In today’s paper Scott Meeker recounted the difference between the Globe’s commenting system, which is completely anonymous, and that of Facebook, which is completely not. It boils down to this. (Link NSFW)
However, I disagree with Scott in that I think anonymity on the internet is a feature, not a bug. I don’t think we should have our birth names, faces and contact info attached to our opinions in order to validate them, like on Facebook. Is someone cowardly because they want to conceal their political or religious convictions from, say, potential or current employers, or whoever? You only need to know a commenter’s real identity if they’re doing something illegal; that’s what IP addresses are for. Otherwise, whatever else besides the person’s username is up to them to vomit onto the keyboard.
If it’s a decrease in sock puppetry the Globe is after, it’d be best to have some sort of registration system in place for Globe comments that’s a happy medium between Facebook and their current system. I’m less concerned with knowing who a commenter is, and more concerned with telling one commenter from another. You can’t tell who is who if you’re free to change your name with every comment. A simple username and a password would do wonders in deterring such things.
However, here’s one neat thing about the current comment system: the ability to effortlessly conduct quasi-scientific experiments in gender discrimination.
You may have noticed by now that my name is not really Johnny Kaje. I have several reasons for using this name, but the main one is that I love messing with people’s gender assumptions. When you use a gender neutral username*, or a masculine name(or a feminine name if you’re a dude), you will notice that people treat you differently. How differently? It depends on the audience.
Discussion on Globe comment sections is anything but civil, and we like it that way. Sometimes I would bounce between my pseudonym and my real name just to see if there was any difference based on gender**. If they assumed I was male, conservative combatants attacked on the lines of “stupid” or “smart-alec.” When I used my real name, tactics changed. I’m no longer “stupid,” but “crazy.” “Smart alec” is swapped with “brazen”. Several told me I should never breed, which never happened when I posted while I was “Kaje”. Apparently men do not reproduce? And on and on. It’s very subtle, but the general theme is Girl Me gets treatment that is simultaneously more infantilizing and more vicious than the treatment Boy Me gets.
It could have been worse, though. The blogosphere is full of horror stories of women who foolishly forgot to hang up their girls parts in the closet before they logged onto Blogger. Just look at what happened to Kathy Sierra. Call me cowardly, or a threat to feminist solidarity, but the truth is I simply didn’t want to see rape threats in my inbox, or a doctored photo of me with a noose around my neck. I just used a traditionally male name and let people assume as they wished***.
I remain Johnny Kaje, because I’m too attached to the name. Even after I revealed my true identity to the editors of the Globe, they still call me Kaje whenever I go upstairs. What started out as an experiment/shield against threats has become a full blown alter ego, and an excuse to wear my Dilophosaurus mask. If you’re a Batman fan, you know how alter egos can take on a life on their own. Paul Dini once said that Bruce Wayne doesn’t wear a Batman costume; it’s Batman that wears a Bruce Wayne costume.
Anonymity and pen names aren’t always “cowardice” or “uncivil”. There are a lot of reasons why someone may name themselves after a They Might Be Giants song, or wear a bat costume and roam the streets, or use a name that’s traditionally reserved for someone different from them. Maybe they’re exploring different facets of themselves. Maybe it’s for their safety. Maybe they want to see how the other half lives.
Maybe it’s just for fun.
* I can’t count how many times I got to know someone while using a gender neutral username, then to have that person be absolutely floored when they find out I’m not a guy. If my username is gender neutral, almost everyone assumes I’m a guy. Is it because the default is male, or is it just me?
** I know this is hypocritical. Sue me. If it means anything, I no longer commit sockpuppetry, and I’m sorry.
***I went out of my way to avoid referring to myself as either male or female on my old blog. There’s one very awkward post that I wrote entirely in the third person; hard to do when you can’t use gendered pronouns.