Saturday, January 14, 2012

Make room for pseudonyms

Last Monday, I posted several questions that I had been thinking about.  One of them was the role of anonymity in fostering constructive discussion.  I had started thinking about this topic since I read a blog on Fred Wilson's AVC back in last Aug.  You can read Fred's point of view here.

After reading Fred's blog, I started thinking about my own behavior and behaviors around me.

I began my internet life with Hana BBS (Bulletin Board System; Hana means 'one' in Korean).  It was 1994, so there was no graphical World Wide Web as we know it.  There were newsgroups, gopher (text-based file browsers), IRC and BBS.  Luckily the first friend that I met at Cal introduced me to Hana BBS and founders of the service.  I still remember getting invited to his place to set up a nickname account on the BBS.

BBS allows users to post messages to multiple boards by topics, much like today's newsgroup, and supports real-time text chat.  It offered many topical boards such as news, entertainments, philosophy, literature, etc.  One of them was anonymous board where users can post without revealing their account nickname.  Needless to say anonymous board was the most active board in terms of number of posts, and it had the most flame wars.

Writers understood the need for pseudonym for many years
At the time I couldn't really understand the wisdom of pseudonyms.  I just joined on because that's what everyone else was doing.  But now that I think about using nickname instead of real name, I believe using a nickname account was the most logical thing to do.

I have two-part answers to why pseudonym is the most logical choice: privacy and persona.

If you were to use your real name, then obviously you are revealing your identity.  Not only you are bringing your current real world identity into the service, but also you are defining your real world identity by opinions expressed on the service.  Because anything and everything that you say will be available in public practically for perpetuity and easily retrievable at anyone's fingertip, it surely is different from sharing your first name with someone you met at cafe down the street.  Imagine how you might act differently if your every statement that you make will be recorded and made available to anyone in future.

Persona is the other consideration.  If you look at your social interactions, you are not always playing the same role.  Depending on who you are interacting with, you can be playing co-worker's role, college friend's role, father's role, and husband's role.  If this multiple persona idea doesn't ring true to you, think back how you behaved differently when you were out on the first date.  Everyone has multiple persona that they play.

I believe that the same is true with virtual place on internet.  Most people want to have some privacy and chance to create a new persona.  And when people have these two considerations met, they feel more comfortable and engage with other people more freely.

I'm happy to say that I found some reassuring stats from Fred's blog the other day.  Folks at Disqus ran some stats on comments that they received, and found that users with pseudonym had most engagement (number of comments) and their comments were more likely to get voted up and less likely to be labeled as spam than real name and anonymous users.  Anonymous users rank lowest in terms of spammy comments which was also not surprising.

So the answer to one of my last Monday's questions, what is the role of anonymity in fostering constructive discussion?, seems to be "it's not anonymity, but pseudonymity."

Let's make room for pseudonyms.


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