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Trust and anonymity

I used to teach at MECIT in Oman and some of the lecturers there had written about the increases that occurred in the amount of communication in forums once they allowed pseudonimity in the posts. Oman is a Sultanate, with an extensive royal family, so there’s a considerable and highly structured social hierarchy based around closeness of relationship with the sultan. For this reason many students don’t use their surname, just giving their first name twice because otherwise it would influence their relationships with other students. Hiding their offline identity further, so not revealing sex or ethnicity extended their freedom further. Online names were all inanimate objects, but even flower names weren’t used (as in most languages flowernames are female). The amount and depth of the communication increased substantially.

In eastern Asian cultures as well there is a lot of importance attached to creating a public social identity associated with the concept of face which can be very different from their private identities. So for these reasons they use different social media platforms like Weibo, since this enables people to go online without revealing their offline identities. In the west there are a lot of communities in which people want to protect their offline identities because of their sexuality (predominantly but there are other concerns). A lot of social media platforms don’t permit this, Facebook and google being particularly bad perpetrators of disclosurism – disclosurism is a term given to people who want to know your offline identity in online interactions. This gave rise to the so-called “nymwars” when they introduced these policies. I think it’s a failure of privileged white guys not realising how difficult it can be for people not at the top of the social ladder. A lot of women pass as men in order to avoid harassment, for example.

The worry is that being anonymous licenses a lot of inappropriate behaviour, because there is no consequence for abusive behaviour, but I’ve usually found that pseudonymity is very different from anonymity. Even if you don’t know someone’s offline identity, if they are sufficiently invested in their online identity, antisocial behaviour is still not consequence-free because they can find themselves cut out of their online-only relationships if they transgress certain rules.

The most troubling of the positions I find with the requirement to disclose a particular name; the whole a/s/l insistence, is the concept of a “real” identity. Identity can’t be packaged or defined in a particularly nuanced way. Telling someone your age, sex or location doesn’t actually inform them about anything important. At an ALT-C conference I once declared that you can tell a person’s gender more easily online than offline. It was a statistic I made up, but I did so to see if anyone quibbled with it. No-one did. Most people aren’t transgender, and yet there are enough transgender people around that you can’t presume you can tell someone’s gender by being able to see their sex. My made-up statistic was meant to reinforce the possibility that, once online, we are freed of the imposition of the physical onto who we are. Online no-one knows you’re bald, no-one can impose a gender; you can claim to be any age, any height, any species. And no-one has a right to interfere with, or prevent you from, defining yourself how you wish. We shouldn’t necessarily assume that this is about hiding one’s true self, it can be (and maybe is more frequently) about revealing one’s true self, once all that pesky physical reality stuff is dispensed with.

Whichever route we as educators go down, pseudonymity, anonymity or onymity (it’s a real word http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/onymity) there is nothing more fruitful than a discussion about the pros and cons of the course taken with students. I’ve had some fascinating conversations about it in class (OK I mean specifically when teaching digital identity – I can’t see how it would crop up in a physics lesson). Essentially the pros and cons of either route need to be explored.



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