[Home]BasisForPseudonymity

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Part of the ImportanceOfIdentityInOnlineCommunities discussion.

There are various reasons one might choose a pseudonym. Some of these are acknowledged to be bad. The ones claimed to be good, however, are disputed as to their usefulness. This is the crux of the matter; if there are no valid reasons to choose pseudonymity, then it becomes a "because we can" argument.

Those reasons acknowledged to be bad are typically the most common bases for pseudonymity. Note that this is not necessarily bad if a community puts a high value on entertainment rather than professionalism.

Note that, while a true AnonymousIdentity (i.e., no UserName at all, rather than an "AnonymousDonor" DramaticIdentity) provides a means of escaping potential legitimate needs for pseudonymity, it does not provide serialization to allow one to build up a context of a unique identity. Whether this is important depends on one's opinion of whether there are legitimate uses for pseudonymity.

See also: SemanticsOfIdentity, IdentityValidation, VulnerabilityToCommunity, EnforceResponsibility, PenName, FocusOnIdentity.


It's not clear to me what the basis of the dichotomy of trust within | outside the community is. Could someone please expand on this or explain the rationale?

Don't all reasons for anonymity basically reduce to fear of retribution, either warranted -- for trolling, spamming, and other disruptive activities -- or unwarranted -- for whistleblowing, personal testimonial (e.g.: recovery stories), or violations of personal or professional confidence. This seems to me to be more significant than the inside|outside split. -- KarstenSelf 13 Apr 2001

Example: I like Meatball, I like the idea of an online community, and in the spirit of OnlineDiary I start to maintain a diary. And I make it public knowledge that I dislike a certain product my company uses. Now, to Meatball regulars, this is interesting personal information that helps shape an image of myself. This will not be used against we on Meatball. Outsiders, however, might use this information against me. Therefore the information I reveal about myself is harmless within the community but potentially dangerous outside the community. --AlexSchroeder

I don't see it as that clean-cut. The Web is A CommunityOfGlassHouses.

I participate in a number of forums. Two of them are FSB, the FreeSoftwareBusinessList, and OSILicenseDiscuss. The membership of the two groups overlaps to an extent, as does the focus. Included among them are people I know through work and professional contacts -- several coworkers from a previous employer. There was also another group drawn in part from these two lists who were part of another licensing discussion, including someone who had worked for the company I was then with but left shortly after I arrived. The mappings of what communities drew their boundaries where, and which groups I had allegiences to, were fairly complex. Truth is, I'm a member of all four of these communities, with different allegiances, relationships, trust relationships, and obligations to each. There is no one "Community" to which I belong.

The inside|outside model, if not false, is overly simplistic. I see the retribution model as being more complete and predictive, it also identifies the dynamic that differentiates "good" pseudonymity from bad. Here the group plays a role: bad use of pseudonymity is destructive to the group, good pseudonymity is constructive.

Another, more direct example. [My Weblog almost got me fired]. A K5 user's comments on SomeRandomWebsite? turned up in a GoogleSearch. A client of his employer found the site and was unhappy with the results. I turned up the reference, and this poor sod's comments on employers, clients, and girlfriends continue to be propogated through the web. The best part of irony is that it's so ironic....

Remind me to write more about the YaleWall. -- KarstenSelf 13, 22 Apr 2001

I am more strongly in favor of pseudonymity than the DocumentMode on top. I generally sign things by my real name, not just on this site but on others. However, there are two strong reasons i think it is good that pseudonymity is generally available.

First, CommunityOfGlassHouses. I feel this is an very important issue, and not just when saying inflamatory or personal things. We are just entering the age of CommunityOfGlassHouses, and I don't think many of us really have a handle on it yet. My gut feeling is that one's opinions on every issue will eventually be collected and used against you, should you later (dare to) change your mind. We already see this happening with politicans. I think that as society gets used to being a CommunityOfGlassHouses, eventually ForgiveAndForget will take hold, but this won't happen for a very long time. Until then, we will see people becoming increasly guarded in their attributable online speech. People's cautiousness will exceed even PoliticallyCorrect?; people will have to be PoliticallyCorrect? not just with regards to current politics, but with regards to future politics (ContextSwizzling).

I stress that people will not be able to get around this effect by "deliberate choice of words"; the problem is that people will fault you for saying things that, in their context, seemed perfectly safe. Any strong opinions at all could hurt you sometime, somewhere. Example: let's say ten years down the line, i move to some other country (or there is a change of heart here) where the anonymity of the internet is demonized. Perhaps this very comment could be a basis of distrust by new neigbors or government. Yet what i'm saying now doesn't seem at all inflamatory or personal to me; deliberate choice of words is therefore not a solution. The example is somewhat contrived, but i'm sure someone can think of a more realistic one.

Second, ForgiveAndForget. Certainly there will be individuals who will offend the community in some way or another, leave, mend their Wikid ways, and want to return. Yet, especially on Wikis, there will still be a record of their previous banishment (perhaps they were even used as an example of what not to do, and hence enshrined on some semicentral page(s)). Online communities here can overcome a problem with real communities; they can allow the individual to return under a new pseudonym. I do not see this as a bad thing as the phrase "leveraging the PrincipleOfFirstTrust to AssumeGoodFaith (where it is in effect) by forcing a lack of context" above would seem to suggest; i see it as being able to grow without being haunted by past mistakes.

while writing this, i though of some potential "middle ground" solutions (i bet these have been discussed, please point me to the appropriate pages).

For CommunityOfGlassHouses, you could have a pseudonym, however, the community knows which real person goes with which pseudonym. More precisely, there could be a 1-1 mapping of person to pseudonym, however, the mapping could only be disclosed to certain members of the community. Various WebOfTrust schemes could determine who gets to see your "real identity"; after all, if any new user could see your identity, it defeats the purpose. The purpose being to provide accountability within the community without making you accountable/traceable to the rest of the world (some may see this as a disadvantage; but i think intra-community accountability is a strong motivator on its own).

For ForgiveAndForget, one could allow pseudonyms, however, the GodKing or some cabal would get to know the real person associated with the pseudonym. One would be permitted to leave the community and return with a new pseudonym after a specified time period (exile?). Only the cabal would know you are the same person.

by the way, awhile ago I came upon the site [OpenPrivacy]. They are creating a framework to allow sort of a verifiably pseudonymity; that is, you create a new identity, but your new identity is then trackable and can be held accountable for its actions. This doesn't really solve many of the problems of pseudonymity (like SockPuppet), but it seems relevant.

(p.s. i do think each site should choose its own policy; i'm arguing in the abstract, not about MeatBall). -- BayleShanks (almost forgot to sign my name there; how ironic would that be?)


While this may not be directly relevant, I believe that most online communities disregard positive contributions and remember negative contributions. This is sometimes stated as "friends come and go, while enemies tend to accumulate over time" (attrib unknown). A result is that the recently joined contributor having made a few solid posts/edits is at the apogee of their social standing. Some longtime contributors wise to this may leave and rejoin a community to overcome this bias. Is this legitimate, or is it abuse?

I believe the points raised about context are especially germane and have written a little about them at RightToVanish. It is not possible to predict what might become a controversial third-rail issue in the future, and much can be made out of little by the press, potential employers, and the like.


Siegel, J., Dubrovsky, V., Kiesler, S., & McGuire?, T. (1986). Group processes in computer-mediated communication. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 37, 157-187.

Curiously, contrary to popular expectations, this paper suggests that non-anonymous computer-mediated decision making results in more equal participation than purely anonymous computer-mediated decision making. I'm not convinced of their methods though, since they only worked in groups of three. -- SunirShah


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