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Patty Kleban: Pseudonymity

by on December 31, 2012 6:00 AM

In offering my opinions and perspective in this column each week, I appreciate that people take the time to post comments. I have been both impressed by how respectful people can be in disagreement with my opinion or in debate of a topic and, at times, surprised by the level of anger that an online column can generate.

In many post-article comments, people respond by using a pseudonym. That is, many of the people posting comments on the internet do not post their comments using their real names.

People pretending to be someone else on the Internet? There's a shocker.

Since the beginning of the Internet, first, the techies and, eventually the rest of the world, have debated the concepts of anonymity, the use of pseudonyms and our Internet "identities." We have come to learn that very little of the Internet is truly anonymous and that people post under fake names for a variety of reasons.

In the early days of the Internet, it was about fear of loss of identity. As people were logging on for the first time, many refused to put their real name on anything for the fear of identity theft or fear that somehow one could be tracked down and then harmed after an Internet interaction.

With better security and greater comfort with the World Wide Web, there are still many people who use an alias. Sometimes, it is for entertainment purposes. As one example, on Twitter, my daughters follow @evilbillobrien who tweets as if he were Coach O'Brien's unfiltered thoughts about the referees, etc. It is hysterical.

Internet aliases can also be used to allow for creativity and expression too. I regularly follow a blog in which the writer talks about her family, her personal celebrations and struggles, and her job. After a reprimand from her boss, the author was forced to make up a false identity and to hide anything that could identify her and therefore her work setting. Rather than compromise on her writing style, she opted for the nom de plume.

Arguments in favor of the pseudonym suggest that people can be more "open" and honest when using a fake name. Within some professions, discussion boards related to technical or sensitive work issues have been found to be beneficial in terms of shared information, collaboration, and open communication largely because of the Internet alias. Using a real name might mean that comments would have to be filtered based on fears of retribution from employers or colleagues. Similarly, on sites that might raise personal concern such as a medical or support group format, aliases are used to protect privacy.

It is also argued that the use of an Internet alias is no different than the varied personas that we use in real life. The idea is that we all change, filter, are more open, use different slang, etc. depending on what social or professional situation in which we are engaged. My work identity is different than my mom identity is different than my "hanging out with my girlfriends" identity, and so forth.

But posting comments on a news or opinion article under an alias?

Comment lines have been studied by the internet big boys like Facebook and Disqus. The results have been mixed. While the majority of online comments under fake names are considered to be "quality" or positive, people who post under their real names are less likely to be negative. Not surprisingly, many of the comments on sites were written by a small group of people, using different aliases. The technological community calls a person who uses aliases for the purpose of deception or negativity a "sock puppet." Behind a pseudonym, a person may be more apt to lie, attack, instigate or denigrate - without the threat of personal consequence.

And then there is the issue of credibility.

If we apply the features of interpersonal communication to communication with our keyboard, the use of a pseudonym raises serious questions about the validity of any argument or position that a person is putting forward. In face to face communication, we watch body language and assess sender credibility in tone and inflection as well as through things like eye contact, etc. We assess the message through our perception of the person generating the message. If someone espouses an opinion or "facts" about a topic using a pseudonym (e.g. starting off with an untruth) doesn't that make the opinion or argument immediately suspect? At the very least, hiding behind an alias to lob personal attacks is, in this writer's opinion, cowardly.

In my early days on the Internet, I used an alias. Like others at the time, I was naively afraid that if I used my real name, somehow people would get access to my computer and therefore access to sensitive information about me (bank account information, etc.). Because I didn't have my name on my posts, I had comments attributed to me that I never said – both positively and negatively. From that point on, my personal rule of thumb has been that if I put my opinion out there, I would own it. For one travel site where I post reviews of restaurants and hotels, I still use only my initials but make a point to only post positive reviews. Trends in Internet monikers show that fewer of us are using made up names for email, account log-ins, etc. and are moving in the direction of accountability.

Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain, the famed literary pseudonymist, asked "How do criminals manage to keep a brand-new alias in mind?" The use of a fake identity or identities can be hard to manage and very easy for people to demonstrate bad manners.

As we tell our children, if you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything at all. If you can't or shouldn't say it in person, should it be okay on the Internet?

Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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