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Monday, May 14, 2007

Monday Midday Briefs

Psuedonymity on the Internet

I guess to the surprise of few I come down strongly in favor of psuedonymity.

But there as an interesting piece in the Washington Post today on the subject:

These days we want "transparency" in all institutions, even private ones. There's one massive exception -- the Internet. It is, we are told, a giant town hall. Indeed, it has millions of people speaking out in millions of online forums. But most of them are wearing the equivalent of paper bags over their heads. We know them only by their Internet "handles" -- gotalife, runningwithscissors, stoptheplanet and myriad other inventive names.

Imagine going to a meeting about school overcrowding in your community. Everybody at the meeting is wearing nametags. You approach a cluster of people where one man is loudly complaining about waste in school spending. "Get rid of the bureaucrats, and then you'll have money to expand the school," he says, shaking his finger at the surrounding faces.

You notice his nametag -- "anticrat424." Between his sentences, you interject, "Excuse me, who are you?"

He gives you a narrowing look. "Taking names, huh? Going to sic the superintendent's police on me? Hah!"

In any community in America, if Mr. anticrat424 refused to identify himself, he would be ignored and frozen out of the civic problem-solving process. But on the Internet, Mr. anticrat424 is continually elevated to the podium, where he can have his angriest thoughts amplified through cyberspace as often as he wishes. He can call people the vilest names and that hate-mongering, too, will be amplified for all the world to see.

I guess in some ways I am an internet romantic, believing that the goal of the internet is to divorce ideas from the physical appearance of individuals who utter them, so that we might judge an idea by the internal logic of that idea rather than automatically accept or dismiss it on the basis of whether or not you like the individual who happens to utter it.

Then again, psuedonymity also creates a protection, and so you see on a lot of anonymous blogs and bulletin boards people saying things to other people behind not only the mask of their identity but also the distance that a keyboard lends over a person to person encounter.

The downside of this is a story from back in March where a 400 pound woman gave birth to a child a few days after finding out she was pregnant.
When a California woman recently gave birth to a healthy baby just two days after learning she was pregnant, the sudden change to her life was challenging enough. What April Branum definitely didn't need was a deluge of nasty Internet comments.

Postings on message boards made cracks about Branum's weight (about 400 pounds — one reason she says didn't realize sooner she was pregnant). They also analyzed her housekeeping ability, based on a photo of her home. And they called her names. "A pig is a pig," one person wrote. Another suggested that she "go on the show 'The Biggest Loser.'"

"The thing that bothered me most was, people assumed because I am overweight, I'm going to be a bad mom," Branum says. "And that is not one little bit true."

Still I think the upside outweighs the downside. The downside can be mitigated through moderators and rules and a basic culture created on a blog. One of the things that moderates my own writings is having to look people in the eye and receive emails and occasionally angry phone calls after I write about them. The same does not hold for the hundreds of people who post comments, usually with either a psuedonym or as "anonymous."

At times I have thought about required registration, but I always come back to the same problem. Many people have good things to say, accurate things to say, important things that need to be heard but cannot do so because they are afraid. I encounter it all the time when I get a person who comes forward with a horrific story about the police or another situation, but are too afraid to come forward. They are too afraid to press a complaint. They are too afraid to even tell their story. This is a small community still where people either know each other or know someone who does and there is a legitimate fear factor about coming forward and reporting the truth. But sometimes they can say it with their names protected and that makes all the difference. I know a lot of people will view that as illegitimate, but I don't think it is. I have personally received enough threats to understand people's fear.

Just some thoughts for today...

---Doug Paul Davis reporting