In a comment on my last post, Larry Moran takes issue with my defense of pseudonymity:
But Larry, other than my say-so (and that of those with whom I've cultivated online ties), how do you know "Janet D. Stemwedel" is really my "real" (by which I assume you mean "legal") name? You didn't peek at my driver's license, so maybe the government here knows me my some other name.
That's not a very good argument from someone who specializes in ethics! 🙂
The issue is whether I prefer dealing with people who identify themselves or with people who use fake names to disguise their real identity. What you're saying is that there will always be unethical people who will get around any rules designed to avoid false identities, therefore we shouldn't even try to enforce a policy requiring real names.
I doubt very much that you use an argument like that when you discuss other issues like plagiarism, or preparing a CV. Let's drop that argument, okay? We all know that there will be unethical people who will lie and cheat to get around any rules. That's not an argument against having rules.
The issue before us is whether we want to live in an internet society where people identify themselves and stand behind what they say and do, just as they do in the real face-to-face world, or whether we want an internet society with different rules. I try to teach my students that it is important to take a stand on certain issues but they have to be prepared to suffer the consequences (both good and bad).
Larry is right that the part of my comment he's quoted isn't a very good argument. Indeed, I meant it mostly as a suggestion that Larry's comfort dealing with me as a person-attached-to-her-real-name is based on a certain amount of trust that I really am properly attached to that legal name (since Larry has yet to demand to see my papers).
Neither, of course, would I want to say that the existence of people who get around a rule is a good reason to abandon the rule or attempts to enforce it. Instead, my support for the rule would turn on what the rule was meant to accomplish, what it actually accomplished, and whether the intended and/or actual effects were worth pursuing.*
However, Larry seems also to be suggesting that something stronger than his own personal preference against the use of pseudonyms.
As I read what he's written, it seems like he's suggesting that there's something inherently unethical about using a pseudonym -- that being pseudonymous online is somewhere on a spectrum of deeds that includes plagiarism and C.V.-padding. Let the record reflect that I'm not convinced this is actually what Larry is saying. But given that it might be read that way, I want to examine the suggestion.
Is pseudonymity always deceptive?
At the heart of the matter, I think we need to look at the question of how pseudonyms are used.
The suggestion in Larry's comment is that a pseudonym is a fake name intended to disguise one's identity. However, it strikes me that "disguise" might be a loaded term, one that has an additional connotation of "mislead" here.
Misleading is a variety of lying, and I'm happy to grant that lying is generally unethical (although, unlike Kant, I'm prepared to accept the possibility of a case where lying is less unethical than the existing alternatives).
But, my sense from the pseudonymous people I have encountered online (and from my own brief experience as a pseudonymous blogger) is that not all people using pseudonyms are aiming to deceive. Instead, I think it's more accurate to say that they are choosing how much of their personal information to disclose.
And, I'm inclined to think that non-disclosure of personal information is only unethical in specific instances. I don't think we have a positive right to total information about everyone with whom we engage.
Indeed, I don't think we actually want total information about all of our contacts, whether online or in real life. My students have no interest in the current state of my digestive health, nor in what's in my record collection (let alone what a "record" is). My children have no need to know whether the user interface for grade entry at my university is well-designed or clunky. Readers of my blog probably care less about my opinion of baseball teams than about my opinions on recent news stories about scientific misconduct.
Even being on the receiving end of an accidental overshare can feel like a violation of a relationship, as I had occasion to note a few years ago:
There was an academic blog I used to read that I enjoyed quite a lot. I had to stop, though, when it became apparent that the (anonymous) blogger was married to someone that I knew. (What clinched it was a post about a social occasion that I attended.) To keep reading the blog would have felt, to me, like a violation of the blogger's trust -- from real life, I knew certain details about the blogger that had not been revealed to the blog's readers, and from the blog, I knew certain details about the blogger's life that had not been revealed to the blogger's real-life friends and acquaintances. Caring about the blogger (and the real-life person) meant I had to respect the walls of separation the blogger had erected.
We are always making judgments about what pieces of our experiences and ourselves it's relevant to share. And we make those judgments differently depending on with whom we're interacting, in what kind of context, how that will affect our comfort level (and theirs), and what kinds of consequences (deserved or undeserved) sharing what we share may bring.
I'm happy to be accountable for my views on research with animals, for example, but voicing them publicly can make me (and my family members) targets of people who think it's OK to use threats of violence to silence me. I can fully understand why people actually conducting research with animals might not want to attach their real names (which are attached to addresses and phone numbers and license plate numbers of cars under which someone might put incendiary devices) to their candid views online -- and, I think that our public conversation about research with animals would be greatly impoverished without their participation in it.
Courage, as Aristotle would remind us, is the right balance of confidence and fear for the circumstances at hand. Too little confidence makes us cowardly, but too little fear makes us foolhardy.
I should also note that many of the notable users of pseudonyms in the blogosphere choose pseudonyms that are extremely unlikely to be mistaken for legal names -- which is to say, in withholding certain personal details they are not also trying to deceive others into believing that their "real" names in the three-dimensional world are "SciCurious" or "GrrlScientist" or "DrugMonkey" or "Prof-like Substance". That's not to say that such a clear 'nym can't be intentionally deceptive -- for example, if GrrlScientist were male, or if PhysioProf were a certified public accountant, or if SciCurious had not a whit of curiosity about matters scientific. But either way, you'd have no expectations that a Social Security search on the surname Curious would help you locate Sci.
Perhaps ironically, it is the people with obviously assumed names like these, not people with "real-looking"** assumed names that might actually fool others into thinking they're real, who have had their access to Google+ accounts revoked.
I won't claim that no one uses an assumed name to mislead -- obviously, there are people who do so. But this doesn't make it the case that everyone using a 'nym is using it to deceive. Indeed, pseudonymity can create conditions in which people disclose more honest information about themselves, where people share opinions or experiences that they could not comfortably (or safely) share using their real names.
I understand that not everyone is comfortable dealing with online persons who could, in an instant, dismantle their pseudonymous online identities and vanish. Especially if you've dealt with troll-y exemplars of pseudonymity, your patience for this may be limited. That's fine. I'm happy to live in a world where people get to choose with whom they engage in their own online spaces, as well as which online spaces maintained by others they will frequent.
Indeed, I even noted that Google is free to make its own rules for Google+. That Google establishes a real-name rule for Google+ doesn't raise it to the level of a moral precept ("Thou shalt use only thy full legal name"). If the rule is clearly explain in the Terms of Service, it probably imposes an obligation on the person who agrees to the ToS to follow the rule ... but it probably also imposes an obligation on Google to enforce the rule consistently (which so far it has not).
And, Google setting its own rules does not preclude our discussing whether these are reasonable rules, ones with well thought out aims that have a reasonable chance of achieving those aims or some close approximation of them.
I think Larry is right that the names policy (and/or who will want to sign up for Google+) is going to come down to people's comfort levels. Opting for one set of rules may make some groups of potential users very comfortable and others so uncomfortable that it effectively bars their participation. Google needs to think about it in those terms -- who do they want in, and who are they happy to cede to their competition.
Right now, to me, Google+ feels a little like a country club to which I was admitted before I knew what kind of people the membership rules were going to exclude (because they're "not our kind, dear"). Personally, this particular sort of "exclusivity" makes me less comfortable, not more. Depending on Google's next move, I may be removing myself from the spiffy new clubhouse and spending a lot more time on the internet's public beaches.
*Of course, I don't need to tell you that rules are not always completely congruent with what's ethical. There are plenty of rules that are unjust, loads of rules that we use to encode our ethical commitments, and a plethora of rules that seem to have no ethical content to speak of. (How would a utilitarian, a Kantian, and a virtue ethicist come down on "No white shoes after Labor Day"?)
**Naturally, which names look "real" and which look "made-up" is tied up in lots of cultural assumptions.