would feel betrayed or surprised to find out that "Josh" was also a pseudonym.

    But if I meet you at a conference and say, "My name is David Henry," you would feel I had lied to you if that weren't my actual name. If I said, "Call me Strider," you'd think I was a weirdo. But that's mostly just that we don't have a social expectation of using pseudonyms in that context.

    Madrigal and Anonymous lay out one reason those expectations may have evolved as they did.

    Another possibility is that if I meet someone in real life, the range of our possible interactions is much wider than simply having a conversation in that spot. We might want to meet again in other context. There might be important shared details about our lives that have brought us to the same place. That person might steal from me, assault me, fall in love with me. There are all sorts of reasons that knowing that other person's real name would be more important than if we'd just had a single conversation, mostly keeping to a single topic, as is common in an online forum.

    Online, there's much more of an expectation that interactions will be compartmentalized. We're here to swap thoughts about technology. Digressions about the weather in Illinois or the latest Wheaton gossip that might be natural when meeting someone face to face would be off topic in a blog discussion.

  • " More than at any point in human history, the average person's everyday life is made up of statements and actions that are "public, persistent, and attached to [his or her] real identity." So in that sense our expectations for online conversation are outliers. The question is whether they should be.)"

    I think the difference is that unlike our offline history, our online history is accessible and searchable even to people who don't know us. Yes, your IRL actions are attached to your identity--but short of hiring a private eye, they aren't searchable, and will be limited to a fairly small circle of people who are friends or acquaintances. Online, there's no such presumption--people you don't even know yet will be able to see everything you've done online, and they will be able to read it without you finding out they've done so. That's what's creepy.

  • Michael: Another possibility is that if I meet someone in real life, the range of our possible interactions is much wider than simply having a conversation in that spot. We might want to meet again in other context.

    This is a good way of putting it and it reminded me of another instance where we do use pseudonyms in the offline world. Closeted gay men often use pseudonyms (Tony, John, what have you) when they are amongst other non-closeted gay men precisely because they wish to keep this part of their life compartmentalized. I'm sure there must be other examples of pseudonyms in the offline world.

  • "I'm not sure precisely what Alexis has in mind here, but our public identities are attached to a lot of what we do everyday: not just our written and oral exchanges with friends and co-workers, but most of our purchases now that we increasingly use cards rather than cash."

    Your offline oral and written exchanges are not searchable on a database. And the information about your credit or debit card purchases, unless compelled to be disclosed in court, are protected by very strict confidentiality clauses, and the companies themselves can only use them to create anonymous consumer profiles, unless you explicitly forgo that right (typically in exchange for fidelity card-type rewards).

  • Very thoughtful responses, all. All this makes me think that our online and offline lives are exposed, when they're exposed, in very different ways, and that I need to think more about those differences.

  • "All this makes me think that our online and offline lives are exposed, when they're exposed, in very different ways"

    It's not just a matter of exposure though. What I haven't seen a lot of commentary on outside of Lanier is the way in which the 'real name' policies on our social networks affect how we go about constructing our identities online more generally. And, well, I don't normally self link, but I did have a crack here.

  • Previous posters have noted two problems with Alan's argument: 1) when we speak in person, our comments are not shared, in perpetuity, with all other persons in the world; 2) the sort of IRL tracking via credit cards, CCTV, whatever is also not generally available to people.

    One other issue: there are actually plenty of verbal interactions IRL that take place anonymously. Imagine you're in a restaurant and someone at an adjoining table asks, "How's the meatloaf?". You reply, "Not so good, their chicken is better". Or two strangers chat briefly about the weather while waiting for a bus, never exchanging names. Or ask which way to the train station, whatever.

    Now think: what would happen if, in real life, you could never say a single word to a stranger without giving them your name, address, and phone number first! We'd have a tremendously silent and unsocial society.

    There are all sorts of online equivalents. I'm happy to post small comments here or there on restaurant discussion boards, or seek/give help with quick questions on car repair forums, etc., but would not do so if I had to give my full identity to everyone viewing the sites -- no more than I'd want to have anything to do with someone who demanded I give them my business card before they'd point me to the men's room.

  • Previous posters have noted two problems with Alan's argument

    What argument is that? I thought I was asking questions.

  • "see just how well people behave under their presumably real names."

    This. And if you cast your mind back to the days of usenet, when in many groups it was a minority of people who posted under their real name (nothing to do with civility - it was simply considered a dull thing to do) this was already the case.

    But it seems to me that the greater disingenuity in the anti-pseudonym camp is the idea that there is inherent virtue in using your real name, and it has nothing to do with personal gain. That to write means to keep a separate identity seems to have been somehow forgotten. And in the process the dominant form of identity in Web 2.0 is no longer writerly - it's promotional.

    Many people on the social networks are simply PR arms of themselves. At least half the people who added me on Google+ fall in this category. Look for people you had never heard of and who have thousands of contacts in their circles. They don't care at all to hear from you - they want you to hear from them. And of course they want you to know their real name.

    In a terrifyingly worded posting this week ("we’re listening, learning, and iterating to give our users the best experience possible") a Google product manager claimed that the company's aim with Google+ is "to make connecting with people on the web more like connecting with people in the real world". They do realise that we already have the real world for that, right?

  • How can I be unique on the net while my name is John Smits? It might (or might not) work well in real life. I expect that by now most common names have been taken on the net.

  • Michael Straight said...

    Giovanni Tiso's comment reminds me that it's almost disingenuous for anyone to discuss the pros and cons of online anonymity without acknowledging that the motive of the two biggest proponents of using your real name, Google and Facebook, has nothing to do with etiquette or accountability or concern for online social structures. For them it's entirely a question of selling better marketing data to advertisers.

  • "For them it's entirely a question of selling better marketing data to advertisers."

    It is, but the data wouldn't necessarily be less valuable to them in a material sense if we used pseudonyms - I think the objection is more ideological: they want us to carry one identity online and one only, and for it to be as transparent as possible.

  • Information presented online are persistent, and stored within a digital database. Information presented offline are usually temporal; they occur at the moment you verbally/physically present the idea, and will only be stored within the biological memories of your audience, not a physical electronic memory. Therefore, because we employ a different mode of communication when we interact online, we need to also employ a different way to protect ourselves. If our biological memory can one day be accessed in a similar manner to how we access a digital database, then perhaps our offline interactions may drastically deviate from our current "norm".

  • Offline, I'm aware of at least some (no idea what percentage) of customer-service or helpdesk operators who go by pseudonyms on the job, to provide a sort of airgap between any customers who might become obessed or annoyed with them, and their away-from-work lives.

    And then there are exotic dancers, porn actors, phone-sex operators, other sex workers, etc. who go by a stage name. So among performers and artists it's not just the famous ones with a corporate PR presence and various media between them and their audience that use stage names, but ones who interact face-to-face with their audience/customers, as well.

    There is a mime / folk musician / actor / teacher I know, who uses different names for different fields. It doesn't seem to bother anyone who interacts with him professionally, socially, or journalistically, AFAICT. Most know he has other names, some know what the other names are.

  • In the historical reenactment communities, a "persona name" is common. Close friends may not know both names (merely because it never came up in conversation). I recall a phone conversation when I was reporting a collision to my auto insurance company, where the insurance rep asked me the names of my passengers, all of whom I knew primarily or solely through meatspace, not online, and I had to think a moment to come up with the legal name of one, and ask other friends who were present if any of them knew the legal name of the other.

  • When I was at university, different social cliques gave me different nicknames. Not that I chose myself -- that others decided to call me. At one point I had thirty names. People in one clique would ask people from a tangentially-connected clique whether they knew me, and my name would draw a blank ... then they'd describe me and the other person would say, "Oh! You mean [othername]!" And I wasn't even trying to be pseudonymous or polynymous -- I'd never even really thought about it at that point.

    Even when it comes to my etymonym, I am addressed one way formally, another casually, a third way legally, and various ways by people who get confused by the fact that my last name sounds like a first name. People who know me in one context may or may not know the other forms. Very few of the people I interact with know my first name (I go by first-initial+middle-name), not because I try yo hide it, but because it doesn't come up. (Casual: "Glenn" or "Glenn Arthur"; formal, in copyright notice, etc.: "D. Glenn Arthur Jr.". My next door neighbour, who had never needed to address me formally in writing, was surprised to learn that "Glenn" is not my first name.)

    Obviously not everyone is polynymous. But many people are so intentionally, and many more are polynymous to varying degrees with no particular intent whatsoever. In any case, this is very much not a telling difference between the online and offline worlds. Polynymity and pseudonymity occur in meatspace.

  • The names in Dr. Jacobs' example carry cultural and racial baggage when contrasted with each other; a more boiled-down question would be whether we'd be troubled if someone introduced herself to various communities as Tamar Weinberg, Sarah Horowitz, and Deborah Cohen.

    Does anyone feel uncomfortable about noms de plume? Stephen King writes as Richard Bachman; Charles Dodgson wrote as Lewis Carroll; Samuel Clemens wrote as Mark Twain; Georges Remi wrote as Hergé; Eric Blair wrote as George Orwell; Esther Friedman wrote as Ann Landers. Does that make anyone feel lied to? Are we just more tolerant of famous authors, giving them slack after they've already impressed us? I don't think that's it, because we have no problem with the use of noms de plume by romance authors even if some of us sneer at their work.

    It's not just names. I introduce myself with various self-identifying statements. At a gathering of librarians, I'm a systems librarian; at a gathering of philosophers, I'm Jodi's husband.

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