Online identity: Real or fake for a reason?

The Economist has a short but effective write up about online identity based on a recent survey on ‘real names’ vs. pseudonyms in pen names.

We have wanted to encourage (not require) readers to use their real names when commenting on The Economist web site. Our hope is that increased use of real names will help the quality of online discussion. We recently conducted a survey to learn what our online readers thought about this.

You strongly objected to compulsory use of real names, and for some this is not advisable or safe. We agree with this response. You rightly reminded us that what looks like real names on the site may not be so. It is neither feasible or sensible for us to ask people to prove the ‘realness’ of their online names.

Some said they feel personally safe to use their own name, but worry for others’ safety and care for the candor and liveliness that safety makes possible. We received some insightful responses about the complexities of striving for freedom of speech, privacy and civility, among relative strangers online.

The question of identity online is more complex, and is inextricably entwined with issues of privacy, safety, security and also, hate speech, threats and defamation. I’ve dealt with the phenomenon of spiteful anonymous as well as very well known identities ever since I launched Groundviews. This vicious anonymity online also led to the closure of another citizen journalism site, Moju.

There are on the other hand positive examples of anonymity used for progressive, civil conversations. Pissu Poona on Facebook is a powerful example.

As David Pogue, the New York Times’ Tech Columnist avers:

The real shame, though, is that the knee-jerk ‘€œeveryone else is an idiot’€ tenor is poisoning the potential the Internet once had. People used to dream of a global village, where maybe we can work out our differences, where direct communication might make us realize that we have a lot in common after all, no matter where we live or what our beliefs.

But instead of finding common ground, we’€™re finding new ways to spit on the other guy, to push them away. The Internet is making it easier to attack, not to embrace.

Maybe as the Internet becomes as predominant as air, somebody will realize that online behavior isn’t just an afterthought. Maybe, along with HTML and how to gauge a Web site‒s credibility, schools and colleges will one day realize that there’s something else to teach about the Internet: Civility 101.

It’s this essential civility I encourage through the site guidelines on Groundviews, and why I also encourage identities online that, much like Mark Twain or Lewis Carroll, that over a period of time one associates with a particular style, substance, political analysis and interest. The nom de plumes becomes virtual identities, and many of the best read blogs in Sri Lanka also follow this model, though not always with the same degree of civility or quality of content.

I’ve also noticed that older people, especially older journalists, do not tolerate online monickers that are clearly not names, whereas younger audiences refer to each other by whatever labels that are associated by, and are only rarely concerned by, or poke fun at a handle / virtual identity.

I know of at least one book on constitutional reform that quotes at length from the submission of Publius to Groundviews, but also because this identity started out as completely anonymous, then chose to reveal his true identity as a well known constitutional lawyer in Sri Lanka whilst continuing to contribute to Groundviews under his pen name.

Particularly in the domain of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR), the issue of verifying the trust of online identities will be a challenge that must occupy system designers as well as those who wish to expand its domain. Digital natives who grow up with multiple identities online are ODR’s new disputants and conflict resolvers. How identity is seen and managed in this respect is fundamental to the design and implementation of ODR mechanisms and systems in corporate and other domains.

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