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Worth reading: Josh Marshal, "Should you be you?", TPM; and the comments following it.


  1. Spell Me Jeff said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 3:06 pm

    Since you've posted this under 'Administration' I assume you want to know how we groundlings would feel if LL required us to comment under our true identities.

    In my experience, the absolute nadir of anonymous commenting exists at Yahoo News. Since I get most of my daily news there, it's a damned shame there is no intelligent dialog to participate in.

    That said, I do appreciate the pseudonymity allowed here. Many of the comments I make grow out of my experience teaching freshman composition. The comments are often unflattering. If students Googling my name were to run across them, they might lack the larger context in which the comments are intended to be understood. I could easily sound like an uncaring monster. In some cases, comments I've made could even be construed as a breach of privacy, since the identity of a student I've mentioned might be inferred from my own identity.

    In short, I could not be me if I had to be me, and I'm sure that would diminish the enjoyment I get from Language Log.

  2. Aaron Toivo said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 3:41 pm

    In particular the very first comment there has an excellent point about the three-way distinction between anonymity, stable pseudonyms, and full real identities. LL permits all three; I agree that a lot of the less-desirable sorts of comments that I've seen here seem to come from those who go with the first option, and I've seen elsewhere that disallowing full anonymity can improve the average quality and tone of a community's posts.

    But taking away the second option (stable pseudonyms) is worse than it might first sound. There are many people with all kinds of good and legitimate reasons to avoid putting their real name all over the internet. Spell Me Jeff offers one such. But consider also the rape victim who was told she'd be killed if she reported it, and did so anyway. Or the racial minority with an obviously foreign name who just wants his posts to be taken on their own merits (more an issue on political sites than LL, but nevertheless). I myself have someone I do not wish to be able to find me, and only about 30 people in the country share my real surname, so I do not use it on the internet. Pseudo-anonymity is a valuable protection.

  3. Telofy said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 4:01 pm

    I’ve come to identify more strongly with my main nickname (this one) than with the name on my ID. Hence, I’d find it weird to call it a pseudonym or to say that I’m not commenting as myself.

    I also enjoy commenting completely anonymously. Among other things, it takes away most of the incentive or necessity for the sorts of behavior you only show to boost or bolster your social standing. It can be very reassuring to discover that Anonymous You is pretty much the same as Nonymous You. (And the opposite, I imagine, must be very enlightening. ;-))

  4. Spell Me Jeff said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 4:03 pm

    There is a downside, of course. Geoff Pullum thought of leaving LL for good. When he started posting again, it was with comments disabled. I don't KNOW, but I imagine his reasons might have involved the time required to police comments for spam and assorted nastiness. Frankly, I'm impressed that MYL keeps up with his day job . . .

    LL is a neat place, and it gets in the news a lot. Something's going right.

    [You have it exactly right, Spell Me Jeff. (Spell me "Geoff".) It's the time it would take. I cannot be logged in all the time and watching the comments areas of more than a thousand posts that I've written. We have had way over 130,000 comments since April 2008, so comments are running at two orders of magnitude over posts, and we have day jobs. And why not just leave all the comments, whatever they might say, and let mindless anarchy and anonymous trollery prevail? Well, I chose not to. I'll try to provide an explanation elsewhere, as a post; it's not something to be done all that briefly. The main issue is quality. Here I'll just say that I'm grateful for the hundreds of smart and sensible commenters on many of our posts (Mark's especially, I think), and I'm glad that so many smart people have tracked down my Gmail account (not hard: there are no other pullums) and written to me very helpfully, under their real email identities. Some have become personal friends. (Though one guy, believe it or not, started a special pseudonymous Hotmail account just so he could write to say how much he hates me. No other reason, just a one-use account to send abuse to someone he does not even know. So closing comments is not in fact a troll-blocking panacea.) —GKP]

  5. John Lawler said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 4:05 pm

    As a retired teacher, I have no students and no university to outrage. I can still piss people off, but I'd rather do it under my own name. Though I have in the past used stable pseudonyms and sympathize with them, I now have no reason not to appear as myself. That's just one reader, of course.

  6. Svafa said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 4:15 pm

    I'm of the persistent pseudonym variety. I've been using this one for five or six years now and don't see myself changing anytime soon. Like Telofy, I've come to identify with the pseudonym; it's to the point that my personal gmail account uses my pseudonym and not my real name, despite only close friends and family knowing the address.

    Part of my use of a pseudonym has to do with privacy control. As I stated in another comment here today, I don't have a last name. I don't have the option of using just my first name or last name, as I only have one name. So, pseudonym it is.

  7. Jonathan Badger said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 4:21 pm

    Well, I'm of the opposite opinion than the two previous posters and believe in posting with with my real name and with a link to my website where possible. People ought to be able to know who they are talking to. There may be very specialized cases (political dissidents fearing secret police and such) where this isn't feasible, but in general, people adopt anonymity and pseudonymity as a way to avoid accountability. And that's why the Net isn't as civil as real life.

  8. Peter Howard said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 4:24 pm

    I don't have Spell Me Jeff's concerns, and I always post comments under my real name. But I can quite understand his reasons for wanting to appear pseudonymous, and I guess they apply to many readers and commenters here. From my side, I don't have any problems with the comments system here, but it's obvious that several holders of the LL Plaza washroom key do. One concern I detect is keeping comments on topic. Frankly, I think the HotLLPWK worry too much about this. The audience here is intelligent and informed. So, sometimes the discussion will drift, but it's usually an interesting drift. The other concern I suspect is the fatigue of eliminating spam/trolls/flame wars/various bad stuff. LL doesn't seem to suffer much from this, but I can see that dealing with it would be tedious in the extreme. I don't see that banning pseudonymity would help with this. Outsourcing comments probably would, though there would be the obvious loss of immediacy, which is a strong point of the current system.

  9. Svafa said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 4:36 pm

    In my case, the lack of civility is part of the reason for the pseudonym. On one forum I participated in I received hate mail from time to time simply because someone disagreed with my opinion or wanted to be vindictive or whatever. Thus, I switched to a stable pseudonym and no longer worried about the trolls and incivility. I chose a pseudonym because I wanted stability and accountability; I simply didn't want to give the trolls any leverage outside the forum.

    I can understand the desire to use real names, and on a site like Language Log I could probably get away with using my real name. At this point, I feel more comfortable using my pseudonym everywhere though.

  10. nw said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 4:53 pm

    Names aren't unique. Furthermore, if the name is famous,
    I don't assume that the famous person is posting, rather I
    assume that some non-famous person either has the same
    name or is posting under that name for whatever reason.

    A name is just a label. There isn't any magic power adhering
    to someone's "True Name". If I were to find out that Svafa,
    for example, is "actually" Kevin Bacon (the famous actor),
    that tells me very little. At best it allows me to associate
    statements made here with statements made elsewhere.

    That isn't always a good thing. The benefit of a completely
    anonymous post is that it stands or falls on its own, without
    any extra credibility lent by history or authority, nor any
    similar dis-credibility.

  11. Jon Weinberg said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 4:58 pm

    There's more to a comment ecosystem than the question whether to allow anonymity. Yahoo News allows anonymous posting, and so does LL; but while the quality and civility of the comments at Yahoo News is low, here at LL it's high. In short, it ain't broke here (though I suppose MYL could be filtering out all the bad stuff). I post under my real name at LL, largely because I lack the imagination to come up with a decent pseudonym. The reason I'm comfortable with that, though, is that LL is a smallish community. It would give me the willies if LL adopted Facebook comments, because that would mean that my posts, under my name, would be linked into a much larger and more public content machine.

  12. Kathryn said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 4:59 pm

    It's certainly true that there can be a great deal of incivility in web discussions, and it does seem as if anonymity can help foster it. On the other hand, it isn't as if incivility were an invention of anonymous web commentors. I can think of many non-electronic settings in which–despite the absolute certainty that their identity is know to everyone involved–participants become highly uncivil.

    I'm not sure I could explain why I use a stable pseudonym in most places where I post comments, and lord knows using your first name as a pseudonym isn't overly subtle. I do use my real name when commenting in foums centered on local concerns, and if someone else were to start using the same pseudonym in a forum such as this, I'd probably switch to my real name. But I think there is a degree to which I prefer to establish a personality that is not dependent on what information people can unearth about my non-electronic life.

  13. Nathan said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 5:18 pm

    I use about 4 stable pseudonyms, including this one, my real first name, which I've used at LL since comments were opened. I don't use more than one in the same forum, and I have good and sufficient reasons for wanting to keep them all separate. I am very grateful to LL and the other online places I comment for not requiring more identifying info than they do, and I try not to abuse the privilege.
    But shouldn't the quality of comments matter much more than the source?

  14. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 5:20 pm

    I'm me, but not always.

    The best way to counter incivility on the Internet is to recruit a group of people who want to be a community for something. Seems to work well here as we have a decent group of regulars.

    The worst incivility seems to occur in the context of news and politics. I am tempted to think that abolishing anonymity would make people be more civilized. Perhaps one should participate in political discussion first and foremost as a real member of a real political community.

    But take a country or a town where things are not so ideal politically, e.g. the business scene is being run by politically aligned networks. You want to a) make a living there and b) spread ideas the local establishment might view a subversive. You want to c) not bother clients unduly with your political tendencies and d) not be reduced to them by other people. Now as it happens, I've given up using pseudonyms in that context, but mainly as a way of forcing myself to post less.

  15. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 5:22 pm

    The radical alternative to demanding real names would be to abolish visible poster names altogether. Then we would be forced to create identifiable, consistent personalities in the text of our posts alone.

  16. Svafa said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

    Then we'd have a practical application for authorship-authentication right here! :P

    (I was tempted to use "Ben Hemmens" as my name and come up with some bizarre, tongue-in-cheek counter-post, but decided it might be taken in bad taste, thus you are spared. >.>)

  17. Kathleen said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

    I post frequently on a heavily moderated discussion board which focuses on musical performance. About half the folks post under their real names and half post under stable pseudonyms. (There is no way to post anonymously.) Because this site is heavily moderated, it suffers very little from trolls, whose posts and accounts are rapidly deleted.

    That said, at least twice a year the topic of "Should people be permitted to post under pseudonyms?" comes up. What interests me about this particular board is that some of the rudest regular posters are those who *do* in fact use their real names. Where those of us who post under pseudonyms generally refrain from calling other people "idiots," for example, these posters seem to think that open rudeness is OK, as long as we all know that it is the real "John Smith" who is being a jerk. (I haven't seen this dynamic on any other site, and I can't explain it.)

    If that site required my real name, I'd stop posting altogether. My professional reputation is in another field, and I'd worry about search committees Googling my name and promptly coming up with hundreds of irrelevant posts about weird musical stuff, rather than finding references to my publications and professional activities.

  18. Ken Brown said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 5:47 pm

    I made a conscious decision to use my normal name posting here and on many other sites but I well understand people who don't. Also, practically, attempts to enforce "real" names will be subverted by anyone who cares enough, while discouraging some interesting postets who have good reason not to. Better to allow pseudonimity I think.

  19. pj said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 6:34 pm

    I've got a very distinctive name and I wouldn't post under it. I like to think I'd very happily say anything I say here (not that I often say anything here, but, you know) or on other sites if I were in a room in person with my fellow commenters and my name known to them. But I'm not. I'm in a room with the entire world, forever. The very idea makes me shudder.

  20. Kathryn said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 7:47 pm

    pj: "I'm in a room with the entire world, forever."

    An elegant way to say it. Would you be offended if I borrowed it–with proper attribution ("pj, on the Language Log forum")?

  21. Rubrick said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 8:38 pm

    I post here under a very stable pseudonym, mostly out of habit. It's trivially traceable to my "real" identity.

    I'm continually amazed by the extraordinarily high level of discourse in the comments on this site. I assume this is partly attributable to a lot of policing by Mark Liberman, who I further assume, based on his output, is actually a stable pseudonym for an entire medium-sized research institution.

  22. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 8:51 pm

    Does anyone know of any corpora of blog comments? If the hypothesis is that comment sections that allow "near total anonymity" have more "obscenity, trolling, abusive behavior and simple screaming matches, let alone the horrible scourge of spam", then it seems at least somewhat testable.

    (Oh, and since everyone seems to feel the need to say it — I, too, made a conscious decision to use my real name here. I mean, it sure didn't happen accidentally. It would be unfortunate, though, if everyone were forced to either give their real name or stay silent, especially since the comments here are indexed by Google. Language Log is several of the hits on the first results page when you Google my name, and I'm O.K. with that, but I'm glad it wasn't forced on me.)

  23. americaine said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 9:09 pm

    I would never post.
    I don't like having my picture taken, I have a super-private facebook page, and I just don't like to be known. I am young (age 21) and I feel like I'm doing my future self a big service if I leave the most minimal internet trail possible.

  24. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 9:58 pm

    I was quoted, and my quote attributed to my real name, in Far From the Madding Gerund. That was fun when I gave the book to my mom to read, for example. All I give up with my real name is that I cannot complain about my students. But do I really want to? I'd much rather be me.

  25. John Roth said,

    August 3, 2011 @ 11:56 pm

    I post here and elsewhere under my real name. I also have a stable pseudonym that I acquired over a decade ago for some of the reasons that Spell Me Jeff and others have said. People change. One of the areas I use that pseudonym is an area I'd much prefer to use my real name if I was joining it today, but I'm inhibited from switching because it would give the game away instantly.

    People do have reasons for maintaining a stable pseudonym, and not all of them are involved with incivility on forums.

  26. pj said,

    August 4, 2011 @ 1:37 am

    By all means. Kind of you to ask.

  27. Waffle Man said,

    August 4, 2011 @ 6:16 am

    Does anyone know of any corpora of blog comments? If the hypothesis is that comment sections that allow "near total anonymity" have more "obscenity, trolling, abusive behavior and simple screaming matches, let alone the horrible scourge of spam", then it seems at least somewhat testable.

    I was wondering this too. My big problem with that TPM post is that John Marshall takes a pretty arguable hypothesis as a given.

    It could well be that anonymity is the biggest contributing factor towards internet incivility, but it's easy to think of counter-examples: Youtube doesn't allow anonymous posting, and they're renowned for having some of the worst commenting on the internet. It's also not hard to find people acting belligerent or stupid on Twitter accounts made under their real names.

    I can also think of a lot of other factors that might lead to incivility: The size of your audience, the diversity of your audience, the tone of the blog itself, the difficulty of signing up for comments, quality of moderation…

    And that's after thinking about it for five minutes at 4AM. There's probably more variables, all of which might plausibly be much more important then the ability to post anonymously.

    It would be nice to know if there's any real data about this issue.

  28. the other Mark P said,

    August 4, 2011 @ 6:26 am

    I am happy to post under my real name in most forums, and do so to encourage others to do likewise.

    But because I am a teacher I don't use my name when posting on politics or religion. Not because I write anything I consider inflammatory, but just to avoid students quizzing me about it – which is what they will do to avoid Maths.

    On LL, for some reason I can't recall, I have gone halfway. Once it was there I just stuck with it. Probably it was a semi-political comment at the time.

    A fair number of forums require a certain number of moderated responses before you are released. It is a very effective system to avoid drive-by trolling, but requires constant moderation of course.

  29. Ellen K. said,

    August 4, 2011 @ 9:45 am

    I once on a messageboard saw the difference it made when registration was required. Which is, I think, more or less the same as requiring a real name or a stable pseudonym. When the board didn't require registrations, people could with no trouble make up a different name for each post they made. And there was a lot of rudeness going on. An unfriendly place. When the board was redone to require registration, that disappeared.

    Although, how much of that is due to the registration requirement versus posters having stable pseudonyms (or some version of their real name), is an unanswered question.

    Me, I'm in the part-of-my-real-name category, here and most other places.

  30. languagehat said,

    August 4, 2011 @ 11:18 am

    People ought to be able to know who they are talking to. There may be very specialized cases (political dissidents fearing secret police and such) where this isn't feasible, but in general, people adopt anonymity and pseudonymity as a way to avoid accountability. And that's why the Net isn't as civil as real life.

    You are conflating anonymity and pseudonymity, which is wrong (as others have pointed out). I have been "languagehat" online since 2002, and I resent the idea that I am somehow of lesser worth because of it. And if you think someone is more to be trusted because they use a plausible-looking combination of first and last names, you are remarkably naive. If I posted as Frederick Longbottom (not my real name), would you automatically find my comments more substantive?

  31. Bob Lieblich said,

    August 4, 2011 @ 4:07 pm

    I use my real name here, folks. (Surprise!) But I often post from work, and this isn't the only place I post, and some of what I say about politics and economics and such doesn't please my employer. So I use a stable pseudonym elsewhere. What I find is that my levels of courtesy and nastiness seem to hover around the median of whatever the group is, without regard to how I identify myself. I've certainly been a lot nastier, at least intermittently, on AUE (I'm pretty much dormant there these days) than I have here. In my case, then, anonymity is more about the subject matter than it is about the other elements of the environment, tone included.

  32. Weathering said,

    August 4, 2011 @ 4:23 pm

    Like others, I am dubious that a real-names-only policy has anything to do with online civility. I am also of the opinion that there are reasons other than fear of apprehension by the secret police to legitimately desire anonymity.

    In my own case, however, I simply want the same level of privacy when talking to strangers or friends online as I would have talking to strangers or friends in person. And as some people have pointed out above — I think pj put it very succinctly — pseudonymity is almost required to achieve that level of privacy. In non-digital contexts, even conversations "in public" — in a coffee shop or on the street, for example — are functionally somewhat private, because nobody is likely to be listening to everything you say.

    This might not be immediately obvious to people with relatively common names (especially prototypical anglophone names): if your name is Jen Smith, you can probably count on a Google search turning up some other Jen Smiths who have posted under their real names (apologies to anyone who is actually named Jen Smith), giving you a level of privacy.

    Those of us with uncommon names are not so lucky: in my case, everything I say online under my own name is immediately and unambiguously associated with me and only me, because I appear to be the only person on the internet with my name. I therefore typically post pseudonymously, because don't think everyone who knows my name has a right to know about my political opinions, my interest in knitting, or my taste in television, all things I'm nonetheless interested in discussing with strangers on the internet.

  33. Bread & roses said,

    August 5, 2011 @ 2:05 am

    Jonathan Badger: …. People ought to be able to know who they are talking to. There may be very specialized cases (political dissidents fearing secret police and such) where this isn't feasible, but in general, people adopt anonymity and pseudonymity as a way to avoid accountability. And that's why the Net isn't as civil as real life.

    I don't think the entire world has a right to know who I am, when I post a comment here, when I'm posting it here. The people here ought to know who I am; and the important part about who I am is how I have been, *in this space*, in the past. But since Language Log comments are on Google, if I post under my real name (which I have done but only very rarely), people from other parts of my life can find my posts and they are functionally out of context. That's not accountability- there's no benefit to being "accountable" to any person on earth who wants to google my name 7 years from now. For me this is not farfetched.

    Let me illustrate. I dated a guy for about a year and he had a hard time accepting it when I broke up with him. He didn't feel it was justified that I had told him I loved him and then changed my mind. As for myself, I am embarrassed that I loved him, but, well, I guess that's a good dose of humility and a reminder that my judgment about people is sometimes really off. He kept on contacting me saying "but WHY?, but WHY?" and no answer I gave was satisfactory to him, probably because I didn't have it in me to say flat out "the more I got to know you, the less I liked you, and now I find you so repulsive that I try not to think about the fact that I even know you". He just wouldn't leave me alone and eventually I told him to keep away from me and not contact me. He was greatly hurt by this; he felt that he had been accused of stalking, and being the touchy-feely feminist that he is, he was horrified at thinking someone might think he was a stalker. But it worked; he left me alone- mostly. I get an email from him once a year or so with a link to some news article relevant to some community activities that he knows about because it's public that I'm there, or my husband's medical condition, that lets me know that he thinks of me often. This is not heartwarming. This is creepy. I am not afraid of him- he's not violent or threatening; but after a while being constantly watched gets on your nerves, y'know? When I started a Google+ account he put me in his circles the next day. The dude is still cyber-stalking me 7 years later. And I don't want him to know *anything* about my life. Nothing. Because he will use it to try to repair that connection, and he just does not get that the connection is done. So I have this guy potentially watching everything I do online, and the only way I can "pull the shades" so to speak- can exclude him from seeing my Language Log comments, is to post under a pseudonym. It's not that I'm embarrassed of what I have to say. It's just being under the fucking binoculars all the time- it makes a person self-conscious, and I'd rather live without it.

    If I am forced to make a non-anonymous comment on the internet, I think "Christopher will find this- do you want him to see it?" and often as not, that makes the comment not worth making. The thing is, LL comments aren't healthcare- they're extremely optional. And if you force "real names" you will just make things not worthwhile for those of us who are totally unashamed of what we have to say, but who will simply opt to not speak when we're sitting in front of a loudspeaker to the whole goddamn world. It's not about being "accountable". It's about having some kind of way of keeping what happens at Language Log (and the other blogs where I comment) *relevant* (if not confined) just to Language Log. That way I only have to think about what the people who are actually in the conversation are going to think. To everybody in the whole world, I just don't have much to say.

  34. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 7, 2011 @ 8:33 am

    Bread and roses,

    »if I post under my real name … , people from other parts of my life can find my posts and they are functionally out of context« is a perfectly valid point.

    But despite your using a pseudonym, I just found out a bunch of stuff about you I didn't really want to know.

  35. languagehat said,

    August 7, 2011 @ 9:15 am

    That's a pretty crappy thing to say, especially coming from someone who was talking confidently about "the best way to counter incivility on the Internet."

  36. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 7, 2011 @ 9:42 am

    Well, I wasn't intending to be crappy. I certainly don't wish bread & roses ill, in the least. I perfectly agree with his/her main point.

    But he/she said him/herself "To everybody in the whole world, I just don't have much to say" and yet just did say rather a lot.

    Perhaps even with a pseudonym, people should consider how much personal detail is needed to make a given point. Is that an evil and nasty tip to give?

  37. Trond Engen said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 8:59 am

    I use my real name and have done so consistently for as long as I've been on the 'Net. No unpleasant experiences have come out of it. If I were to make the choice again I might have opted for a stable pseudonym with a link to a website with my real name — not because I have concerns about being traceable, but because my name is not unique, and I (and specifically my usenet posts) seem to be pushing my namesakes into undeserved obscurity.

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