Thursday, January 13, 2005

Identity, Anonymity, Pseudonymity: A Plea to Humanize the Internet

I've noticed a great divide on the internet among those who use their own names and those who do not. I want to say first that many of my favorite people to read on the 'net are writing pseudonymously. Having said that though, I think it is not helpful in the broad scope of things.

I remember debating a little bit with Seth, now no longer active, on the subject of whether one could rightly consider the people one interacts with in a positive way on the internet as friends. He maintained that friends was not acceptable, preferring the term "buddies". This bothered me a little. I think it is perhaps hard for any of us to define "friends" with any precision, but I certainly think of some people I have met through the 'net as friends, even if in a different sense than some of my more local friends. But it strikes me that the way one perceives this question is going to affect the reality, that is to say, if one perceives internet transactions as "virtual", as anonymous bit of data we might say, then perhaps the result will be a less human interaction. When I interact with someone who uses their own name, I have a stronger sense of dealing with a person, rather than a persona (or avatar, or what have you).

To draw one positive, and personal, example, I have enjoyed greatly interacting with Joel Garver in various ways over the last several years. This has been through email lists, discussion boards, his own blog, comments on my blog (and other mutually read blogs), and via IM. Joel has, especially on his blog, made some effort to root himself in his own space, that is, he writes from time to time about his church, his family, and his city and his workplace. All of this helps me seem him in a more real way, despite the fact that he is a philosopher, dealing in the more ethereal sorts of issues and topics.

The most negative feelings I tend to have are toward those who I only "meet" though comments left on various blogs signed with a pseudonym. I generally think to myself, "gee, this person isn't even willing to put his or her own name to this, and he expects me to respect his point of view." I find myself thinking that often no matter what the content of their expressed opinion is. While I recognize that this is not a very helpful attitude, it is an involuntary one.

To draw an analogy from another field (and my wife's bete noir), I will mention the problem of bad drivers/road rage. I am given to understand that a major underlying cause behind aggressive or rude driving habits is the insularity of the automobile. We tend to perceive others on the road as cars rather than as people. We will say things like, "that blue Honda just cut me off". Often we cannot even see the drivers. If we somehow knew that the blue Honda was driver by a friend or beloved relative, I know that our anger would be greatly reduced and our forgiveness more forthcoming. It is much easier to be angry at a fleeting inanimate object.

In the same way, it is much easier to treat badly on the 'net those we don't know, those we cannot see, those who will not have a direct impact on our lives. Seth, as mentioned above, took the position that this is just part of the fun. We can send our personas out to do battle with each other, recognizing that they are not "us", but more like our battle robots or something. Insofar as we distance ourselves from these battles, we don't get hurt. My preference is to go entirely the other way. To recognize that the internet is a means of communicating with real people, that people can be hurt by what they read, that we should all be quick to apologize and seek forgiveness for wrongs done "in here", and that we should be willing to be seen as human.

I think this will get too long for dealing with the topic or the risks associated with openness on the 'net, so I'll leave that unsaid for now. Will be happy to continue this at a later time.

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