Identity, Anonymity, Pseudonymity

I spoke recently at eSymposium 2012 in Sudbury about digital citizenship, referencing Ribble’s work at digitalcitizenship.net. I had some lovely notes for myself, but I set up an extended desktop and couldn’t see those notes very well. As a result, I neglected this line:

Identity vs. Anonymity vs. Pseudonymity

In the context of teaching students to be good online citizens, I think it’s important to consider the different roles they might choose to take on. Doug Peterson’s tweet this morning reminded me that this is something I wanted to talk a little more about.

Identity

Students (and teachers) have been developing online identities for a long time. I find it helpful to be “the real me” for my professional conversations, since people can find me and find what I’ve said. I’m also use my real identity on Facebook, Flickr, and most other sites I use. This works for me (or has worked for me so far…). Unfortunately, for many people their online identities are not as polished and shiny as their owners might wish. Making a wrong move online can be disastrous and permanent. One solution is to teach kids not to say/do/post things that might not look good later. This is okay, but it has a chilling effect on discourse. That’s why people move to anonymity.

Anonymity

If you need to say something without fear of reprisal, anonymity is one way to go. There is a sense of freedom in anonymity that people want to experience and explore. You can make a political statement, or say something your employer wouldn’t approve of, or participate in countless other legitimate activities. As you can imagine though, sometimes this leads people to behave badly: you could also promote hatred, or incite a riot, or spam others. This is why many sites prohibit submissions from anonymous users.

Pseudonymity

For many purposes, something in between would be better. What if you have a public identity but you want to participate in an online community that might seem “unusual” for someone in your position? For example, teachers are held to a high moral standard in our code of ethics; some activities which are “normal” for most people are unacceptable in the public’s eyes for teachers.

This is where pseudonymity can help. It allows you to have a persistent identity (that you can develop and maintain over time) that is separate from your “true” or public identity. This persistence is what distinguishes a pseudonymity from anonymity.

This isn’t a new concept. Authors have been doing this for a long time with pen names. Often the names and pseudonyms are connected later; sometimes they are not. Consider Hugh Laurie (successful actor): he wanted to have a book published on its own merits (not because of his fame). He submitted it to publishers under a pseudonym until it was accepted, and only then revealed his identity.

What should we tell students to do?

For students, it’ll be important that they understand the choices, and soon. Once they’ve used their real identity in a way that might be “used against” them later, damage has been done.

But I want them to explore. I want them to engage in conversation that isn’t strictly mainstream; I want them to test their boundaries. I just want them to do so responsibly, with consideration of the effects of their explorations on others and on themselves. The greatest danger to themselves under pseudonyms is the possibility that their various identities might be connected; anyone who is aware of the connections could compromise the true identities in public.

There isn’t a single correct role to take online; they all have value in different situations. I find the idea of identity providers very interesting (Twitter, Google and Facebook partly act in this way as authenticators for other sites). I’m interested to see how this develops in the next few years. If you’re interested in hearing more, Steve Gibson (@SGgrc) and Leo Laporte (@leolaporte) had a fascinating talk about it on Security Now! episode 307 on June 30, 2012 (transcript, etc. at grc.com/sn; other media at twit.tv).

It’s probably just as well I skipped that line of my notes. I don’t think I could have squeezed it into a twenty minute talk.

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