Tuesday, June 09, 2009

What's in a Name?

There's quite a lot that goes on outside of my notice, especially if I've been busy with other matters, so I mostly missed the blog-scuffle surrounding the outing of Publius by one Ed Whelan. I wouldn't know either of them from Adam, to be honest. I only find the issue of interest because ... well, it brings back some memories. I've been on the 'Net in its various forms for quite a while now, and anon-pseudo-public question has always been there. You'll find proponents for each approach. And you'll find individuals for whom each approach is exactly right, and exactly wrong.

I got my start on the 'Net in 1992 or so with GEnie. Just about everyone had a handle. A handle was nothing more or less than the name you went by. For a while, I went by "Deacon Blues". But after about a year or so, I had an epiphany. I noticed something about the people online for whom I had the most respect. They were always courteous, helpful, good-natured ... and almost invariably, they went by their own names. I decided right then that I would do the same, and I've flown my flag proudly ever since.

It's a decidedly mixed blessing.

Nothing ever really dies on the 'Net. All of my Usenet escapades are still there, searchable all the way back to my first post, way way back when. So, if you roll this way, you really can't hide anything. If you Google my name, you'll eventually find it all ... plus at least two other guys, which really kind of surprised me. (It's not an especially common name...) Still, I knew that going in. I don't mind the accountability. It makes me think twice, so that I don't say anything that I'll profoundly regret later. I can take pride in the fact that, for the most part, I've written nothing I'd be ashamed to have my daughter stumble upon someday.

On the other hand ... Elsewhere here on Blogspot, you'll find my colleague Mr. X over at Chair Force Engineer. He speaks a lot more candidly about his industry -- maybe even his employer -- than I ever would, and probably has much to fear if his identity were compromised. I fully understand why he's adopted a pseudonym. Publius, a non-tenured professor of law, wanted to keep his professional identity distinct from his opinion writing. That's also a valid concern. And then there are people with legitimate concerns about attracting stalkers. There's no limit to the full-on crazy some people on the 'Net can muster. I can't complain about their choice.

On the other other hand ... Anonymity gives some people license to become the rude public nuisance that they always wanted to be, but never had the nerve. I can only think of a handful of "real" names that I can associate with genuinely unpleasant people I've encountered online. Most of the jerks, trolls, and oxygen thieves I've run into hereabouts have been cruising under fake names. They exist to derail discussions. They thrive on vandalism. You still see them on blog forums today, but let me tell you, their troll-fu is weak. The trolls of old could utterly destroy a newsgroup. There were two particularly bitter flame wars I remember, both about ten years ago, both instigated by anonymous trolls. In one case, the troll's primary victim was unusually diligent, and ended up cracking his real ID. Said troll vanished post-haste, and was missed by no one. But the damage had been done, and the quality of conversation never really recovered. The other one got really ugly. A complaint was filed with an ISP, which resulted in the guy losing his job. He stayed around, under his real name, but got in a second flame-war with -- get this -- another anonymous troll. That flame-war ended in a fist-fight one Saturday morning outside of the city limits. Yes, even with blog-trolls, the modern 'Net is an improvement. Usenet was an angry, angry place. I don't miss it.

Anyway, that brings me to another serious disadvantage of pseudonyms. People who disagree with you can become obsessed with finding out who you really are. They think it's like shaving Samson's hair, or giving Superman kryptonite underwear. They think that by outing you, they can get you to shut up. And sometimes they're right. That doesn't make it fair or honest, but occasionally, it's effective. Yet another reason I hoist my flag proudly: no secrets, no drama.

It's worked pretty well so far.

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