Most people who post commentaries on this and numerous other blogs do not reveal their true identity; instead they are using various aliases. Much of this seems simply a force of habit and convention. “This is the way it is done.” However it seems to me this habit deserves some deliberation. Dialogues are enriched when we know something about those with whom we exchange ideas. When I wrote some articles about sex offenders and received mail from people in federal penitentiaries, I paid special mind to these messages. When I read a posting by someone whose work I read before, it helps me to understand where they are coming from. Even such small details, say the gender of the person, are telling: is the person arguing for the rights and well being of his or her group, or for social justice for the members of another?
Please spare me the obvious. I realize of course that people
should have the right to post anonymous messages. But this does not mean that
always drawing on the right make sense, any more than because we have a right
to privacy—we would refuse to go out in public. The right for anonymous posting
is very valuable for those who fear retribution. But do most people feel that
Big Brother will go after them if they are disagreeable on these blogs? And if
they do fear retribution, are they so naïve that an imagined police state could
not break their alias?
Most importantly, we are keen to form communities online.
Real communities foster intimacy as well as trust, as people
get to know one another and form close, warm bonds. It is often argued that
such closeness cannot be forged in cyberspace because people cherish their
anonymity and hide their true selves behind handles and false presentations
about who they are.
Much greater intimacy can be engendered if members of an e-community voluntarily surrender their anonymity and the community verifies identities. Some time ago, I joined one of the 80 little-known H-nets run by a group of scholars and teachers. These consist of groups of professors specializing in, say, French history and culture or, in my case, communitarian thinking. Participants must subscribe to be included, and many list their real names on the screen. Several H-nets – the one for people studying the Hapsburg Empire, for example – vet these identities.
Should we have more of those? Who are you anyhow?
Response to comments:
I asked why practically all who post commentaries on this and other such blogs (no, it was no criticism of any blog in particular) use aliases. I am delighted that the issue has been joined and that we are getting a lively dialogue on the matter. Here is my response to so of what I learned so far:
Some are concerned that if they divulge their true identity this will endanger them (e.g. women will be stalked) or endanger their job (e.g. if they do not have tenure). I learned from these messages that there are indeed circumstances in which the use of aliases might well be necessary. I wonder though if these circumstances are being used as an excuse to justify a much wider concealments of identity. Why would some one choose to stalk a person who argues for universal health care, voting rights for immigrants, or most other issues? They may as well throw a dart at the phone book and stalk whomever’s number comes up. These are not personal chat rooms, in which people divulge their sexual fantasies or other stuff that can entice someone who is inclined to look for victims.
In the same vein I can see why some job holders will not wish their bosses to know about their political views. But are truly most who post—and hide behind alias—in such jobs?
To suggest that the author’s identity does not matter, I beg to differ. If someone argues, say, vehemently in favor of smokers’ rights and we find out that they are hired hands, paid for by the cigarette companies, we surely treat their arguments differently than those who are not so encumbered. When someone reports what the situation in Iraq is, and the person served there for a year and just returned, we are likely to give it more weight than if the same points are made by some couch potato.
I grant that pseudonymous are not the same as anonymous postings; that over time we can come to associate with a given pseudonym certain attributes (say XYZ is always impassioned) and even develop a measure of familiarity. Still this is a case in which the glass is 1/16 full and 15/16 empty compared to true disclosure of one’s true identity.
Also note, and this is of special import, that people who use aliases are on average much more abusive, unfair, and intemperate than those who disclose their true identity.
A special thanks to those who disclosed their identity in comments and email. Maybe we together can start a new trend right here.