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:

Does Google+ hate women?

Ok, that title is way over the top to get your attention.* BUT.banned from google
I do want to talk about what the “no pseudonyms” policy adopted at G+ means for women, LGBT folk, and civil servants.

There are many, many resources that can explain to Google why adopting this policy is a stupid idea (aside from the obvious business advantage of not alienating early adopters and potential G+ evangelists). One of the best can be found at the Geek Feminism Wiki:

The cost to these 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.

Basically, we know that some people are assholes online, and like to target others and make their lives hell. They will do this using their real names; they do this with fake identities.   It’s about BEHAVIOR, not about names.  If your website is full of assholes, it’s your fault for not holding people–whatever name they go by–accountable for their behavior.  Online behavior doesn’t have to be polite or full of everyone agreeing with each other. Conversations just need to not be bigoted, hateful, or destructive.

If you agree that allowing pseudonyms online is important, please visit this petition and sign. It goes directly to Google.

My personal take:

I was banned from Google+ after happily using it for about a week, because I used my pseudonym as my name.  I’m not the only one–a bunch of other bloggers, all of whom have reasons to want to not reaveal their real names, or who, like Lady Gaga, have an alternative name that they are known by.  I have both professional and personal reasons to want to use my pseudonym Bug Girl online.

I can get my profile re-activated by giving Google my real name, and allowing it to be publicly linked with my profile.  But I’m not going to choose to out myself just because some giant world-ruling corporation demands it.   I have been Bug Girl online since at least 1997; as a blogger since 2005.  I initially adopted a pseudonym because I had been the target of some white supremacist groups in the 90s, as well as experiencing stalking.

Later I discovered that I had become a high-enough level civil servant that I was actually PROHIBITED, by law, from having opinions online.  I controlled enough of the state budget that my activities online, if connected to my real name, could be seen as lobbying.  It looks like my current job in Connecticut is going to be bound by the same rules.

I also only feel free to talk about my disability (I have epilepsy) and my status as a rape survivor under this pseudonym. I don’t want my students, my employer, or my mom to find out these secrets about me from Google.

How concerned am I about keeping my IRL name separate from Bug Girl? I am going to be giving a talk at the Entomological Society of America National meeting under the pseudonym of Bug Girl.  When an academic passes up a chance to pad her vita, you know she’s serious about plausible deniability.

Google is targeting people based on how “real” sounding their names are. Had I chosen a name that sounded more plausible, I would probably still be able to use Google+.  I know at least 5 people who put in fake names that are still happily using the service.  It’s a rule that can’t be applied consistently, and it blocks me from participating in a lot of wonderful online conversations.  Google+ is a really great platform, and I liked it a lot before I was evicted.

Google’s adopted a policy that puts people at risk and silences their voices in this new online forum.  Not because we have misbehaved, but because our privacy is important and we won’t give it up.  Google is a company that profits by serving you advertising on YouTube videos where  my friends are threatened with rape and death.  It is beyond hypocrisy for them to say they are concerned about online civility.

I have so many, many wonderful friends online as Bug Girl. I think I could go to just about any town in the world and find someone fun to have a conversation with that knows me as Bug.  I am constantly humbled by how kind and generous people online can be, and the realness of virtual communities.   Please sign the petition and help me share that with others.

(Oh, and make sure to click the Google+ button below! :)   )

Additional links:

*EDITED 7/24 TO ADD: People are getting hung up on the title of this post. It was a deliberately provocative title, but apparently a little too provocative. I have slightly altered it.  I drew a complete blank that afternoon when floundering for a title that would convey that Google had, once again, implemented a policy that would harm women and LGBT folks.