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Case 1. Implicating employee.

On KuroShin in 2001, one user decided to take advantage of his free OnlineDiary to post some nasty, and possibly libelous, things about his employer and co-workers. While this is par for the course for online diaries, the poster unwittingly used his real name instead of a much safer PseudoNym. He was naturally found out and fired. Fortunately, his now previous employer didn't sue him, but they refused to pay him his outstanding pay until the diaries were removed. The poster appealed to RustyFoster, the proprietor of KuroShin, and Rusty removed the four diary entries.

Had the poster used a pseudonym and had he gone to any effort to conceal the identity of his company and co-workers, he might still have his job. He's lucky that Rusty was around and willing to remove the diary entries for him.

Case 2. Library girl.

[reporter's article, less than 100% accurate] (broken link 23Dec03)
[Metafilter: tracking him down, commentary and discussion]
[google cache of first section of blog] (broken link 23Dec03)
[google cache of second section of blog]

Joe Begleiter meets an attractive woman at the local library where they both are doing research for their writing. Things progress well, and they go on a date, which resulted in some french kissing at the end. Excited by this turn of events, Joe chronicles this on his online diary that night, not naming her, and calling her funny, smart, super-cute, but a bad kisser.

"Library girl" searches on Google for the courter and discovers this entry and a number more. Little did the courtier know, but she's friends with a reporter, Tod Goldberg. Tod writes an article about it, exaggerated for effect. MetaFilter tracks Joe down in forty minutes, based on the Tod's article alone. The Internet is shallow.

Joe sells some T-shirts. Tod sells some books. Library girl lacks entrepeneurial spark.

CategoryCase CategoryIdentity CategoryRealNames

thanks! -- BayleShanks

On WikiWiki, one poster has argued on Wiki:PseudonymityWithUntraceability that he should be allowed to post as Wiki:JustMab so he could slander his employer as he (rightly) expects reprisal. I suggested that the obvious solution was to post anonymously and fictionalize the names of his employer and co-workers. After all, it's really irrelevant what the specifics are if the purpose is to discuss case histories. Nonetheless, if our hero is adamant, his catharsis may be a potentially expensive one--that is, if he is ever found out. -- SunirShah

hmm but if his motive for slandering the employer is to specifically hurt the employer or to warn others about them, he needs to name them to do that. -- BayleShanks

And is it slander? If it's a true story, it shouldn't be slander (though I wouldn't hold my breath about that helping in court).

Even if it isn't slander, repercussions can be grave. In the absence of those repercussions being able to discuss things might actually be very beneficial. Both for catharsis and for the ability to talk about actual real life examples related to the subject under discussion.

OnlineIdentitys can help with this. --ErikDeBill

In the kuro5hin case, the perpetrator did have an OnlineIdentity. Online identities are as secure as houses made from swiss cheese. -- SunirShah

But in combination with changing the names of the guilty they'll keep you from getting nailed most of the time. They can be SecureEnough. It's all risk management.

If you're big worry is getting Googled, changing names (all names, yours and theirs) can help a lot. didn't the Case 1 above specifically state that he used a pseudonym? I'd also like to note that swiss cheese can do a fair job of insulating, and if given the choice between sitting out in a open field during a rainstorm and sheltering under a 3 inch thick roof of swiss cheese, I'll take the cheese (even if it does have a musty smell).

Changing the names of the guilty is an encouraged tradition in society. Do that. Then you don't have to go through the effort of maintaining a socially disconnected PenName. Rarely is it necessary to say anything incriminating; you can usually say what you mean through an abstracted fiction. It's only when your intent is to harm the subject that you need to state actual names and events.

Note that the rain will come through the holes in the cheese. It's only a visual barrier, not a real one (a la UnlockedDoors). Pseudonyms fall apart because it's really difficult to separate yourself from your real life to the point that no one can figure out who you are. Sometimes people have done it successfully, often they haven't. -- SunirShah

I'm not worried about stopping a determined attacker. I'm worried about keeping a coworker from typing my name into a search engine and seeing me complaining about an idiot that matches their description too well (under a different name/no name). If I sign my real name, they'll still spot it. If I use a Pseudonym they won't. It's SecureEnough for this case. "No one can figure out" and "unbreakable security" are fictions. They don't exist. In real life everything becomes a matter of risk management.

If I was going to divulge trade secrets things might be different, but for slamming someone's API decisions a PseudoNym in combination with changing the names of the guilty is sufficient. If I only change the names of the guilty, then people will be drawn to read things because my name is on them, and they will recognize the description of themselves. (Or you might look at it as "I am one of the guilty, therefore my name should change.")

Much of human society is based on being nice to people you don't like. It also turns on having an outlet to complain about those people where they won't find out. Ever complain about some habit your roommate has? You don't make a big confrontation about it (maybe because they don't confront you about some of your imperfections) but it's cathartic to complain about occasionally. If they suddenly heard all those complaints (possibly out of context...) things could be bad.

Yes, but I don't publish flyers about my roommates' habits. Complain privately to your friends, but not publically on the Internet. That's why society has built distinctions between public and private selves. What's the public reason to complain about your co-worker's incompetence? If it's merely for your private benefit of catharsis, I don't think that really is a good enough reason to warrant protection. -- SunirShah

To point out things which shouldn't be done. To offer up ways of dealing with difficult people (for which descriptions of exactly what sort of "difficult" is meant plays a role).

Are you actually advocating the idea that online communities of friends must be closed (members only)? Can part of my private self not exist on the internet?

What if all my friends happened to be regular users of a wiki which served both as a place for communication among friends and as a place for useful info? See http://www.yankonthis.com for a place which seems to fulfill that sort of function (not a wiki, though). In that sort of case, Pseudonyms are effectively nicknames. Everyone may know the real name behind one, but the online record wouldn't have the real name. I belong to a YahooGroup? that works that way. Most users have fanciful user names, but everyone knows their real names.

Some websites imply massive circulation. Post about your roommate's habits on SlashDot and expect lots of people to read it. Some websites are rather small and intimate. Post on a webboard frequented by less than a dozen people and don't expect many to read it (and expect to know those folks).

In the small case, a PenName doesn't hide your identity from the intended audience. Peer pressure among the small group aids SoftSecurity. Publishing it freely on the web helps people get in from wherever they are. Closing a door may not keep people out, but it keeps them from accidentally looking in.

Am I the only person here who doesn't think a PenName is harmful?

There are two ideas; your first paragraph has already been answered a number of times on this page. Once again, there is no need to cite actual names and actual events slanderously or libelously to learn what shouldn't be done or how to deal with difficult people. Fictionalized anecdotes are sufficient to discuss the problem. On the other hand, case histories based in reality are valuable, but they have to be objective. You do not need a PenName to write a case; or conversely, if you feel the need to use a PenName, you aren't writing a case. [ed: could we delete or refactor these sidebar paragraphs? They're just confusing the flow of conversation, and they've already been covered. I'd rather focus on this second argument.]

Second. If you're writing in public view, then you are publishing. Conversely, to hold a private conversation amongst friends, you must use a private forum. While it's alluring to think of the Internet as a number of private lounges, it is not always. Unless you restrict access to the public at large, an OnlineDiary is not a private journal, but instead is a public record. Thus, you must behave accordingly as you are speaking in public. The Implicating Employee failed to grasp this concept. This does not mean that you cannot have any aspect of your private self on the Internet, it's just that there are limits to your freedoms. Welcome to democracy.

Simply stated, if you want the full freedoms of a private space, you must really use a private space. E-mail is one example, or a password protected webspace is another. But don't forget if it's recorded, it can be used against you.

Really, this isn't a new problem. Literate society has a long history of using PenNames, and it's ludicrous to claim they are always harmful. For instance, it's useful to have a DramaticIdentity for TheCollective to speak as a uniform entity, or it's useful for NealStephenson to write political intrigues as Stephen Bury, or it's very useful for the New York Times to mask it sources' names. My argument is that it's an abuse of the convention to complain about your bad day at work. Better ways exist to communicate your point. I'd even claim that your audience would gain more from an objective generalized point of view than an embittered, cynical, slanderous one.

I'd also argue that people who insist on using pseudonyms to protect themselves really don't understand just how fantastically dangerous that is. As soon as you attack someone else publically, you are in serious trouble unless you can defend yourself in court or at war. Tempt fate if you dare, but it's your ass.

Sometimes, it's everyone's ass, which is one reason I insist that we UseRealNames here. I'm not willing to be sued over anything someone wrote here, and I'd rather take down the entire site than martyr myself for someone's bad hair day. I'd expect people would edit malicious statements here if they saw them even from my diary. Let's not get paranoid, but that's my argument. -- SunirShah

You're confusing my wanting to be able to say I've got someone at work who consistently refuses to test whether or not his code even compiles. I've tried talking to him about it and he always says 'it works on my box' or 'how did that slip through?'. This is really bugging me, and wasting a significant amount of my time cleaning up his mess. Has anyone else run into someone like this? Any suggestions for getting him to clean up his act? I don't think shouting will help, no matter how nice it would feel. with wanting to slander someone. This is a factual statement. Part of it is opinion, and marked so. What's more, if my coworker sees it, He may be mad at me, but I'm already mad at him for wasting my time. We'd be better off without a confrontation, but I'll accept the consequences (who knows, maybe something more confrontational is needed? I hate confrontations). Asking for suggestions on how to handle him is useful.

I have no friends who are programmers (yeah, I know I'm weird). I've already talked to the head of the dev team about it and he's no help. Asking in an online fora is my only option (short of reading books and keeping my mouth shut). I don't have any options that aren't "public" in some fashion. BUT if I use a PenName for it, there will be less chance of the bad things happening. In fact, odds are, even if he reads it he'll not know I'm talking about him (assuming that I wiped my cookie so this didn't show up on RecentChanges under my real name).

I'm not looking to rule out consequences completely, and if they happen I'll accept them (you can do anything you want, if you're willing to pay the consequences). But in this case I don't see anything wrong with trying to avoid them. Just because there are consequences for an action doesn't mean you should go out of your way to pay them. If I drop a bottle of beer one consequence of my clumsiness is a broken bottle - but I won't break it if it doesn't break on its own.

I wholeheartedly agree that using a PenName to slander someone and try to avoid prosecution is a bad thing. I'd fully expect you to turn over your web logs if someone wanting to sue me over something I posted here. At the same time, putting you in that position would be discourteous in the extreme. The tradition of slanderous flaming in usenet and other online fora is not a good thing.

The web may not be a series of private lounges, but in may ways it resembles a party in a house with many small rooms, but no doors. People may go from one to the next. As you walk around you will hear bits of conversations. Using a PenName is the equivalent of dropping your voice and leaning a little closer to the other people you're talking to. It won't prevent eavesdropping, but it can make it less likely. In fact, depending on who you're worried about hearing, it may be perfectly sufficient to allow you to talk about your roommate's annoying habit of not wearing a shirt before noon. --ErikDeBill (and yes, this needs refactoring when we finish up)

The beer-bottle-breakage example is a keeper.

Catharsis is an ineffective technique; this is best learned at a younger age than at an older one. Few people have glowing things to say about their landlord, their boss, or their roommate. Time brings the lesson that such relationships are inherently adversarial and the only real solution is to structure a lifestyle that does not involve such relationships at all, or to impose coping mechanisms to limit the effect of the ensuing negativity.

The passage of time allows writers to develop a better sense of perspective and simultaneously abrogates the obligations of confidentiality. When a period of years have elapsed, and relationships have ended or changed, it is more appropriate to share what can be shared so that all may learn. Case studies are valuable. Identifying information can and should be stripped where irrelevant, though some must be left when it is cruical to context.

A related pattern concerns the replies and threads that ensue from one's contributions. It is not unheard of for a seemingly innocuous contribution to be misinterpreted or to lead to flame wars. Technologies that encourage quoting of original posts in replies can, as a side effect, associate the original posters name with the ensuing vitriol. Will a future reader care enough to sort out the actual attribution in all cases?

moving UseRealNames discussion to UseRealNamesDiscussion.


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