Judith Donath, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has put forward an argument that we have been making for years: pseudonyms are better for online communication. The Harvard Magazine article discusses the argument in more depth, but basically suggests that anonymity and pseudonymity are two different things.
According to her new book, she, “contends that well-managed pseudonyms can strengthen online communities, an idea that contradicts the conventional wisdom that fake names bring out the worst in people, allowing ‘trolls’ to bully others or post hateful, destructive comments without consequences.”
Separating one’s online profile in comments sections of blogs and review sites from other aspects of one’s life, like job searches and other professional activities, is useful. Privacy is a real concern for many people when discussing potentially controversial topics, including religion. The use of pseudonym’s can actually free people to discuss ideas more fully, and more respectfully by not tying their real-life identities to questions they have. Egos, status, and personal history can be checked at the door when entering into a discussion with a pseudonym. One’s credentials, or lack thereof, are not weapons, but simply one’s arguments.
Unfortunately, we have seen even quite recently the behavior of those who use their real names does not deter them from inflicting real emotional damage, or from threatening the jobs of real people. Using one’s real name does not guarantee more ethical behavior, but may actually enable one to abuse one’s real power while being cheered on by others.
FPR is now in its 10th year of existence, and most of the bloggers here have been around for most of those. We have developed our reputations, such as they are, on our arguments with a track record of hundreds of posts. This is exactly the kind of situation Donath imagines as the ideal, where a pseudonym can offer privacy, thoughtful conversation, and an ultimately enriched community. We strive toward that goal.