What’s in a Nym? Gender, Race, Pseudonymity, and the Imagining of the Online Persona

Ellen Moll


The Internet has long been a venue for individuals to craft their online personas on their own terms, and many have embraced the opportunity to take on a persona that is not associated with a legally recognised name. The rise of social networking has continued to spur proliferation of online personas, but often in ways that intensify corporate mediation of these personas. Debates about online pseudonymity exemplify these tensions, especially when social media corporations attempt to implement “real name policies” that require users to use one, legally recognised name in their online interactions. These debates, however, have broader stakes: they are negotiations over who has the right to control the individual presentation of self, and thus part of a larger conversation about information control and the future of Internet culture.

While there was some coverage of these debates in traditional news media, blogs were a key site for examining how real name policies affect oppressed or marginalised groups. To explore these issues, this essay analyses the rhetoric of feminist and anti-racist blog posts that argue for protecting online pseudonymity practices. In general, these sites construct pseudonymity as a technology of resistance and as a vital tool in ensuring that the Internet remains (or becomes) a democratising force. The essay will first provide an overview of the issue and of blog posts about real name policies and gender and/or race, which were selected by the depth and interest of their commentary, and found by search engine or Twitter hashtag using search terms such as “pseudonymity” and “real name policy.” The essay will then explore how these blog posts theorise how real name policies contribute to the broader move toward a surveillance society. Through these arguments, these bloggers reveal that various online communities have vastly different ways of understanding what it means to construct an online persona, and that these varied understandings in turn shape how communities inscribe value (or danger) in pseudonymous Internet practices. 

Feminist and Anti-Racist Blogger Responses to Real Name Policies 

While online pseudonymity has long been hotly debated, the conversation intensified following moves by Google-plus to implement “real name policies” in July 2011. Officially these real name policies were intended to improve the experience of users by making it easy to be found online and ensuring that online conversations remained civil. Critics of real name policies often object to the term “real name” and its implication that a pseudonym is a “fake” name. Moreover, proponents of pseudonymity tend to distinguish between pseudonymity and anonymity; a pseudonym is a public persona with relationships, a reputation to uphold, and often years of use. A pseudonym is thus not a way of escaping the responsibilities of having one’s online actions associated with one’s public persona—it is quite the opposite. Nevertheless, defenders of pseudonymity generally argue that both pseudonymity and anonymity must be permitted.

Supporters argue that real name policies will enhance the experience of users, and particularly that they will help stop the widespread incivility of many internet comments, on the presumption that using one’s real name will ensure accountability for one’s behavior online. On the other side, many bloggers have argued that the use of real names will not solve these problems and will instead be a threat to the safety and privacy of users, as well as stymieing debate about important or controversial issues. Moreover, many of these bloggers theorise about gender, politics, technology, and identity in ways that resonate well with broader feminist and critical race theory, as well as current conversations about technology and surveillance society.

Feminist and other defenses of pseudonymity have used a variety of tactics. One has been to portray pseudonymity as a standard part of Internet culture, and legal names or “wallet names” as an arbitrary way of governing production of public personas. Underlying this framing of pseudonymity as a fundamental part of Internet culture is a long tradition of defining the Internet as a free, open, and democratic space. Internet enthusiasts have long described and prescribed an Internet in which anyone is free to explore and exchange ideas without the ordinary limits imposed by the flesh world, arguing that the Internet encourages more open debate, decentralises networks of knowledge, allows users to try on new identities, and challenges the rigidity of categories and hierarchies that shape knowledge and conversations in the non-virtual world (Rheingold, Plant). Traditionally, pseudonymity and anonymity have been key ways for users to pursue these ends. Thus, the ability to create one or more online personas has, in this conversation, a direct relationship to questions of democracy and about whose practices count as legitimate or valuable in the online world. Additionally, many feminist bloggers frame real name policies as an attempt at corporate control; these policies thus are symbolic to some bloggers of the shift from what they imagine was once a free and open Internet to a corporate-controlled, highly commercialised realm. s.e. smith, for example, writes that “This is what the nymwars are about; a collision between capitalism and the rest of us, where identities are bargaining chips and tools,” with “nym” being the term for the name and persona that one employs online (“The Google+ Nymwars”). Pseudonymity is thus understood by these bloggers as a necessary practice in a democratic Internet, in which one has the right to define one’s own persona online, rather than allowing one’s persona to be defined by a corporation.

This framing of pseudonymity as a normalised and valuable part of Internet communication also seems to be an attempt to pre-empt the question of why someone needs a pseudonym if they are not doing anything wrong, but many of the arguments in favor of pseudonyms in fact address this question directly by producing long lists, such as those at geekfeminism and techdirt. In particular, feminist and anti-racist arguments for protecting pseudonymity emphasise that this practice is especially important for women and other marginalised groups, especially since using a real name may expose them to harassment, discrimination, or social consequences. Women who discuss feminism, for example, are sometimes subject to death and rape threats (Hess; Sarkeesian; s.e. smith “On Blogging, Threats, and Silence”). While many feminist bloggers choose to use their real names anyway, most still suggest that pseudonymity must remain a choice anywhere where one seeks to have conversations about issues of import. Moreover, these arguments are a reversal of the claim that real name requirements will stop harassment—while real name policies are purportedly instated to protect the safety of online conversations, many bloggers, pseudonymous and otherwise, suggest that real name policies make women and minorities of all kinds less safe, both online and off-line, and have other negative effects on these groups as well. For instance, Elusis writes that:

For minorities, often their name and reputation doesn’t just affect them, it affects their family, and it affects other members of their minority group. Stories of not just outing but of harassment, abuse, and death threats that escalated to the point of being taken seriously by law enforcement (which takes rather a lot). […] Men who get in arguments with other people online don’t get threatened with rape on a regular basis. Unsurprisingly, trans people get abused in this way too. People of color get driven from online spaces** for daring to speak out. (Hyperlinks in original)

Likewise, Sarah Stokely writes:

As a woman who’s written about feminism online and received anonymous hatemail and death threats for doing so, I would like to preserve my right to post under a pseudonym to keep myself safe in the real world and if I choose, so I’m not identified as a woman online in places where it might not be safe to do so. […] I don’t believe that getting rid of anonymity online will stop bad behaviour like the abuse and death threats I’ve received. I do think that getting rid of anonymity and pseudonymity online will make it easier for people like myself to become targets of abuse and potentially put us in danger.

Note that these comments suggest that simply being a woman or member of any kind of minority may make one a target of harassment. Also notice that these comments tend to frame real name policies as an expression of the privileged—real name policies only appear innocuous because of the assumption that the experiences of financially privileged English-speaking white men are universal, and that knowledge of the experiences of marginalised groups is not necessary to design safe and effective policies for consumers of technology. According to feminist blogger critiques of real name policies, it is this privilege that assumes that those using pseudonyms are the “Others” that decent people must be protected from, instead of examining the possibility that those using the pseudonyms might be the ones in danger.

A quotation from Geek Feminism, a site whose lengthy discussions of pseudonymity are often cited by bloggers, further illustrates the centrality of privilege to this debate: the writer notes that a proponents of real name policies has dismissed critique by saying, “Don’t say anything in a comment thread that you wouldn’t say in person,” and Geek Feminism responds, “but that sounds like the voice of someone who’s never received abuse or harassment in person” (“Hacker News and Pseudonymity”). The many bloggers who critique the privilege they find responsible for real name policies suggest that beneath conflicts over pseudonymity and accountability online is not the question of how the online world relates to the flesh world, but instead a fundamental disagreement about the nature of accountability and free expression in the flesh world. In this light, attempts to make the online world mimic the accountabilities and social norms of the offline world operate under the assumption that oppression and abuse are not the norm in the flesh world, and that it is Internet technology and Internet culture that has made conversations uncivil or unsafe, and that these should be converted to be more like the flesh world. In this set of assumptions, the flesh world is characterised by respectful and safe interactions, categories of identity are natural as opposed to something that society imposes on individuals, and the existing ways of holding people accountable for their words and actions is very effective at protecting people. Clearly, however, it takes a degree of privilege to characterise the flesh world this way. Thus, the pseudonymity debate is largely about deeper-seated questions on the nature of identity and power in online and offline settings, while appearing to be about the differences between the real world and the online world.

Other bloggers have also countered the assumption that real name policies make the Internet safer, often by pointing out that sites that have mandated the use of real names still see a great deal of harassment. s.e. smith, for instance, argues, “If Google really cares about safety, it needs strong, effective, and enforceable site policies. It needs to create a culture of safety, because, well, if your website’s full of assholes, it’s your fault. Real names policies don’t work. Good site policies and the cultivation of a culture of mutual respect do” (“The Google+ Nymwars,” hyperlinks in original). Pseudonyms allow users to participate in important debates online while maintaining a public persona that allows for continued conversations and interactions, which is vital for sustained activism. In this light, policies that take away users’ abilities to control or shape their online personas may force users to choose silence for their own safety. Individual control over online personas is thus both a safety issue and a free speech issue; in direct contradiction to claims that real name policies make users safer and more able to participate in civil discussions.

Other pro-pseudonymity bloggers also celebrate the way that a “robust culture of pseudonymity” focuses discussion on ideas rather than the privilege of the speaker, “which, I often think, is why authoritarians and those with authoritarian tendencies hate it” (Paolucci). boyd notes that:

the issue of reputation must be turned on its head when thinking about marginalised people. Folks point to the issue of people using pseudonyms to obscure their identity and, in theory, ‘protect’ their reputation. The assumption baked into this is that the observer is qualified to actually assess someone’s reputation. All too often, and especially with marginalised people, the observer takes someone out of context and judges them inappropriately.

boyd is one of many bloggers who note that if one’s name is coded as white, Anglo, and male, using one’s real name may often enhance one’s credibility and authority, but if one’s name is coded otherwise, a pseudonym may be helpful; again, assuming that the white male experience is universal allows one to assume that using a real name is a harmless request. In general, these bloggers’ tactics all serve to denaturalise the assumption that a real name is the normal, desirable, and traditional mode of presenting one’s persona, and highlight the ways that real name policies claim to reflect universal concerns but primarily reflect wealthy white men’s experiences with online personas.

Information, Power, and Control over Online Personas

Additionally, defenders of pseudonymity associate real name policies with the move to a surveillance society, with particular emphasis on corporate surveillance of consumer behavior, also known as the “personal information economy.” Many feminist blogger discussions of pseudonymity note that while real name policies are purportedly intended for safety and protection, they actually allow corporations to amass huge swaths of data about individuals and to keep nearly all the online activities of one person attached to their name. For example blogger much_a_luck writes that:

This is exactly the source of trying to pin down who users ‘really’ are. The advertising economy is super-creepy to me, everybody trying to make money by telling people about something someone else is doing, as efficiently as possible. Maybe I'm naive, but I feel like the internet's advertising-driven economy, with it’s [sic] ability to track and target activity, has just blown this whole sector completely out of control. (Paolucci)

And indeed the practice of gathering and storing as much information as possible, simply on the chance that an institution might one day use this information, is becoming a more common fear, whether with regard to corporate data mining or recent news stories about privacy and government surveillance. In the larger conversation about surveillance, in fact, it is often the case that while one side argues that information gathering makes everyone safer, an opposition will claim that such measures actually make people vulnerable to abuses of this information. Blogger Space_dinosaur_blue has called real name policies a “security placebo” that claims to stop harassment while actually doing nothing but invading privacy (comment to Paolucci). s.e. smith has argued:

What this is really about, of course, is capitalism. […] For the owners of […] sites like Google+ and Facebook, there’s also a big potential to make a profit through the direct commodification of user identities. […] The standards that Google+ sets revolve around the purchase, sale, and exchange of identity, a multibillion dollar industry worldwide. This is what people should be talking about. (“The Google+ Nymwars”)

Clearly, the pseudonymity debate resonates in many ways with broader discussions of surveillance, corporate and otherwise. First, scholars have often noted that surveillances practices tend to be more harmful to those in marginalised or oppressed groups, and feminist arguments for pseudonymity reinforce this finding. Additionally, many defenders of pseudonymity point out the dissembling found in companies’ claims that real name policies are there to protect the safety of users and create a civil and decent space for people to interact while actually using the data for marketing research purposes. Framing pseudonymity as anti-social, uncivil, and dangerous, assumes a criminality so to speak, or at the very least, an illegitimacy, on the part of pseudonym users. The rhetorical move here is worth noting: implicitly suggesting that a real name is an inherent part of civility and safety is also suggesting that you have an ethical obligation to those who would compile information about you. In other words, the rules of civility demand that you participate in the corporatisation and commodification of your identity and personal information.

Shaping an online persona—or multiple personas—is not an act of creativity or political resistance or freedom; it is assumed to be an act of aggression toward others. We see here a new form of the “good citizenship” argument that characterises the surveillance society. In debates about national security, for instance, acceptance of extensive surveillance of all citizens is framed as a contribution to national security. Here, however, it is not national security but corporate interests that have been inserted as the epitome of the “common good.” In this framework, an anti-corporate approach to personal information appears to be anti-social and even unethical. Commodification of identity is not only the norm but also an obligation of citizenship.

Furthermore, as scholars of surveillance have noted (Gilliom and Monahan for instance), social networking creates an environment in which most individuals are participating in creating a surveillance society simply through the level of documentation they voluntarily provide. Again, more and more, willing participation in surveillance practices—making it easy to be surveilled—is becoming part of one’s civic duty. Thus, the debate over pseudonymity is also a debate about the extent to which corporations can expect compliance to the increasingly normalised demands of a surveillance society. 

And so, for all of these reasons, debates over pseudonymity reveal a host of complex and multi-layered tensions about technology’s influence on the construction of personas, and how these personas are shaped by encroaching forms of surveillance and the marketing of identities. Proponents of pseudonymity use numerous strategies to challenge, subvert, or reconceptualise privileged assumptions about the complex relationships among names, personas, and identities. In doing so, they contribute to an important shift, from the classic question of “What’s in a name?” to “Who wants to know, and why?”


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digital culture; gender; race; ethnicity; privacy; surveillance; feminist theory; identity

Copyright (c) 2014 Ellen Moll

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