The concept of an Internet “troll” is puzzling, if you think about it. No non-digital troll relishes anonymity or sneakily provokes or harrasses others with snarky comments. Trolls in literature tend to be physically imposing but slightly dim-witted. Think of the troll under the bridge in “Three Billy Goats Gruff”: he had “eyes as big as saucers, and a nose as long as a poker” and wanted desperately to “gobble up” the offending goats, but he was outsmarted and paid the ultimate price. On the web, by contrast, trolls hide behind a wall of anonymity and sit back smiling as they fire up the passions of other commenters. To be a good Internet troll, you have to know what gets people angry—a level of insight into others that the under-the-bridge variety demonstrably lacks.
It’s the anonymity that makes Internet trolls tick, many say, and this feature of web comment sections is to blame for the sorry state of web discourse. The “disinhibition” provoked by anonymity “frees us,” according to Academic Earth, “from a perceived obligation to act in accordance with certain social norms.” It is a virtual Ring of Gyges that corrupts even the saints among us:
Anonymity makes all the difference, and unfortunately, this frees some to partake in some pretty egregious behavior. This is particularly true online. We’re 20 years into the experiment of the World Wide Web, and we can clearly see how Internet anonymity plays out across social media, chat rooms, and comment sections. Usually just a nuisance, anonymous troublemakers, known as trolls, can be dangerous when they go after the vulnerable.
Based on this reasonable-sounding theory, many websites, including Google+, adopted “real name” requirements whereby users were forced to register and post under their actual given names rather than smartypants49 or inspiredcommentguy. But many studies have failed to find any improvement in the quality of web discussions when conducted transparently, and Google+ abandoned its “real name” policy last month, noting that the requirement “excluded a number of people who wanted to be part of it without using their real names.”
A new book by Harvard researcher Judith Donath, The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online (MIT Press, 2014), suggests that Google+ is now on a better track. As Erin O’Donnell’s headline suggests at Harvard Magazine, Ms. Donath believes pseudonyms make for “better online citizens.” There is both a self-interested and a societal function for “handles,” or virtual noms de plume. Ms. O’Donnell explains the benefit for the individual:
Donath often uses a pseudonym online, not because she wants to “anonymously harass people or post incendiary comments unscathed,” as she explained in a commentary published on Wired.com this spring, but because she prefers to separate certain aspects of her life. In the age of Google, a quick search of a person’s name gathers everything he or she has posted under that name, from résumés to college party photos. As a public figure who studies how people communicate online, Donath’s academic writing can be found online under her real name. But when she writes product reviews on shopping sites such as Drugstore.com, or restaurant reviews on Yelp, she might use a pseudonym. “I would like to be known online for what I write,” she says. “I don’t necessarily feel like I need to be known for what I’ve been eating.”
This may be useful to you even if you aren’t, like Ms. Donath, a public figure with a reputation to uphold. Potential bosses or suitors will be Googling you, you can be sure of that, and it may not be a great idea for your every comment on Big Think or the Huffington Post or the New York Times to be accessible to these people. Your politics might clash with the views of a possible employer, say, or that Amazon product review you wrote ten years ago might not represent your truest, deepest self.
Beyond personal reasons for keeping parts of your online presence separate from your real life, there is an important social and political role for using pseudonyms. And here we must distinguish between complete anonymity and pseudonymity, the state of being identified by an alias with a solid and enduring presence:
Donath stresses that using a pseudonym is very different from posting anonymously. “The difference between being pseudonymous and being anonymous is history,” she says. “For something to truly be a pseudonym, it has to have some kind of history within a particular context,” such as how many times the person has posted on a site, the topics he or she comments on, and what he or she has said. …Few sites currently share that kind of history. Donath has been exploring ways to allow websites to represent users with “data portraits” that make it “possible to see years of activity in a single glance.” In The Social Machine, she writes, “Data portraits…can help members of a community keep track of who the other participants are, showing the roles they play and creating a concise representation of the things they have said and done.” She continues, “Communities flourish when their members have stable identities,” and the protection of a pseudonym may free users to debate controversial topics more fully.
Free and fearless discussion of important topics is often cultivated by an environment where individuals are free to mask themselves before speaking. Some states have laws preventing this kind of thing; a few years ago, several Occupy Wall Street protesters found themselves on the wrong side of a New York State anti-masking statute. But sometimes people with the most to lose are the ones with the most to share, and providing an opportunity for pseudonymity could enhance the public’s knowledge of important issues. With no protection, for example, whistleblowers will be much less likely to go out on a limb to disclose illegal activities in the organizations and businesses where they work.
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