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Who Are You?

Is using a "fake" name on the internet a good thing?

The election is over and while many ballots are still being counted, I'm left with an unresolved question:  Why do people use anonymous names to post their opinions on forums like Patch?

I understand why anonymity can be important.  Authors have long used pen names for publishing their works for a variety of reasons.  People can be in danger for stating their true opinion in situations such as abusive relationships or living under a regime that limits free speech.  Victims of crime can often remain anonymous in the media to avoid embarrassment or retaliation.  There are many valid reasons for keeping your identity hidden.

So what about using a “fake” name to post your opinion in a comment section of a website?  I can see some reasons where using a pseudonym is good idea.  Perhaps you have a deeply held but somewhat controversial belief that you don't feel comfortable discussing outside your immediate circle.  You might want to share your feelings and experiences but would only do it anonymously because of the fear of reprisals.  That makes sense to me.

There is a fine line here.  Anonymity on the Internet is the reason cyber-bullying exists.  The notion that you can say absolutely anything without repercussions is a pretty powerful concept.  It's easy to get carried away when you are free from normal social restraints.  Statements that people would never make to another person if they were face to face suddenly become consequence-free.  It’s a slippery slope.

The recent heated debates here on Patch (and other sites) because of the elections has brought this issue to my attention and compelled me to consider my feelings about anonymity on the Internet.  I found myself giving more weight to the statements made by people who gave what appeared to be their “real” names.  Arguments made by “fake” names were somewhat discounted in my mind, regardless of their position.

It was also my observation that some of the more inflammatory and insulting comments were left by anonymous writers.  Not everyone who posts anonymously is guilty of this, of course.  But it seemed to me that many of the more strident commenters were using obviously "fake" names.  Are they that combative and condescending in real life?  Or are they using the smoke screen of a pseudonym to act in a manner that they would never consider in a personal conversation?

Just to be completely transparent about this, I don’t use my legal last name here.  It's hard to spell and pronounce so in many situations I use Smith, my maiden name.  In my personal life, things like social media list both my last names and I use them interchangeably.  Smith is the surname I was born with and identify most closely with.  It’s not a matter of being anonymous; it’s more of a convenience and an expression of my personal identity.

So how do you feel about this?  Does it matter to you if someone hides their identity when commenting online?  Do you have a compelling reason why you use, or don’t use, your “real” name?

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Shaun Ivory November 10, 2012 at 07:17 AM
"If I take the trouble to write a comment, it is because I think the opinion is not casting me in a bad light." It isn't about your perception, it is about other peoples' -- people who may disagree with your opinion with irrational ferocity. I peeked at your comment history on this site, and you don't seem to have an opinion on controversial topics like racism, gay rights, political leadership, etc. Your authority on whether or not anonymity is useful is about as meaningful to me as that of those people who don't mind the government spying on citizens' reading habits because they only read romance novels. If the most controversial topic I was willing to express an opinion on was traffic on the 520 bridge, I wouldn't find anonymity particularly useful either. "Opinions and 'facts' from nameless people are, for the most part, unreliable and easy to ignore." Such as the Federalist Papers, for example?
John Vidale November 10, 2012 at 07:46 AM
Shaun Have much trouble finding people with whom to argue? I can imagine that your personally insulting remarks could lead to "irrational ferocity", or maybe rational fury. I posted on taxes, gun control, the toll on the 520 bridge - I sorry to see you think your topics are more meaningful and contentious than mine. And it's amusing that you view your posts as parallel to the Federalist Papers, writing aimed at rejiggering the entire US political system by three leading national politicians of the times. It reminds of the people around my university, UW, that claim to need tenure to avoid political persecution, when only 1 in 1000 arouse serious opposition from people in power. Take yourself a little less seriously.
Jeanne Gustafson November 10, 2012 at 08:01 AM
I certainly respect your opinions Shaun. We each can have our opinions, and I was trying to share what I know about anonymous letters and sources as a journalist. If there weren't plenty of anonymous posters on Patch, this particular discussion thread wouldn't exist. Yes, people have to choose a screen name. Some choose the name "anonymous," especially when they want to comment on something that is sensitive for the very reasons you bring up, and as I said, I agree there can be very good reasons for that. And yes, discussions on pieces that are political or posted simultaneously on several sites end up with less neighborly comments sometimes, which I think is unfortunate. I doubt that most of the comments here rise to the level that would cause individuals to be tyrannized by the majority (but I can think of at least one specific case local to my site where that could definitely be seen as cause for someone to choose to remain anonymous), but again, if Patch was enforcing a rule that people use their real names, there would be more of a case to be made at least as far as this site. I hope you can acknowledge that just because I state an opinion about my impressions or preferences when I read comments doesn't mean I'm out to take anyone's rights away. And that said, I think your arguments are compelling as well.
Shaun Ivory November 10, 2012 at 08:13 AM
I wasn't trying to insult you -- I was trying to make an analogy, but it probably isn't a good one. Your comments sound like the often-expressed sentiment that goes like this: "I have nothing to hide -- why would I care if the government spies on me?" Personally, I don't read books about creating explosives, but I wouldn't want the government spying on my reading habits to verify that. For the record, I wasn't referring to my own comments on this, or any other, website -- I was referring to hypothetical topics that would be likely to arouse peoples' anger. Because this website is aimed at local communities, there is always the risk that you are going to alienate neighbors or coworkers, even on seemingly harmless topics like the toll on the 520 bridge. Nor was I comparing my own opinions to the Federalist Papers. I used that as an example of why it is foolish to disregard anonymous writing without considering its merits, in response to your comment about opinions and facts from nameless people being largely unreliable and easy to ignore. "Take yourself a little less seriously." Since you feel free to give me suggestions, I'd suggest you take your privacy a little more seriously.
Shaun Ivory November 10, 2012 at 08:43 AM
I totally understand your points. I dislike "trolling" where the author hides behind a pseudonym and is only trying to provoke people. I am defending the principle of anonymity, but I completely agree it is generally abused (by abusive people) on the Internet, usually for their own amusement. I wish Patch would either require real names (which would likely kill the business, because many would stop posting on controversial topics) or stop requiring registration (which is tedious, because it isn't persistent). I love the idea of local discussion, and Patch has potential!
John Vidale November 10, 2012 at 03:37 PM
Shaun, Many of your points are sensible, and it's probably right that many forums would wither without the ability to post anonymously, so this discussion is mostly academic. However, I'd assert two points - (1) the majority of the anonymous posts worth reading would be more informative and convincing were they posted with a true signature, and (2) people's fear of revealing their names, when they have something constructive to say, is way, way, overblown. It's akin to the aversion felt by most Bellevueites when venturing downtown from watching too many crime shows on TV.
Michelle Smith November 10, 2012 at 04:21 PM
Mark, life is so funny sometimes. I was at the show "Video Games Live" at the Pantages last night and got to hang out with some hard core gamers. There were several occasions where I witnessed people introducing themselves by their screen names and people were refering to each other by these names all evening. Took me a minute to figure out what they were talking about. It made me think of your post and how there is a whole culture where these names are an important part of your identity. I probably wouldn't have even noticed that if you had not brought it to my attention earlier that day!
Michelle Smith November 10, 2012 at 04:33 PM
Dave, you make a very good argument for not automatically dismissing a comment because the author is anonymous. But I also see merit in John Vidale's statement of "Opinions and "facts" from nameless people are, for the most part, unreliable and easy to ignore" because of my general experience. I may be allowing a few people who abuse their anonymity to color my view of the majority who remain respectful while stating their viewpoint.
Jeanne Gustafson November 10, 2012 at 06:41 PM
Shaun, I think your comments about John's comment history provide a good illustration of the most common reason people often choose not to use their own names here and on other sites. The firing of chief Jeffrey Chen, the 520 bridge issues, and other topics on which John has commented are very pertinent and worthy of discussion to many people on their local sites, and I'd hate to have Patch users refrain from commenting because someone might deem the topics they choose to engage in unworthy.
urbanrider November 10, 2012 at 06:45 PM
I agree with the 4 H test before I write my opinion.
urbanrider November 10, 2012 at 06:48 PM
A name is just a name. The Bible, and many classics I studied in university were written by anonymous. I was taught to challenge myself and the content not the author's name.
Jeanne Gustafson November 10, 2012 at 06:52 PM
I appreciate all the points that have brought up here so far. Patch is still evolving and changing, as is necessary, and the feedback does not fall on deaf ears. As a company we, and as a local editor, I, really value the input on issues such as this.
Shaun Ivory November 10, 2012 at 08:26 PM
I agree with point 1. I even said something like that in my first post: "...I respect people who are willing to expose themselves by using their real names when expressing controversial, but well-considered, opinions..." Regarding point 2, you are probably right, but consider this: You appear to live in one of the most liberal cities in the US. You posted that people who think they need semi-automatic weapons lacked good judgment. In this area, that is a pretty mainstream opinion. I also live on the eastside. Most of my friends and neighbors would probably agree with that sentiment. But imagine you lived in a more conservative area where passion about gun ownership ran at fever pitch. Imagine all of your neighbors, friends, coworkers and boss believed gun-ownership of any sort was a sacred right, and that questioning anyone's judgment for wanting to own any gun were considered almost heretical. Such places actually exist (I have lived in some of them). In those places, if you expressed your opinion openly, there would be some repercussions. What would you do? As I interpret this comment, "If I take the trouble to write a comment, it is because I think the opinion is not casting me in a bad light," you'd probably not express your opinion. You'd censor yourself. What I am saying is that your opinion is valuable, even if it is controversial, and that anonymity is a good alternative to risking one's relationships and livelihood.
Shaun Ivory November 10, 2012 at 08:26 PM
Please note, this wasn't an attack -- I am just trying to illustrate that expressing minority opinions on controversial topics *can* have repercussions, but that those opinions *can* also be valuable even if they are anonymous. In the real world (on Patch for example), most anonymous posts on controversial topics aren't worth reading. The non-anonymous posts are only marginally better, though. I seldom see thoughtful comments with well-formed ideas, and, when I do, it is gratifying, whether I agree with them or not, and whether they are anonymous or not. Most people are just reciting dogma they received from someone else, and are easily ignorable. If, in the example above, you would question the judgment of people wanting to own semi-automatic weapons even if everyone around you supported it, then you have my admiration -- you are braver than most other people.
John Vidale November 10, 2012 at 09:59 PM
Shaun, sure, one can construct almost any hypothetical situation with arbitrary problems. I did repeatedly post complaining about the Medina police chief, who acted sometimes (buying switchblades, machine guns, and an armor car) in less than rational ways, taking the side of people supporting his firing, while living in Medina. More in my expertise, I often spout off on earthquakes, which are my job, in web comments (and to reporters, citizens, and govt officials), and have had to talk with two sets of lawyers this month to ascertain what we can and can't do in issuing earthquake warnings. I still think most people have trouble separating extremely unlikely incidents they've heard of in the national news or movies from likely consequences in real life.
Shaun Ivory November 10, 2012 at 11:38 PM
I think we are mostly in agreement, but it occurs to me that your viewpoint might be shaped by the fact that you are a scientist, where anonymous studies wouldn't get any attention, since professional reputation is one of the safeguards against shoddy work. "I still think most people have trouble separating extremely unlikely incidents they've heard of in the national news or movies from likely consequences in real life." I absolutely agree with that. Halloween candy is the classic example -- people are terrified of their kids being harmed by tainted candy, despite the fact that it has literally almost never happened.
Local Guy November 11, 2012 at 10:59 PM
Because some of us have been posting online for many, many, years longer then Patch has existed and perhaps might be more familiar with the perils of engaging in dialogue with strangers in a digital world, regardless of whether there is an alleged valid name and/or attractive picture attached or not. My unique Patch handle has already received spam/solicitations from the "cute girls from the Ukraine" who find my posts "interesting and compassionate" and "would like to learn more about me". And then there are the regularly occurring attempts by outside intruders to log onto my home network. Do those of you that use your own name monitor your own network traffic? IMO, it is huge exposure to both identity theft, fraud, or worse yet, bodily harm to self and family. I do not wish to extend this risk to my loved ones.
Dave Matzen November 11, 2012 at 11:30 PM
I have used a fake name at time simply for the reasons that at times my opinion may not be the same as organisations I am associated with.
Local Guy November 12, 2012 at 01:44 AM
John, My Patch handle is unique to this site. My Patch email address has never been published, yet I received spam from an outside 3rd party addressed to my Patch handle, on my patch email account. "Confidential" Patch profile data has already been hacked. Patch, to the best of my knowledge, has never shared this with the Patch community, even though notified. And with all due respect, identify theft begins with a name, or a number, and people put far more then that online every day...
Dan November 12, 2012 at 04:52 PM
Please tell me that your fake name is not Jeff Lebowski, Dave. Ha Ha
Gail November 12, 2012 at 08:52 PM
Exactly Dave (although for me it's one removed)
Gail November 12, 2012 at 09:22 PM
I agree with Local Guy on this one. Here's the rule about identity theft. Never reveal more about yourself than you have to. I've done a few internet "searches" and it's amazing how much I found out from a "real name", a "real location" and a "real job". This permits cross-checks. There are a lot of public data bases online. One thing leads to another. So regardless of the apparent harmless nature of profile data, don't do it. It's just the way it is. Some sites also reveal indirectly the area where you live. Think Yahoo. IOW, it all depends on where one posts. The Patch knows your IP, so there's no such thing as being anonymous in the true sense of the word. (Many people do not realize this.) CC fraud is not an issue since cards are automatically limited to $50 and mine are $0. Losing my wallet is mostly a large nuisance getting everything replaced (for pete's sake don't put PWs in there). Unlocked phone for me is -0-. Computer would be a problem if sensitive files were not encrypted. It's not that one is more risk than the other. The underlying issue is that it contributes to risk. It's similar to protecting your child's safety - there are multiple prevention steps.
Question Mark November 13, 2012 at 12:30 AM
Sometimes Real Life does imitate the virtual, I guess! Thanks for your responses, Michelle.
Gail November 13, 2012 at 03:49 AM
Password reuse/security is not exactly the same subject as profiles and real names. But OK - let's examine that part. If a useless account is hacked, that means THAT account would have been hacked regardless of reuse since the PW used is not a good one. Just like the points you mention. Any PW can be cracked though, given enough time. What you see in movies is REAL. Keyboard malware is not a PW issue. Websites are the most common place one gets this type of malware (or any malware). The $50 credit card limit is a federal law. Debit cards are a bit different depending on how they are used to steal your money and how fast you catch it. http://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/09/stolen-credit-card.asp#axzz2C4K0yvQk I really don't see the difference in being more or less constructive depending on a name. Am I less constructive because I do not list my full name? I hope not. Shaun Ivory did an excellent job with his overview using his real name (nice name) explaining. In the beginning of forums like this (CompuServe, then AOL - late '80s) it became common to use screen names. For online games (MMO) it's hardly common to see 'real names'. What would be the fun in that! I think what we have here is more related to a user's online experience. There's way more than just forums like this. I don't judge by a 'name', although I do get curious :)
@rcwant2be November 16, 2012 at 06:59 PM
Personal security is the reason why I choose not to use my real name on the internet. There are a lot of devious people out there who will google your name & start connecting the dots & before you know it could have your address (which has happened on Renton patch. A user posted the address of someone who had submitted a letter to the editor found by doing a property search) &/or phone # &/or email address. Who knows what happens from there. Actually, I've had a Renton Patch user research my screen name & post some assumptions based on what they were able to find. I find that to be an invasion of privacy. The info may be available, but do you need to assimilate it & post it because you don't like a comment? No. That is the childish & easy way out. Do I really want to be harassed or worse for expressing my opinion? No. Honestly, I don't think anyone should use their name publicly online. I've even considered changing mine to something completely anonymous that I don't use elsewhere as a result of someone researching me & post their assumptions about me here. In today's society, using your real name online puts you at risk for id theft, home invasion, harassment, etc etc.
Gail November 16, 2012 at 07:21 PM
John, you have a habit of going beyond a topic. I could have explained way more, but it had NOTHING TO DO with the topic of a real identity vs an avatar. You could also have an ex that got mad and gave your PW to everyone. More likely than "Eastern Europeans". There is NO password too complex to guess. You are out of your area of expertise here. I mention this so that people are not misled by that sort of statement. Security by the government (military) is set by how many hours it takes to break. Not that it can't be broken. (It does take some special gear, so everyone can relax.) Similarly, I explained the $50 limit so your story wouldn't panic everyone. It's a RARE occurrence and (given your background) really is an odd case, not 'proof'. I would have canned that CC. If you didn't, shame. There is no 'advantage' to using a real name as many of us have learned. This isn't about technical skills, it's about protecting (and securing) one's identity.
dexterjibs November 17, 2012 at 04:58 PM
Ever consider that there are people that are intolerent of the political views of others and would work to destroy that person? Especially if that person has a position in the community that would make it easy to destroy that person. I have seen it from both sides, but it seems the intolerent left is perfecting it and making a bloodsport out of it..
DaveR November 17, 2012 at 06:14 PM
LOL - "I use Smith". Smith is the most common surname in the English language. A recent analysis showed that there were over 515,000 people with the last name of Smith in the UK with Jones coming in a distant second. Apparently there were 2,376,206 Smiths in the USA in 2000. Using the name Smith is exactly equivalent to posting anonymously. Some of us have far more unique names to the point that using them is sufficient to identify themselves to anyone that wants to look them up. Thank you but no thank you. I'm not going to put my name out on the internet for every Dick and Jane out there to take a pot shot at. I have three choices, never say a word, be perfectly PC, or be somewhat anonymous. I choose to be anonymous and attempt not to be unduly provocative. I also assume that if someone really wants to find out who I am they might hack the database and thus I never post anything that would be damaging to me.
Michelle Smith November 17, 2012 at 06:36 PM
I'll do that one better...I was given the most common first, middle, and last name for girls. Even by using my name, I'm still "anonymous"! LOL It has lead to many mix up with others with my same name, but I'm used to it at this point. It might seem common or boring to other people, but it's mine.
Michelle Smith November 17, 2012 at 06:37 PM
I did consider it. See above "Perhaps you have a deeply held but somewhat controversial belief that you don't feel comfortable discussing outside your immediate circle. You might want to share your feelings and experiences but would only do it anonymously because of the fear of reprisals." It's a very valid concern.

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