Why using your real name will not mean better behaviour online

In this guest posting, Alison Michalk takes issue with a recent opinion piece on Mumbrella on online anonymity.

It is fallacy that anonymity breeds terrible behaviour – poor community management and poorly designed reputation systems do that.

Being made to use your “real” name online does not hold most accountable. If that were the case hundreds of facebook/social media managers around the world would be out of work while people behaved politely online and with civility towards fellow humankind.

“Persistent identity” – because real can’t be regulated (yet anyway) – does not stop people from behaving badly, if anything it stifles their ability to say what they really think. Which as a society, is something we should all hold in high regard. And defend.

Most people I meet who are anti-anonymity have never inhabited an online forum because almost everyone who ever has, has a completely different understanding of the issue. (Quite possibly Randy Zuckerberg also falls into this category, and no doubt her anti-anonymity views of indicative of what gets said in the halls of facebook.)

There are myriad places where our real name is completely irrelevant to the discussion – and instead what matters is our interests, our experience, our thoughts, our beliefs and our ability to self-disclose and share this information. Whether it be to seek an answer and support, or simply to help others.

Whether it be breast cancer, pregnancy complications, divorce issues, workplace situations, whistleblowers, political discourse (including freedom from persecution) the list truly goes on and on an on. To have these often deeply important discussions attached to your “real” identity creates far more issues than it seeks to solve.

The issue of “real” or persistent identify of course is one that has been discussed with fervor amongst online community managers like myself. It’s a serious issue that goes much deeper than “bullying” and bad comments.

The potential for the internet where we have protected online spaces where we are not tracked, stalked, and followed to have our data sold to the highest bidder (or worse under some regimes)… well I consider it a future worth fighting for.

The internet, after all, fosters communication unlike anything that has ever existed before. To attempt (and fail) to eliminate “bad behaviour” at the expense of all people’s freedoms would be a very short sighted trade indeed.

Alison Michalk is director of online community management firm Quiip


  1. Cameron
    14 Oct 12
    2:52 pm

  2. Quite right. Some of the most stunning reveals in reporting — including mainstream media — come through anonymity. Think of the comments on this site alone — most of them wouldn’t get made if people had to put their name to them and have their boss, colleagues, and others, focused (and perhaps critical) on that, rather than the message itself. I know it makes some folk uneasy, but what would you rather? Pure commentary and hearing what’s really going on, and what people really think? Or sanitised soundbites made under real names; potentially meaning some comments never get made at all?

  3. Encyclic!
    15 Oct 12
    8:52 am

  4. We recently saw the..impromptu feedback.. given to Julia Gillard on her facebook page. A significant proportion of which was ill-mannered, crude, and certainly not something that would be said in person.

    However, a majority of these comments were posted by people, using their own names, from their own facebook accounts.

    Anonymity is just a force multiplier, the actual problem here is the large population of dickheads on the internet.

  5. AdGrunt
    15 Oct 12
    11:28 am

  6. Agree.

    Anonymity / Pseudonymity allows those who wish to, to engage in a discussion on its merits and instantly avoids ad hominem.

    Reputation, consistency and accountability can still exist within this framework. This can be quite disarming for those who are used to using their position or power to influence debate.

  7. Mike Watkins
    15 Oct 12
    12:11 pm

  8. Hear hear, great article Ms Michalk.

    Anonymity needs to exist for forums/industries that deal with sensitive issues which users would feel uncomfortable attaching their real identities to.

    Weight loss is one such industry.

    A forum with real identities in an online weight loss community would result in lower overall engagement due to members not wanting to publicly associate themselves with such a deeply personal topic.

    A smartly designed forum that allows users to interact through an avatar would see higher levels of engagement as those users can interact and/or air intensely personal questions confidently, knowing that they will personally never be publicly attached to such information.

  9. Posters Anonymous
    15 Oct 12
    1:02 pm

  10. Agreed.

    Plus you would find half of the commentary would be made by narcissistic morons who sign off their posts with links to their (sh1t) blogs… 😉

    I wish 25% of “real” people who commented on Mumbrella were blocked, because they are simply peddling their lackluster agenda’s.

    Comment to help the conversation, not yourselves!!

  11. Morgan
    15 Oct 12
    1:20 pm

  12. My personal argument is that a name is an arbitrary thing – whether it’s real or chosen by yourself… until it is associated with actions and words and history.

    Therefore, if you create an online persona that you use consistently, you are not anonymous, you are doing what many people have done throughout history and prior to internet. You are using a pseudonym to communicate freely and without prejudice. Once you start using it consistently, you are associating words, actions and intent with it and it earns a reputation – in the same way that any other name would. It has credibility – and if you screw up, people judge you in the same way they would if you were using your real name.

    Some people act like total asses online using their real name – and it doesn’t make it ok. ‘Oh gee… I know who said that, I feel so much better… it’s like they aren’t an ass at all!’

    In my day to day physical world, I go by many names – and mostly I just answer to my last name as both a first and last. But I get to choose what name I go by – or the people around me adopt pet names as they please.

    It’s a little mad to insist that people wear their real name in flashing lights over their heads (or the virtual version thereof) when in real life we do not walk around with signs over out heads telling the world our names (and personal details) – we get to choose who and when to share these things with. We should all be able to choose when and if we want to share our names and other identifying details – and we are entitled to privacy even if we aren’t doing anything wrong.

    Ooops sorry. It’s Monday morning and my soap box was right here at my feet. *grins, hangs head and roams off*

  13. Alison_F
    15 Oct 12
    1:37 pm

  14. I began using my real name with a URL link when I first started visiting Mumbrella… then some completely crazy guy in QLD took major issue with my opinion (about Love Thy Neighbour, no less!!) and tracked me down to my email address and sent an open letter to my ‘bosses’ to say that he will NEVER use our company and they should fire me if they ever want to see business from him etc…. Luckily I am my own boss. I hate to think what might have happened if I wasn’t! Regardless, it was actually scary.
    Since then, no-one can convince me to divulge information that may allow a crazy to find me.

  15. Craig
    15 Oct 12
    1:45 pm

  16. Encyclic!, your comment was half right. It is not about the number of dickheads on the net, it is about the number of dickheads in Australian society who have been given a voice without consequences.

    The principal of ignoring these people doesn’t work when the barrier to participation is nil and when they don’t care whether they are ignored.

    The legal system is too expensive and clumsy to deal with them.

    Perhaps the best approach is to implement a rising set of barriers based on how people respond to a particular individual.

    For example, give every unique identity ratings, keep track of who they rate and who rates them and assign values based on this.

    When people reach too high a negative rating, start adding barriers to their participation – for example first requiring them to type a CAPTCHA code every comment, then requiring them to complete a CAPTCHA and a secret question, the requiring them to do both of the previous and have them wait two minutes before clicking the ‘Submit’ button, and so on.

    As they pass each tier, their willingness to keep commenting will decline and they will eventually go elsewhere. Or, if others systematically attempted to drive out a voice, they could ask a moderator for a review and, if a conspiracy was detected, the ratings would be reversed, with those conspiring to silence them facing the barriers to participation.

    What astonishes me is that no-one has done this yet. On private sites there is no requirement for freedom of speech, just as a store can refuse service.

    Put barriers in the way of destructive users and trolls and we’ll soon see them moving on.

  17. Stephen Collins
    15 Oct 12
    2:06 pm

  18. There’s a long, well-researched (at academic level) history of the value of anonymity, both online and in the physical world. There are very real social, personal, political and business reasons to maintain anonymity should one wish to. danah boyd’s work on this is amongst the best there is.

    And, after the debacle of recent weeks with W3C delegates from the world of marketing trying to get new standards to disable “do not track” thrown out and declaring that marketing is the substance that makes the world function, I’ve even less time for the marketing industry than I ever did. Which is to say, less than zero.

    Frankly, anyone NOT blocking ads, NOT using DNT, and NOT anonymising any traffic they generate about which they consider there to be any sensitivity needs to think about who knows what about them.

    Anyone interested in the DNT issues should read this NYT piece – http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10.....-fire.html. It’s good in that it’s targeted at regular folk vs. high tech-adept.

    Of course, >90 per cent of what I do online isn’t anonymous, but there’s some. And it’s an option we should always have.

  19. norelle feehan
    15 Oct 12
    2:07 pm

  20. To me they can be funny and cutting and amusing but in discussion about an issue? They have no credibility. And I’m not flogging anything.

  21. John Grono
    15 Oct 12
    2:21 pm

  22. I totally agree with Stephen and Morgan. A ‘persona’ can be equally valid as using your real name. Just ask people like Frances Gumm, Bernard Schwartz and Norma Jean Mortenson.

  23. Jonathan Salem Baskin
    15 Oct 12
    2:45 pm

  24. Great piece. I’m writing a boom on the importance of aynonimity throughout history. Give me a shout if you’re willing to chat a bit. JSB

  25. Posters Anonymous
    15 Oct 12
    4:50 pm

  26. @JSB can you please clarify what “aynonimity” is please? I am sure it will be an interesting read!

    I am willing to chat a bit, however only about topics concerning fish, clothes lines and native European squirrels.

  27. Mac
    15 Oct 12
    6:26 pm

  28. Why are we discussing people’s opinions when we have large, peer reviewed studies that we can use? How can we even be discussing opinions without comparing them to the major studies ?

    Here’s one example .. a study published by the IEEE: http://www.computer.org/csdl/p.....1-abs.html

    The short version:
    * It was a large study involving over 2 million posts
    * The proportion of ‘bad’ postings was reduced by implementing a ‘real name/persistent identity’ rule – and the change was statistically significant.
    * However it reduced the ‘bad’ postings by only around 30%.

    You can argue that the loss to a community out-weighs the benefits. In fact – that’s why Korea stopped the policy.

    You can even argue that the large, peer reviewed study is wrong. Or that it doesn’t cover our types of communities so we should do follow up studies. But the tendency in some industries to simply ignore large, carefully documented studies and go for ‘policy by anecdote’ is rather disturbing !

    Wouldn’t a fairer title of the article be “Using your ‘real’ / ‘persistent’ name online reduces bad behaviour by only around 30% – so here is why my opinion is that the tradeoffs aren’t worth it” ?


  29. Anne Miles
    15 Oct 12
    9:01 pm

  30. I have to admit that I’ve been quite vocal about anonymous blogging in the industry press. I do see the merits of having a time and a place to be anonymous and Alison makes a good point. Some of the topics she seems to deal with are very sensitive and that’s a whole other level of community management. I appreciate understanding that my issue is not so much with the anonymity but with the moderation allowing this kind of behaviour to prevail.

    I too had an issue with someone connecting with me in a slightly weird way. I suspect they used the information they found to be nasty anonymously. Weird.

    There are certain blog sites, I’ve realised, that I have been the only named person on it and been abused personally. I, too, will be choosing to be anonymous in that space from now on I feel! Otherwise my voice wont be heard at all.

    I can’t say I like the fact that people get the equivalent of ‘road rage’ and say things they wouldn’t normally when it is anonymous though, but can’t say I have a ‘one size fits all’ rule about it though.

  31. Craig
    15 Oct 12
    11:20 pm

  32. John Grono, you can also add Mark Twain, James Tiptree, Jr, 7. Louisa May Alcott, A.M. Barnard and this huge list of pseudonyms used by people writing for and against the US constitution http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki.....al_debates

    Pseudonyms an anonymity have long been used as an individual’s defense against the powerful – whether weathy an famous individuals, corporations or states.

    Likewise institutions have often fought to expose the identities of individuals as that allows them to contest the field from a position of strength (their legal power & political influence).

    I am deeply suspicious of anyone who seeks to end anonymity. Many (though not all) are either ignorant of the damage it can cause to a society or are seeking to tilt the playing field.

  33. terry salad
    16 Oct 12
    8:09 am

  34. Well I’ll be blowed you mean that some people actually put their real names to the drivel they write……the mind boggles. Couldn’t they sign off with ….By the way this is my real name and my comments really have came from me (no honestly). I have quite an important job in the ad industry and therefore believe people really are interested in the points I make.

  35. Posters Anonymous
    16 Oct 12
    12:13 pm

  36. @Terry It certainly appears that way.

    I have clicked on a few ‘real names’ on this thread, which are hyper-linked. I have landed on their self promoting blogs, fallen asleep and not left any comments.

    I say do not allow real names in comment threads.

  37. nell schofield
    16 Oct 12
    1:59 pm

  38. wow, haven’t read specious arguments like these in a long time

    anonymity breeds cowardice and encourages irresponsible remarks, cruelty, trolling etc because people who’d otherwise be subject to social pressure not to misbehave are free of accountability

    this is a simple matter of commonsense

  39. nell schofield
    16 Oct 12
    2:02 pm

  40. Mac – you’re saying a 30% reduction in bad comments doesn’t outweigh the benefits of anonymity…why? sounds like a very significant improvement to me. What threshold percentage would you apply and why?

  41. Stephen Collins
    16 Oct 12
    2:17 pm

  42. nell, unless I’m misreading you badly, I urge you to familiarise yourself with some of the very high quality research on the measurable social, political and personal benefits offered by anonymity and pseudonymity, and the work that equally suggests forcing real names offers minimal benefits when weighed against any reduction in bad behavior and the chilling effects created in discourse in the public sphere.

    Given you and she share a propensity for the lower case, I’d offer danah boyd as the ideal place to start – http://www.danah.org/. She offers up both long-form academic research as well as (still quite long) non-academic pieces.

  43. Mac
    16 Oct 12
    2:53 pm

  44. @Nell Shofield

    It obviously depends on the community. The benefits of anonymity is pretty obvious with outliers like, for example, a Gay rights community in Iran.

    But imagine that you are running a typical, non-controversial community. You currently have 1,000 comments a week of which perhaps 20 are inane ‘bad’ ones.

    Would you honestly spend a lot of resources and say to everyone in the community “I’m going to insist on a scanned copy of Photo ID for all accounts – because then we can reduce it to maybe 6 inane ‘bad’ comments a week?”

    Is that worth the stress and expense of having systems to decide whether ‘Mohammed Shadeghpour’ (who is known to everyone simply as ‘Moe Shade’) should be permitted to have the user name ‘Moe.Shade’ since it clearly isn’t the name on his Photo ID? In my little team here almost nobody is working under their full ‘legal’ name – simply because of Anglicisation of names. (Even mine was even deemed to have too many syllables and shorted to ‘Mac’) So what is your site’s policy going to be?

    How much money should your community expend enforcing this – just to reduce the number of ‘bad’ comments from 20 in 1,000 down to 14 in 1,000 ? (A reduction equal to the 30% reduction quoted, and better than the 6% that Korea’s official study found).

    Let alone the issues with reducing participation. When the media is scrapping for information on you because you’ve said something controversial or you are deemed to be ‘overpaid’ … do you really want them to find your photos of the time you spent on a friend’s yacht? Even if you are a total nobody with a boring job – you can still get hurt. Remember when a newspaper made a massive fuss because a teacher had posted utterly harmless photos of herself on Facebook? (http://www.abc.net.au/mediawat.....876989.htm )

    Imagine if the community you moderate was dedicated to a totally harmless hobby (eg: Vampire Fiction Writing) and everything you did was connected to your ‘work’ identity as a human rights lawyer. What would the media do when they want to ridicule your expertise? Should everyone be forced to only have serious looking hobbies?

    I choose not to use anonymity – but I’m a big fan of it being available as an option.

  45. Toby Ralph
    16 Oct 12
    4:01 pm

  46. Anonymity is too often the cloak of cowards; but that doesn’t mean it should be banned.

    As readers we should should be discerning enough to differentiate between those in full view and others sniping from the shadows

  47. Morgan
    17 Oct 12
    5:09 pm

  48. Nell – I don’t think forcing people to use their legal identity online is a commonsense approach to the issue at all. I’m not even sure there is an obvious answer.

    People are not treated equally – on or offline.

    Not everyone has the financial security, political freedom – or the ability to express their personal opinions without prejudice or without being excluded/judged. In some cases if people are forced to use their legal identity they can say very little and so they are effectively silenced and lose the freedom to express their opinion at all.

    The ‘My Name is Me’ campaign website that was around a year or so ago shared stories from a number of people that demonstrated that there are both pros and cons to using real names or alternate names. In my opinion there’s no simple answer or simple commonsense about it. I strongly believe in the right to choose. and the right to privacy. (Note: the ‘my name is me’ website with stories no longer seems to be around).

    Sure, forcing people to use their legal identities would deter some bad behaviour but others may behave in similar ways under their legal identity because they have less fear of the consequences/less fear of being discriminated against.

    The flip side is that in addition to reducing bad behaviour the number of open/healthy discussions can be reduced as can the ability for a number of people to express themselves without prejudice. I wonder if these things were measured against one another where would there be more loss? X% of reduction in bad behaviour vs X% of reduction in open/healthy discussion or X% of increase in people being silenced/X% reduction in freedom of expression. That’s the trade-off.

  49. Téa
    19 Oct 12
    3:05 pm

  50. I know that, as someone who started out relatively anonymous and built an audience based on the ‘authenticity’ of the writing… it becomes so much harder to maintain when attached to your “real name”.

    I am now stifled by it. It makes you self conscious – not so much in behaviour, because my opinions are what they are, but in the *topics* I can feel safe to write about.

    The ‘authentic’ voice, over a period of 10 years has gradually eroded into playing it (fairly) safe… has the quality decreased? Probably not… but the ability to write about personal journeys for one audience without clients knowing every facet of my life? Most definitely.

    That said, I’ve never really written anything online that would be catastrophic if it were attached to my name anyway. It’s unusual enough to be easily found on Google and I am acutely aware of that… oh how I envy people who have names like John Smith 😛

    But again, hiding behind anonymity to be an arsehole v using a pseudonym to be freer in your communication are entirely different things. I am quite happy to be held accountable for both… but like many have pointed out… it is sensible for anyone (especially anyone with a job, or clients, or need for professional distance from their private lives) to not necessarily scream their name from the rooftops every time they express themselves online.

  51. Peter Rush
    22 Oct 12
    11:55 am

  52. What I find interesting is that when people post messages of goodwill to some who’s been promoted or whatever, they do it anonymously. Makes me think there’s more to being anonymous then just being accountable for your opinion. There’s something else at work here, perhaps the old storytelling pleasure of creating a fictional character.

  53. nell schofield
    22 Oct 12
    2:33 pm

  54. As Peter Rush infers, anonymity undermines the credibility of so many online ‘opinions’ on all manner of things

    doesn’t it strike you that arguing with a pseudonym or worst still, a ‘persona’ is an eregious waste of your time?

  55. Craig
    26 Oct 12
    9:10 am

  56. neil, I don’t know you from a bar of soap – and you don’t know me, so as far as we’re both concerned if we have a discussion online it is simply one persona/pseudonym to another.

    While identity can add authenticity to conversation, it doesn’t always do so. Online is a way to share ideas and views without judging them by the person who stated them, thus makes it very valuable as a way to take prejudice out of conversations.

    Insistance on identification of online personas with an offline individual in order to take them seriously is, in my view, arrogant, rude and unproductive.

    It’s like going to a social party then only speaking to people who are rich, famous or can positively influence your career while refusing to make eye contact with anyone you think is under your station.

    I’m interested in the rich flow of ideas and views, not so much in who they come from.

    Credibility is only undermined when your mind works in that way. In reality our offline identities are just as mutable and imprecise as our identities on line.

    None of us is a singular identity or personality, we all have richness and depth that we don’t show to everyone we meet, interact with, work with or live with.

    Often the hardest jobs we face are overcoming our prejudices based on someone’s name, station or dress and actually hearing the value (or not) they bring to a conversation. At least online this is simpler!

  57. My Word
    26 Oct 12
    8:39 pm

  58. @ Craig

    So tremendously put sir. How do I press the all time like button for a comment?

  59. Richard Moss
    9 Nov 12
    10:10 am

  60. I don’t know who makes these rules, I am left to ponder some tribunal of anonymous persons. I imagine a long table in a room several stories up, with one wall entirely in glass; here sits the tribunal, made up of conservative men and women in grey suits, skirts and jackets for the ladies, making new rules for the safety of mankind.

    When I have an opinion, I voice it, or I write it on lists like this one. I don’t get upset if anyone disagrees with me, though I like it when others agree and add their thoughts and feelings. I feel this, therefore I will add my name to it. I like liberty, not control.

    I like anonymity, because it allows one to praise another without looking like a sycophant, to make a political statement without signalling that I support one party or another, or to support a philosophy, without indicating that I perhaps live by such a belief.

    We are social creatures, we like to read or listen to opinion, compare it with our own, and to have the right to reply or agree/disagree. The world will never be clear of dick heads, and why should we be? they are a part of the great general melting pot of humankind.

    Thank the lord that there is nothing wrong with you and me eh?

  61. Tony Simms
    9 Nov 12
    11:46 am

  62. I respect peoples right to post a comment anonymously.
    It is perfectly OK but I do wonder about those who unleash
    acidic sprays and personal attacks on individuals hiding
    behind the veil of anonymity.

    These comments often feel like shots from the cheap seats
    and appear somewhat childish and overtly cruel.

    Perhaps at the time of posting such comments it may be wise
    to consider how you would feel being on the receiving end
    of a venomous attack. Take a deep breath and grab hold
    of your sense of decency and be constructive rather than
    outwardly destructive.

    Treat others how you would like to be treated yourself.