True names and other dangers

The “use real names” debate pops up everywhere. Usually the same boring back-and-forth: real names are/aren’t good for improving civil discourse online, anonymous speech is/isn’t. I rarely see anyone acknowledging that what it implies to use your real name is different for different people. But it’s because of this that real names are not the solution to bad behavior online.

I’m attached to my real name. I use it in most spaces because I don’t think of there being much separation between my online and offline identity; in some places I use “mindspillage” simply because it’s been my online handle for so long I’m attached. In some places I don’t feel the need for a consistent identity at all, leaving anonymous comments to be judged on their content alone. I’m civil there too, though not everyone is. Perhaps I’m more careful about what I say when it’s easy to be connected to the rest.

But some of the worst online behavior I’ve seen, the most threatening and the most hurtful, has been from people who are completely open about using their real names. And it’s had the most power to harm when directed to other people also using their real names. The biggest problem with real names isn’t about what kind of consistent identity you use. It’s about the imbalance of power involved with sharing that information.

The people behaving badly under their real names do so because they can. They lose nothing they care about by doing so. (Or very little, at least.) Attaching their bad behavior to their name doesn’t put them in a position to lose their livelihood or their safety. Maybe not even their reputation: imagine a “John Smith”, single, self-employed, seriously unhinged. John uses his real name everywhere, and takes pride in doing so. (Not afraid of being out in public, he says.) It would take a lot of effort to determine exactly which John he was. And if you did, so what? Maybe you expose him, and the thousands of other unfortunately-named John Smiths cringe when the tale shows up in search results, for fear someone thinks it was them. But our John is proud of being a first-class jerk. You can’t harm his reputation because he doesn’t care about it, which is at least partially because very little of the damage he does attaches to him anyway. (Getting a restraining order only works in the most extreme situations.) John can say whatever he wants.

Meanwhile, if you stand to lose a lot by being threatened–if others want to hurt you or your family, or if you will lose your livelihood if anyone so much as alleges anything horrible about you–then even when everyone else is using their real name, you are still at a disadvantage using yours. What happens when John calls the school where you teach (because you’re easy to track down by name), claiming that you’re a criminal? When John calls your parents and tells them lies about what you’ve been up to? Implies that he might hurt your children if you tell anyone he’s harassing you?

You don’t have to be hiding from an oppressive government to be affected by the imbalance of power when you expose your real identity. An oppressive government (or a mostly reasonable government, when it is being oppressive) does not hide itself either. It doesn’t need to. You are at great risk when you anger it; it is at nearly no risk when it angers you. On a smaller scale, it’s the same with you and John.

A consistent pseudonym, like a real name, is something to lose–you are hurt when its reputation takes a hit; you lose the value of time and effort you invested in it. But using one restores balance–you aren’t starting from such a massive disadvantage that you can’t even afford to join in.