Pseudonyms are essential online

The Artist Formerly Known as Bug Girl

The Artist Formerly Known as Bug Girl

[Trigger warning for discussions of online and IRL abuse and violence]

I recognize the irony in my first post after my big “This is my real name” announcement being about anonymity. I think it’s important, though, to make a strong statement about the importance of anonymity in light of some comments by a colleague. It was the “pseudonyms are used to bully” argument, with a little “I can’t take pseudonyms seriously” thrown in.

Some people are assholes online, and like to target others and make their lives hell. They will do this using their real names and even workplace computers; they do this with fake identities. Research about online behavior hasn’t found evidence to support that anonymity leads to trolling. If a website is full of assholes, it’s their fault for not holding people-–whatever name they go by–-accountable for their behavior.

Online discussions don’t have to be everyone agreeing with each other.  Conversations just need to not be racist, hateful, or destructive.  The way to make that happen is to create consequences for bad behavior, regardless of real name status.

Pseudonyms are critical to having a fully representative online community.  A great list of reasons why pseudonyms are important can be found at the Geek Feminism Wiki:

The cost to people [of denying pseudonym use] can be vast, including:

  • harassment, both online and offline
  • discrimination in employment, provision of services, etc.
  • actual physical danger of bullying, hate crime, etc.
  • arrest, imprisonment, or execution in some jurisdictions
  • economic harm such as job loss, loss of professional reputation, etc.
  • social costs of not being able to interact with friends and colleagues

That page goes on to list, in detail, the various ways that these groups can be harmed.   We know that women experience 25 TIMES the amount of harassment online that men do.  We know that 50% of LGBT teens are bullied online, and many of them consider–or commit–suicide.  We know that women are stalked and killed by ex-lovers. We know that LGBT folk are the victims of hate crimes.

you don't have to triple think everything you write as a pseudThere is a real and critical need for pseudonyms to be honored online, even if it’s a convention that you rely on the good will of others to maintain. And yet, a lot of people, especially scientists, are very dismissive of pseuds as not having meaningful things to say.  I have to admit that my first reaction to the tweet I have copied at the right was RAGE.
[Edited to add: Terry says he meant to say “Once you consider the concern about physical safety and stalking, and look at other issues, then there is safety in knowing that you don’t have to triple-think everything you write.” Since you are limited to 140 characters by Twitter, I’ve added the clarification, but IMHO it doesn’t change anything.]

People in marginalized groups triple-think and agonize over every damn word we think, say and write.
Every. Single. Day.

  • Will I get hurt again?
  • Will I get sued if I add my story about sexual harassment to the ones already public?
  • If I talk about the time my department head introduced me as “This is Bug, she was raped”, will it get back to him?
  • Will my family read this?
  • I’m sure it was illegal that I was was required to post on my office door that I had epilepsy, but how do I ask without the department finding out?
  • How do I get help when my boss is a bigot?
  • Is talking about my LGBT relationship going to come back and bite me in my job search?

It’s not just things we write online; if you are part of an outgroup and trying to fit in, you have a lot of secrets. You make decisions every day about what you will share, who you will share it with, and how far you are willing to go to combat stereotypes.

Terry, the author of the post and the tweet that set off this rant, is a good person, and I know he cares about his students and his work deeply. He is also a white tenured dude.  I’m not mentioning him as an example to shame him, but to show how easy it is even for the good guys to forget that their experiences are not representative.

If we limit the ability of people to use pseudonyms, or dismiss their words specifically because they are pseudonyms, we silence a huge part of the population.   And that is why I’m still getting in people’s faces about this issue, even though now you can pin all of my words on a specific person.  (Who is still looking for a full time job, BTW.)

I am not at all comfortable writing this now that everyone knows who I am, but I have a tiny bully pulpit, and by golly I’m gonna use it. I would never have been brave enough to write about my sexual assault or epilepsy without my pseudonym.  It was not only healing for me to write about it, but I heard from many, many others that it helped them. That?

me with a black eye

Totally worth it.

Worth the freak out I still have every time I see my real name online. Worth the fear that I’ll become unemployable. Worth posting this photo of me again, that I took down in the past.

Please don’t dismiss pseuds, nor limit our access to important online discussion spaces. Pseudonyms include voices of people living in fear who are reaching out to others. We have very good reasons to not want a full record of our lives online under our real name.  I include here people that are not at risk of physical harm, but economic and professional harm; graduate students that don’t want to be viewed as trouble makers, and postdocs that don’t want to hurt their grant chances, for example.

Can pseuds be credible? Yes! But what makes us credible and worthwhile is our words and ACTIONS.
Do hold people who behave badly–whether it’s using their real name or a pseudonym–fully accountable for their actions. But don’t blame bad behavior on anonymity alone, and don’t dismiss or limit those using pseudonyms.

Great reads on this topic:

16 thoughts on “Pseudonyms are essential online

  1. Knowing what I know now, I would have used a pseudonym for my Facebook page. As far as I can tell, Facebook won’t let you change your account name once it’s established. It’s just too much of a burden to re-establish under a second account now. Between all my various activities and friends, I have about 1600 FB friends all over the world. I would separate my humor/political/religious views from my general “I’m a good boy” views.
    OTOH, I don’t get that many trolls or threats, as I am male and rather imposing-looking. Most people just “unfriend” me if they don’t like what I say. I do understand what you’re saying, Bug Girl. Too many people are allowed to run wild on the Web. I’m not an IT person, so I have no solutions for that. It’s sad and a bit frightening.

  2. Absolutely agree. There have been plenty of times I’ve used a pseudonym online to discuss things that I never would post under my real name. As long as the reality exists that employers Google potential employees and online bullies can turn into IRL assailants, pseudonyms will be necessary.

    Thank you for posting this. And good luck with the job search!!

  3. Thanks for the response. I’m sorry for the offense. An unintended offense, in my view, is even more egregious, because it indicates inadequate thoughtfulness. This is an odd venue for an apology, but here it is. I’m sorry.

    Now, some explanation for those who have the treat of reading this post without having yet read mine:

    As for the “pseudonyms are used to bully” concept: you won’t find it in my post.

    To be clear, again: Of course people have valid reasons for using a pseudonym. I haven’t ever said otherwise.

    In my tweet quoted above, take care to note that importance of the first three words in my sentence. That was not a dismissal of safety concerns, but a discussion of a reason that people may use pseudonyms aside from the primary safety concern. Words matter. It wasn’t phrased elegantly, but the concept in the words is something that makes sense to me. If I had more than the characters that twitter allows you, I’d expand the tweet to read, “Once you consider the concern about physical safety and stalking, and look at other issues, then there is safety in knowing that you don’t have to triple-think everything you write.”

    Indeed.

    I’m not convinced that I’ve forgotten anything about how my place as a tenured white dude. My words don’t indicate that at all. Keep in mind that my post was filled with questions – and that I wasn’t sure of much. I didn’t ever say what people should and should do, nor have ever thought as much, which is what it sounds like I was accused of.

    Because I should have triple thought every word in that tweet that I had in conversation with my colleague.

    Likewise, I have taken pains to say that I do take pseudonymous authors seriously. Any readers over here should read the post over at my site before any umbrage is taken. Take umbrage after reading what I wrote, instead, though I think it’s unlikely. In a nutshell, what I said about pseudonymity and blogging is that while I can take serious pseudonymous blogs seriously, I recognized the fact that a lot of people don’t, especially the broader public which still doesn’t read blogs regularly. I was wondering if pseudonymous blogs were capable of having the same impact on the non-blog world, and if that wasn’t the case, I was wondering what the motivation of pseudonymous bloggers might be to operate their blogs. So, of course I understand why a person running a blog would use a pseudonym. As Gwen points out here, it’s obvious. I just don’t know the motivation for running a blog. You’ll note that my post was more about Banksy than science bloggers.

    So, my post wasn’t me expressing “I can’t take pseudonyms seriously” – it was me observing the fact other people say that even though I don’t, and wondering how much this constrains the impact of pseudonymous products – art more than blogs, actually. The post was about Banksy. Who was in the LA Times, yesterday after my post came out, actually, so his reach is still growing in spite of – or perhaps because of – his pseudonymous identity.

    As for the ability of identity to have an impact, this post itself would have less impact if had concealed my identity. Would the conversation have happened, or would have you shared it, if it wasn’t? I’m not sure.

    So, are pseudonyms used to bully? I don’t think so. I haven’t had much assholeism on my site, and what I’ve seen has come equally from pseudonymous and known people. So far, the biggest attack on me is this one, from a publicly known person. So, of course pseudonyms aren’t associated with more bullying.

  4. That… was an interesting response Terry. Lets see:
    1. Accuse me of bullying
    2. Worked in my IRL name in your response (the second time you’ve done this, after tweeting it earlier)
    3. Suggest I misrepresented your post

    Let’s just deal with #3, shall we?
    I am not the only person that read your post as dismissive of pseudonyms; Scicurious had the same take as I did, although she chose to address it in a different way. http://scientopia.org/blogs/scicurious/2013/08/17/tell-me-again-how-pseudonyms-are-lame/
    Drug Monkey also had some thoughts on twitter.
    I was responding in part to things you have said about your post; including:

    “Yeah, you can say and do controversial things under a pseudonym. (You can also be less civil, as I’ve recently experienced.) ”
    “What I don’t understand is the motivation to blog, if you’re going to use a pseudonym? Why do these pseudonymous authors are seeking from having the blog? Without using your name, then what is your motivation for having the blog, on a personal, interpersonal, and societal scales? “

    Question answered.

    The rewording of your tweet—And I will insert that wording *instead* of your tweet if you wish–really doesn’t help. It still focuses on lack of accountability, and misses my main point–that some groups are always on guard about what we share. If you want, I can remove that image and make YOU the anonymous voice. I will take that out because This post isn’t about you. It’s for other people who are questioning the value of pseudonyms.

    I absolutely HATE writing posts like this, because having people angry at me is horrible and hard to deal with, given my personal history. But I’m into my 50th decade now, and I think it’s important for geezers like me to take risks and try to make things better for students coming after me.

    It SUCKS to be misunderstood–it is my least favorite part of blogging, and no matter how hard I try, I manage to miss something on every post (Example 1: Your comment on this post). But several different people interpreted your post the same way I did. Try to listen to what we are telling you.

  5. I’m listening. I’m sorry, I did think this post was a response to my post, that was the false impression I got from the first paragraph. Thanks for the clarification that it’s not about me and my post.

    I didn’t realize that I shouldn’t be using your in real life name. I thought you came out and wanted to be known by your real-life name on the site. I was trying to be respectful and honor your wishes. I’m sorry, Bug Girl. I’ve just deleted that tweet, and please edit my comment if you don’t want your name in it – the system won’t let me.

    It does seem that formerly-pseudonymous bloggers have read my post about pseudonymity as some kind of dig against pseudonymous bloggers. To my knowledge, at least, formerly-pseudonymous bloggers are the only audience that’s seen it that way. It should be clear that I have full respect and attention for pseudonymous works – my whole post is about how Banksy is awesome, and also have been a fan of your site and other pseudonymous sites for a long time.

    I’ve gotten lots of replies answering my questions, including your post. It’s been useful to hear from people who have blogged under pseudonyms for several years explain their motivation for doing so much, while not being publicly connected to what they do. There are lots of possible reasons, and it was nice to hear the actual ones. In your circumstance, I wish that these reasons did not exist, of course, and it takes guts to be up front with it. It’s not my position to evaluate whether it’s “worth it” but I do appreciate your assessment.

    This post might not have been intended as an attack, but it sure paints me as an ignorant oaf. A person reading the first paragraph might mistakenly think that I don’t take pseudonymous work or people seriously, or might mistakenly think that I wrote that pseudonymous people take on pseudonyms for the purpose of bullying. I wanted to comment to clarify that misconception. And, as tensions are high, misperceptions are being piled on top of one another. I really did think that your post was an attack on me, and I’m glad to hear that it wasn’t intended as such, and I’ll take you at your word for it. I am not angry at you, and I understand that you thought that I didn’t appreciate your work because of it pseudonymous nature. Let me reassure you that’s not the case at all. I’m sorry.

  6. You know why the people who are still pseuds aren’t saying anything? It’s because they don’t want to draw attention to themselves so they are outed. That’s kind of the point of my writing this.

    I was hoping that this part of my post made where I was coming from clear:

    Terry, the author of the post and the tweet that set off this rant, is a good person, and I know he cares about his students and his work deeply. He is also a white tenured dude. I’m not mentioning him as an example to shame him, but to show how easy it is even for the good guys to forget that their experiences are not representative.

    Like I said, I can make changes to this post so you appear less “oafish”. Frankly, I don’t think you come off as oafish, just a little bit clueless. And who isn’t clueless at times? We all are. Here’s a link to a truly EPIC fail on my part.

    Suggest specific changes to this post, and I’ll make them. The post as a whole is a statement about the importance of pseuds to marginalized groups. Not a statement about you. That’s why I’m ok with making changes so that my message is more specific.

  7. If you want to make a change – only if you think it’s a good idea – then I don’t really think that I was forgetting the limits of my experience, but I was asking questions to make sense of things beyond my experience. I was clueless in the sense that I didn’t have the clue, but I was clued in enough to ask the question. I don’t know how to phrase that and you’ve done fine by me.

  8. I have to agree 100% with your post… And I just wanted to offer whatever sympathy I can for what you have gone through. As a gay white male, I can sympathize with some of he harassment you’ve gone through, and understand exactly what you mean when you say you think about what to relate to people about who you are. Even if your out and proud, there are times Jane its just not worth the hassle or the situation is just too dangerous for whatever reason to reveal who you are to some people. That is a subtle form of bullying in and of itself, that maybe in an ideal world would never happen, but this world is far from ideal. Anyway, I wish I could give you a hug right now, but this being the Internet the idea of one will have to suffice. Good luck to you my dear, I hope things work out for you.

    And by the way, I love your approach to the bugs in your blog too, lol. Keep up the good work!

    Brett Johnson (and yes, that’s my real name, lol, though online you’ll also find me as greenmann)

    Sent from my iPhone

  9. Thanks Greenmann!

    BTW, for readers, there is a very interesting (and different) discussion going on over at Sci’s post on this topic.

    http://scientopia.org/blogs/scicurious/2013/08/17/tell-me-again-how-pseudonyms-are-lame/#comment-24885

    YES. Everything Sci Said.

    …when someone asks WHY pseuds exist as bloggers, well it does imply that it’s a negative thing. You never SAID that pseuds were used to bully, instead you said that pseuds never have to think three times about everything. Which implies, very strongly, that pseuds do not face consequences for their actions in the way people writing under their own names do…

  10. McGlynn is a whiny boring humorless douche, who couldn’t even be bothered to actually do some motherfucken research–by actually reading what pseudonymous bloggers have been saying for fucken *years* about why they blogge pseudonymously–to find answers to his whiny humorless douchey “questions”.

  11. Thanks for the interesting perspective on pseodonymity. The are definitely times and places it can be very important. It is an option worth keeping available to people.

  12. I can post without regret because I have a very common name. If you know my last name you will find several tens of million hits on that name. And for a heads up, I do not sell real estate, nor am I on Facebook.

    My youngest child does not think the given name was enough. In fact we have gone through a process to change the given name to a neuter version. Plus this child had used a maternal grandmother’s surname for Facebook, but due to their whacky lack of security deleted that account (Google searches on that particular surname brings up other scientific hits and not real people).

    We want to be judged on what we post as our thoughts, not what you perceive on what we are. That goes for both gender and nationality.

  13. Also relevant to this conversation: http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/08/laurie-penny/men-sexism

    “You can be the gentlest, sweetest man in the world yet still benefit from sexism. That’s how oppression works. Thousands of otherwise decent people are persuaded to go along with an unfair system because it’s less hassle that way. The appropriate response when somebody demands a change in that unfair system is to listen, rather than turning away or yelling that it’s not your fault. And it isn’t your fault. I’m sure you’re lovely. “

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