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:

The GOP War on Caterpillars

Politics delivered a bizzare insect soundbite this week. A GOP leader was being questioned about policies mandating medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds, limiting access to birth control, and other recent policy initiatives considered anti-woman.  His response? 

Priebus rejected the idea that Republicans are waging a war on women.

“If the Democrats said we had a war on caterpillars and every mainstream media outlet talked about the fact that Republicans have a war on caterpillars, then we’d have problems with caterpillars,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt” airing this weekend. “It’s a fiction.

caterpillar How the HELL do you explain that thought path??
Women –> Sluts –> Uterus control –> CATERPILLARS.

Also? Denying there is a war on women only works if, in fact, there isn’t a war on women.  Hundreds of bills are being introduced all over the US that limit women’s rights.  Just last week Wisconsin quietly revoked an equal pay bill.

The analogy with insects doesn’t work either if, in fact, there actually is a GOP war on caterpillars.  Let’s continue to use Wisconsin as an example. Wisconsin sponsors a major project to kill the Gypsy Moth. Go look. It’s WAR, people. There are areas clearly marked for “suppression.”

Texas recently cut health services to many women. They also are persecuting cactus moth caterpillars. In fact, there is a tri-state consortium devoted to killing these caterpillars; here’s some representative language:   “In the wake of the Cactoblastis, only death and destruction are found, presenting a threat to human welfare…”   Sounds pretty warlike to me!

Michigan, a state that recently banned same-sex partner benefits, has quarantines in many areas, and routinely stops people with firewood for warrantless searches. What are they looking for? GRUBS. The Emerald Ash Borer is marked for elimination.  You are even encouraged to turn in suspicious characters by calling a hotline.

change

The GOP-controlled House introduced a “Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act” in 2011 that would reduce pesticide regulation, including removing some pieces of the Clean Water Act that currently restrict pesticides in watersheds.

There is evidence of flip-flopping by Mitt Romney on the caterpillar issue. He labeled a project to control the invasive species of winter moths as “porkbarrel spending” in 2006, and didn’t fund it.  His current position on funding the War on Caterpillars is unclear.

Clearly, the War on Caterpillars is REAL.  Of course, there is a reason why caterpillars are targeted by both the GOP and farmers.* It’s simple math that goes all the way back to Malthus.  Populations have the potential to grow faster than their food supply. So, if you want to control an insect pest, you attack its reproductive cycle.

But why in the world would you want to prevent women from having access to birth control, or the ability to control their own bodies? This seems counter-productive for a bunch of fiscal conservatives.  How will we provide water and food for a expanding population? How will those babies be employed in the future when they grow up? How will all those kids be educated? We are building more prisons than schools, which doesn’t bode well for anyone’s future prospects.

Obviously, I think women should have control over their bodies because it’s a basic human right (recognized since 1968 by the UN, in fact).  It just seems like the current focus on womb control is very short-sighted from a fiscal/living-in-the-real-world point of view, as well.

Legislation was introduced to require women to provide a written explanation about why they wanted birth control to their employers. Legislation has been introduced to define you as pregnant 2 weeks before conception. Women who have miscarriages are charged with murder.   This is some serious heinous fuckery, people.  It’s 2012. The state should not be getting all up in my lady business.

There is an upside to all this. The best thing to come out of the GOP war on caterpillars was the explosion of #GOPWarOnCaterpillars on Twitter.  This charge was led by the wonderful John Scalzi, who decided see if he could get the tag to become a “trending topic”.  Here are some of my favorites–feel free to suggest more slogans in the comments!

Share
CATERPILLARS AREN’T REAL CATS. OR PILLARS. WHY TRUST THEIR LIES #GOPWarOnCaterpillars
Thu, Apr 05 2012 16:53:14
  1. Share
    IF WE LEGALIZE CATERPILLAR MARRIAGE, THE CHILDREN WILL BE CONFUSED. MOSTLY BY CATERPILLARS GETTING MARRIED. #GOPWarOnCaterpillars
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 16:51:09
  2. Share
    RT @markokloos: THE CONSTITUTION DOESN’T MENTION THE RIGHT TO PUPATE #GOPWarOnCaterpillars
    Sat, Apr 07 2012 18:43:14
  3. Share
    BUTTERFLIES AND RAINBOWS: NOT A COINCIDENTAL PAIRING #GOPWarOnCaterpillars jezebel.com/5899482/war-on…
    Fri, Apr 06 2012 04:16:37
  4. Share
    ECDYSIS IS JUST A FANCY WORD FOR STRIPPING! CATERPILLARS=SLUTS! #GOPWarOnCaterpillars
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 17:03:05
  5. Share
    Back in my day, we told the caterpillars to just hold an aspirin between each pair of knees. Took a whole bottle, tho. #GOPWarOnCaterpillars
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 18:19:10
  6. Share
    YOU SHALL HAVE MY CHRYSALIS WHEN YOU PRY MY COLD DEAD FINGERS FROM IT. #GOPWarOnCaterpillars
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 16:37:24
  7. Share
    .@scalzi HOW CAN YOU TRUST A CATERPILLAR WHEN THEY ARE THE WORLD’S OLDEST SPIN DOCTORS? #GOPWarOnCaterpillars
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 17:01:51
  8. Share
    CATERPILLARS WILL FORCE YOUR CHILDREN TO READ ABOUT THEIR LIFE CYCLE IN SCHOOL #GOPWarOnCaterpillars
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 16:56:55
  9. Share
    @scalzi In the tradition of “Freedom Fries,” Caterpillar Trucks will henceforth be called Bald Eagle Trucks. #GOPWarOnCaterpillars
    Fri, Apr 06 2012 01:22:17
  10. Share
    I don’t believe there is a #GOPWarOnCaterpillars. After all, Republicans support the right to woolybear arms.
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 18:04:52
  11. Share
    Breaking: Republicans oppose law to require paid leave time for metamorphosis, calling it “socialist”. #GOPWarOnCaterpillars
    Fri, Apr 06 2012 13:04:44
  12. Share
    LOOK ALL I’M SAYING IS METAMORPHOSIS IS A LIFESTYLE CHOICE #GOPWarOnCaterpillars
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 18:57:54
  13. Share
    If butterflies came from caterpillars HOW COME THERE ARE STILL CATERPILLARS?! #GOPWarOnCaterpillars
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 21:47:03
  14. Share

    #GOPWarOnCaterpillars http://twitpic.com/9634g4
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 19:46:01

*Actually, these are all invasive species and it’s ok with me if they kill them. But that kind of detracts from my point, so it’s a parenthetical down here.