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The nym wars: how many identities are enough?

The biggest political question this year might not be national debts or the Arab Spring, but what form identity will take on the Internet in the future. As the Google+ service began demanding that people sign in with their legal names and suspending accounts believed to be in conflict with this policy, the “nym wars” broke out. Google is not alone in wanting to keep online identities strongly tied to legal identities: the National Geographic Society demands that comments on ScienceBlogs may no longer be pseudonymous, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has stated:

“Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

But can we live a human life with just one identity?

Who owns the agora?

The real struggle is not about anonymity, the ability to make comments not traceable to anybody, but pseudonymity, the ability to maintain a more or less stable persona that can interact with others without revealing all aspects of the self.

And it matters to society because, as Kee Hinckley puts it in an excellent essay on the topic:

the forum for public discourse is no longer the town hall, or newspaper, or fliers on the street. It is here on the Internet, and it is happening in communities like this, hosted by private sector companies.

If it was only a matter of local rules of social spaces that potential participants could choose freely between, it would be a non-issue. But these systems are becoming more than local clubs: Facebook, Google, Twitter and some blogging platforms are increasingly not only the medium through which discourse flows, but the identity providers for many more functions of life.

For example, my Google login ties together an email identity, a calendar, a Google+ identity, a number of documents, a blog, and membership of mailing lists. Other services rely on such identity providers to keep track of identities, outsourcing the hassle of connecting the disparate utterances and attributes of a particular voice in cyberspace with each other. This is normally useful both to me, Google and third parties. But I would be harmed much more if this identity and the connections it represents were to be dissolved than the other parties. The loss would not just be hassle, but loss of access to documents, information and – most importantly – social relations maintained through the medium of this identity. An on-line identity is simple from a software point of view, but can encompass a sizeable amount of personal effort, social capital and emotional value.

Controlling the possible identities of people is a profound power. From a purely economic perspective it can be good business: there are economies of scale to be the main identity provider to an identity metasystem. Being the organisation other organisations have to deal with in order to handle identities can no doubt can be profitable. Traditionally this has been the domain of governments maintaining legal identities, but with the emerging globalised fluidity they have a hard time keeping up. The legal identity mainly functions as a guarantor that breaches of contract or crimes can be pursued legally. That is its only advantage, and why it would be such a benefit for the would-be identity providers to have a link between online identities and legal identities: their identity systems would gain further value and power, improving their draw to the third parties who are the real customers.

But controlling identities allows control over who can express themselves in different forums, and how. Most trivially it can control access, but it can also prevent or encourage linking different aspects of a person’s life. We are all using different personas in different contexts, managing the links between them in complex ways. The selves we show to a partner, doctor, boss, friend, colleagues or gaming guild are all different – and usually need to be so. The person who behaves the same in bed with a partner as they do at work is a most queer character. There are also numerous public roles – as professionals, as interested public, as debating voices, as whistle-blowers and dissenting members of groups – that require proper control over what information and identities are linked together.

The list of groups disadvantaged or harmed by a policy that makes it hard to separate an online identity from their main identity is long. The concerns listed are by no means hypothetical – people have indeed been harmed by linking separate identities, or been scared to silence by the threat of someone linking them (again, see Hinckley’s examples). This is the most worrisome aspect of the power of identity providers: it can have chilling effects on discourse even without any action being taken.

I have earlier argued that pseudonymity is important for some functions of the open society: some things need to be said, but there is no need for them to be said by an identifiable person. In order to build credibility a voice also need to have a record and show that there has been a personal investment into the identity – full anonymity rarely produces any credibility. This is not just relevant for whistle-blowing or major criticism against power, but can be just as relevant in the dissemination and discussion of science.

But most fundamentally, pseudonymity is about reducing constraints on our authenticity (Hinckley):

Persistent pseudonyms aren’t ways to hide who you are. They provide a way to be who you are. You can finally talk about what you really believe; your real politics, your real problems, your real sexuality, your real family, your real self.

Do no evil?

The resolution to the struggle over what kind of identity management will dominate the future is far away. It is a complex problem with both economical, political, cultural and technological aspects, and billions of stakeholders. But it is also an ethical problem: what should an internet company unwilling to do evil do?

First, recognizing that there is a profound problem is useful. Thinking, like Zuckerberg apparently did, that human social identity is simple or can be reliably changed because of software, means running headlong into conflict. At best it will be just the internet company that will be hurt.

Second, at worst a simplistic view of human identity can lock us into inhuman identity systems. If we are forced through law, economics or technology to act according to a rigid model of identity that does not suit us we will suffer. This suffering will be in domains that can truly hurt us: having one’s identity, voice or social links circumscribed are among the worst things that can happen to a person. Identity systems must allow open-ended and creative identity creation. Just because there is no menu option for a social relation doesn’t mean it is invalid.

Third, any entity that becomes the manager of identities gains a number of responsibilities to the people whose identities are being managed. It is holding more than data, it is holding important social connections. If it cannot be held accountable and there are no incentives for it to treat people well, then there is potential for great harm. Identity providers cannot avoid becoming social institutions, no matter what kind of organisation they are, and this entails that stakeholders must get a decisive say.

Fourth, the public also has a responsibility for maintaining the identity ecosystem. To not care about how the fora of social discourse function means allowing their structure will be determined by others. To not care about the structure of one’s identities means allowing others to define them – potentially severely reducing autonomy and authenticity.

Then we shall see face to face?

But maybe we should work to create a world where we do not have to show multiple faces? Maintaining a separation between multiple selves can be tiresome, and sometimes it is a relief when the mask slips and allows a glimpse of the vulnerable true self beneath. But that world would have to be a world of extreme tolerance, mental health, no crime, and no information asymmetries. Its inhabitants would not mind hearing frank discussion of themselves or their children, their confessions would be public, and their intelligence agencies would be acting in the open. We are very far away from it.

Aiming in that utopian direction – both institutionally and individually – might be a good aim. But that requires thoughtful effort, not a decree.

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19 Comment on this post

  1. Yes, I think integrity is closely tied with accountability. In order to safeguard our integrity we need to be able to hold the users of our information and the institutions that constrain us accountable. And a person with integrity hold themselves accountable for their own actions.

    Zuckerberg's claim fits in here too: he thinks multiple identities is the same thing as anonymity. Anonymity is indeed a way of evading accountability for one's statements and actions. But with proper pseudonymity one can still be held accountable: at the very least the nym can be held accountable. A properly set up identity management system can also allow pursuit of the person too, if the situation warrants. But it is a mistake to think that such a link to legal identity will automatically improve the integrity of people, and implemented without institutional transparency and accountability it will instead likely harm it.

  2. Zuckerberg is a stupid.

    In life, we have no "identities". Because we have ROLES instead.

    For example, as adults, in a family we can be either a WIFE or a HUSBAND.

    In the car, we are drivers. In the airplane, we are passengers.

    All those are not separate identities of same self, but manifestations of our very same being.

    And when having various roles, is that WRONG ?

    With ROLES come the RULES for each separate situation.

    As is "nymes", we could say we are/have RO-ULES ( a combination of ROLES And RULES which are only valid together ).

  3. Roles are imposed from the outside, identities are constructed from the inside. My role as a research fellow at my institute is to a large degree defined by the institution, including various rules (explicit or implicit) for how it is to be used. But my identity as an academic is largely constructed by myself – not just in terms of goals, but style, methods, who I associate with and what kinds of ideas I become known for.

    In many cases roles are not sufficiently separable. For example, a policeman might be running a blog critical of the legal system (the NightJack case). We might think that ideally everybody should be able to maintain a separation of these roles of policeman/public debater, but in practice that doesn't work – the human organisations often doesn't take kindly to members expressing critical views. The separation must be deeper than role separation, and hence the need for different identities. If it is not possible to identify which policeman the blogger is, then his right to public expression is safe.

    The rules we set up to deal with roles and identities are always negotiable in normal social interactions – we can invent new ways of being wives, husbands or citizens, and this open-endedness is important. What I am concerned about is that it is easy to formalize roles and identities in such a way that rules are no longer negotiable.

    1. Interacting in internet means that we assume own roles, they are not imposed as you suggest.

      Wanting to be a blogger, for example, you do the best in order to succeed with your role. Each one makes his own rule.

      That happens because each one actually shape his own online being (persona) .

      In other words, it's a self-regulated domain (each individual by himself), in order to achieve the best outcome (during that role).

      A blogger of course can have a topic of interest (so the example with NightJake is ok, but remember that he assumed his role for himself – again, it was not imposed to him).

      Let me repeat it : in the online world, nobody could know how we will act, therefore most of the time we regulate ourselves. There's noone able to tell us "you might be a great webdesigner, or blogger, or Photoshop artist, or forum admin, or freelancer, or copywritter, or a server geek". Only we can know what fit with our personality, background, talents, and so on.

  4. The real underlying problem is that most people do not really know their identity, their 'true selves'.

    Tournier distinguished between the person, the true self; and the personna, social masks. It takes a long time to figure out who we really are and often requires long periods of solitude because of the pressure and momentum of social masks and social expectations.

    To cede control of identity to a large system whether its a company or the 'internet' as a whole… is to distance ourselves, yet again, from the possibility of discovering and operating in our 'self' – our true identity.

    For me, therefore, any attempt to control how I present myself will be avoided.

    I am old enough to know the value of a stamp and paper and therefore do not need the Net. I am secure in myself not to need constant stroking from faceless impersonal digital social systems.

    I also have enough life experience to know that one has only a handful of true friends in life and therefore a limited context of social relationships that form the base of one's social surround, one's circle of relationships.

    One does not need nor can one handle a million 'friends'. One does not need nor can one handle a lack of quality in relationships.

    Therefore any system/structure that reduces or impedes the development and maintenance of personal depth in my ability to discover and explore myself and to share that self – my true identity- in substantial and supportive relations is adverse. It is being evil.

    Those companies who only see the digital and are blind to the people who are the core of the communication… for their own commercial interests… should take their geeky, immature, impersonal selves away and not come back till they have become people.

    1. While one can certainly exert some societal influence by writing a letter to the editor of the Times, discussing among friends and organize in classical ways, I have little doubt that newer forms of discourse and organisation are increasingly powerful. They might as yet be complementary, but as time goes by we should expect some of them to become dominant just as past social technologies have supplanted each other.

      Consider how classical Greek citizens would have regarded writing texts as an impersonal and inauthentic way of engaging in societal discourse: clearly the mature way is to walk to the agora and have face-to-face discussions. The fact that such systems do not scale to the size of modern national states or that we have (perhaps) learned how to use writing for mature self expression would have been opaque to them.

      1. Exactly. My point about writing a letter is that we should be able to present ourselves in any way that seems right to us without the constriction of a prescribed format, like 'real names'. I remember letters as a communication tool before the Net existed, therefore I don't see the Net as 'necessary' although it seems ubiquitous now.

        It has been suggested that we change our online IDs to some acceptable nym… and therefore pass under the scrutiny of certain systems. This may seem like an reasonable compromise at the moment but I suspect that the intent of large media groups, driven by their own commercial interest and not those the general public, will find more and more ways to constrict identity to suit their purposes.

        History is full of radicals that were the scourge at one time only to become the norm a little while later. The minority opinion needs to be heard and needs an opportunity to express itself without restrictions that gut its ability to communicate before it is even expressed.

        A larger concern here is, as has been stated… personality is 'plastic', malleable. Time and circumstance change people and their perceptions of the people and world around them.

        The media, a la Marshall McLuhan – "the media is the message", has been accepted uncritically as the norm when in fact the media is the container for the content. They are not the same. A media that imposes restrictions, directly or by subtle insistence, on our personalities; proscribes content and therefore should be avoided.

        Another example, if I may… A large search company, that shall go unnamed, now tailors search results to individual users based on their previous queries. The effect of this is not to be a portal to things that one does not know yet… but to cause one to 'consider one's navel' – in ever increasing focus, limiting oneself to what one already knows and to give each user the impression that the way they see the world is the way the world is. One has to avoid logging in to avoid this reduction of ones ability to perceive the world.

        Similarly – a system, media, that limits one's ability to express oneself before one has even begun… is not progress but regression.

        We have been relating socially for millennia… and the fact that large media has not 'got it right' for something so intrinsic to the human race – is because they choose not to.


        thanks for responding -smile

    2. Quote: "The real underlying problem is that most people do not really know their identity, their ‘true selves’. "End quote.

      Actually, it's like when you swim. You swim as you like, as it's OK for you. It's not necessary to "know what kind of self" do you have.

      Internet world is immersive, you don't have time to stay and look from outside, you just act. Your identity and self are co-created while you act online.

      And while you say "I should do this or that", those are the roles+rules that you create each moment, for being comfortable in that position.

      (By identity I understand here your instantaneous self-perception.) By contrary, what other see when looking at you is called "image", not "identity".

      1. >>By identity I understand here your instantaneous self-perception.) By contrary, what other see when looking at you is called "image", not "identity"<<

        … and hence the 'person/persona' distinction that Tournier made…

        >>Your identity and self are co-created while you act online<<

        … Which is my point… The metaphor of swimming for the Net could be expanded to life in general. The problem is when the 'swimmer' is loaded down with form and format that is inconsistent with their nature or behaviour.

        The issue is the 'real name' requirement isn't consistent with the social behaviours that people have been engaging in for millennia.

        One has to ask with media's proximity to government if their own commercial interest is the only card on the table here. Why they would open themselves to that question is beyond me.

  5. Anders nailed it – I'm a teacher. Considering a teacher was *fired* this decade for having a photo of her drinking a beer on the web – not bring drunk and disorderly, not buying alcohol for minors, simply having a drink in her hand – I am *terrified* of having ANYthing online that identifies me in real life. Several years ago I *was* called into my Dept. Chair's office for a comment I'd made online using my real name they didn't particularly care for. It was nothing illegal, simply something that they disagreed with. I was told to remove it or face losing my job. I learned very quickly to not have anything with your real name available – there are almost *no* photos of me online (that I've put up, anyway) and my Facebook, which uses my real name, is locked up and private.

    Now, I actually wouldn't mind doing the same with Google Plus – putting my real name up and simply keeping it on lock-down – that had been my original intention. However the name you use for Google Plus is the name that is seen for ALL your Google products. The Google ID I'd been using to pseudonymously comment with for years (on, for example, teachers' forums) would suddenly be associated with my full name. My e-mail address would reveal my full, gendered name, completely negating anything that allowed you to say "prefer not to say" for sex. This is not just an issue of real names in Google Plus, this is an issue of Google changing ALL its products based on the actions in *one*.

    Again – I would *love* to use my real name in Google Plus. I cannot, however, have that name displayed across all my other applications retroactively for, in the most extreme instance, reasons of job security. I changed my Google Plus account to what I'd been using as my Google ID for nearly FIVE YEARS.

    Got my suspension notice today.

    It's a shame too – Google Plus is fantastic and could have easily killed Facebook. COULD HAVE being the operative terms – the longer this goes on, the less likely it will be for them to recover from it.

    1. Nice to see that I occasionally nail an idea right.

      Your example is a good one, since it actually brings in all components of the nymwar problem, without any unusual conditions. I wonder how many percent of the population actually are in your situation? Many employers have rules against some forms of employee discussion or public behavior (and very random enforcement, of course), and I think most people active on the Internet are involved in discussions that might be seen as embarrassing when taken out of context. I wouldn't be surprised if the number of people who ought to use nyms is somewhere between 30-50%, *at least*.

  6. Anders, thanks for yet another fascinating post. Working in climate change, I know a fair few people who have received death threats and other flavours of BS from always anonymous internet morons. I guess this makes me predisposed to quite like the idea of making people give their real names on the net. But at the same time, I can see that various groups have reasonable reservations about using their real names. One way out would seem to be to have different rules for different forums.

    Notwithstanding the assertion from Kee Hinkley (quoted by Anders), the BBC, guardian, telegraph, washingtonpost, CBS etc do continue to act as town halls, even while utilising new technology. Folks who appear on Question Time appear identifiably, with their faces shown, so why not insist on the same from posters to the BBC website? It could potentially limit contributions from those who genuinely require anonymity; but this benefit ought to be set against the costs of anonymity, which include wading through screeds of nonsense from trolls and losers bent on sharing their bile. It seems reasonable to think the ratio of costs and benefits of anonymity might vary depending on the forum in question. I'm surprised that traditional media haven't already insisted that posters do so under their own names (they often insist on this with letters to the editor). It would be interesting to see what would happen if, say, the guardian decided that everyone posting to it had to do so under their own name. [My bet is that it would rapidly differentiate itself in terms of its quality.] Would there be any ethical objection to at least some forums doing this?

    A final, peripheral point is in response to Anders' assertion that "[pseudonymity]is not just relevant for whistle-blowing or major criticism against power, but can be just as relevant in the dissemination and discussion of science." I could not disagree more. In my scientific field web-based anonymity/pseudonymity has been a perhaps the main barrier to dissemination and discussion of science. The anonymity of the web has allowed a scientifically illiterate community to create a vast echo chamber of misinformation; this has happened among both catastrophists and denialists of climate change. Informed voices are drowned out in the milieu. Traditional one-to-many broadcasting does elevate (or fetishise, or whatever) the voice of the talking head expert; newer, many-to-many media subvert this elevation, and for many purposes that may be a good thing. But in my very empirical experience the dissemination and discussion of science ain't one of them.

    1. Dave – couldn't disagree more.

      Anonymity does not actually magically turn people into idiotic jerks – those shows where people are identifiable by face, name, and, heck, even their hometown? Still have a number of individuals spouting bile (depending on the topic).

      Jennifer McCarthy is a leading anti-vaccination "expert". She's used her name to promote her cause – cause if a famous person is putting their name behind it, it must be true, right?

      Are you also saying you should be entitled to a list of the people who review your work before it's published? I thought peer-review was an anonymous process?

      A study occurred a while ago (still in the last decade) that showed when women wrote an article as first author they had a significantly higher likelihood of getting past the peer review process if it was not known to the reviewers that the first author was, in fact, female.

      You do not reveal the names of patients in trials and tests.

      Pointing to the world of science as a case for real names only is just wrong.

      1. Hi K. You're conflating several unrelated issues.
        1: Nothing in what I said implied I was against anonymity playing its existing roles in science (peer-review, anonymity of patients, etc).
        2: Nor am I against anonymity across the board (I thought I made that clear, too).
        3: I am saying that there could conceivably be town-hall like forums in which people are expected to post under their own name, and that in some instances the costs of anonymity might conceivably outweigh the benefits.

        And I said, from my fairly extensive experience, the blanket anonymity afforded by the internet custom of permitting anonymous posting was actually a barrier to the intelligent discussion and dissemination of science. I could give you many examples if you like. This is not a point about scientific practice; it's a point about onine discussion of science. The two are very different.

    2. It is not too uncommon to see people interviewed in media with their faces obscured and their names replaced with pseudonyms, since otherwise they would be threatened or other bad things would befall them. No doubt many of them would have preferred to be completely visible if that would not potentially cost them their jobs, friends or health. Usually the media producers act as guarantors for the validity of the claimed expertise or relevance. This is also true for magazines like The Economist, which famously does not have bylines for its journalists – the quality and accountability is borne by the publication, with apparently good results in this case.

      I don't think forums where people must sign in with real names are problematic per se, as long as they are avoidable. Even a major newspaper is not the whole public discourse. The problem starts when we get identity management that is centralized (or federalized in a homogenous way), since now many forums relying on these identities will enforce identical rules that might limit necessary pseudonymity.

      While most discussion in science should be open and accountable, as the link I gave shows there are good reasons for many people to separate their identities as academics and science bloggers, for example. The fact that know-nothings can spout nonsense under the protection of pseudonyms doesn't mean pseudonyms are bad; far too many people spout nonsense under their real name. The real problem is that people can build good reputations in certain circles by saying misleading things: whether these reputations are tied to a real person or a nym doesn't matter. The echo chamber is a problem, but that results from bad epistemic and social habits – to fix it we need to consider how we discuss science in the new public spaces and how open societies can improve their epistemic processes. Demanding that everybody use their real name is unlikely to make things much better (a few people would no doubt lose jobs because they are 'outed' as deniers or believers in climate change, or be silenced by their employers, but that's about it).

      1. I agree that forums that require real names ought to be avoidable. And I agree that centralised identity management brings concerns.

        "The fact that know-nothings can spout nonsense under the protection of pseudonyms doesn’t mean pseudonyms are bad; far too many people spout nonsense under their real name." Perhaps, in part, but I'm inclined to believe the death threats, gross personal abuse and general viciousnes I've seen on reputable websites when they discuss climate change would all occur less commonly if the cowards behind such comments knew they had to post in their own name.

        You're right that people say dumb things in their own name, but that doesn't mean that they aren't more likely to do so when hiding behind anonymity. It has analogies with other public policy issues, I think: people do dumb things when they're sober, but they're more likely to do so when they're drunk. My view is that people are far more likely to say something stupid, cruel, or abusive if they think they're anonymous. As I said, I'd like to see more forums with higher barriers to entry – both via real identities and via more active moderation.

        Generally I agree with you that there are several problems with discussion of things like science (and to a lesser extent aspects of public policy) in new media (the echo chamber, the construction of unwarranted good reputations). I agree. You assert that making people use real names wouldn't make a lot of difference – I disagree. I think it would stop quite a bit of abuse, and I'd be surprised if the death threats to which various of my friends and acquaintances have been subject continued. But this is a nice disagreement to have, since it's the sort of thing one ought, in principle, be able to test. [As for people losing their jobs – maybe. Some such losses would be justified and some wouldn't. I think you'd see many more people sacked for gratuitous abuse than for genuinely held beliefs.]

  7. Here is a piece of interesting news: and

    Chairman Eric Schmidt of Google stated that "G+ was build primarily as an identity service, so fundamentally, it depends on people using their real names if they're going to build future products that leverage that information. " If you need pseudonymity you shouldn't use the service. If the goal had just been a big social network service this wouldn't have been worrying, but the goal is clearly to become a major identity provider with leveraged products. This is of course interesting since he is no doubt hoping for universal adoption of the service, yet a large number of people will be excluded from using it.

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