Saturday, September 1, 2012

Thoughts on Anonymity

Below is something I posted over at the Coursera discussion board. I've always allowed anonymous comments on my blog posts and never had a problem with it, but then there usually are not that many comments on a blog post - I've never gotten confused about which anonymous is which, and I have never encountered the same kind of mean-spiritedness that motivates a lot of anonymous posters over at Coursera. So, I started the discussion below (which will no doubt get ugly) because I am sincerely curious if there are anonymous posters who would be satisfied with a pseudonym, or whether they are committed to anonymous - and I also really was struck by the notion of "invisibility" as explored so darkly by Wells as it applies to the anonymous world, esp. the anonymous culture at Coursera, at least in our course.

Meanwhile, by cutting and pasting into the blog post here, I learned that in the HTML code for the discussion forums, there is a student ID for every post... so the anonymous users do, in fact, have a hidden pseudonym, a numerical code that is visible to everyone in the raw HTML. Intriguing. I guess now if I really want to know how many anonymi are cluttering up a discussion, I can look at the HTML and count the number of student IDs for the anonymi!

Anyway, I'm no fan of a real-names policy like they have at Google+ (pseudonyms are fine with me), but I have developed a strong distaste for anonymous posting as a result of the Coursera experience. If anything of note happens at the discussion, I'll report back here.

One of the most striking moments for me in reading the Invisible Man was when Griffin realized that his sense of untrammeled freedom, his high hopes at being invisible - "plans of all the wild and wonderful things I had now impunity to do" as he said - were simply an illusion. Instead of being free to do whatever he wanted, moving invisibly among his fellow men, he found out that the experience was nightmarish in the extreme, rendering him unable to do anything really… except to commit murder: "This invisibility, in fact, is only good in two cases: It's useful in getting away, it's useful in approaching. It's particularly useful, therefore, in killing. I can walk round a man, whatever weapon he has, choose my point, strike as I like. Dodge as I like. Escape as I like."

So, just to propose what we could call a kind of digital allegory:

The Invisible Man is like the anonymous poster, someone who wants to be part of things but to remain invisible at the same time - invisible, unaccountable, slipping away at a moment's notice, causing confusion or worse.

The Invisible Man wrapped in his costume is like a pseudonymous poster - someone who has put on the external trappings of an identity in order to be able to participate in human society and conversation.

I know there are some people here who are devoted anonymous posters. I know there are some people here using pseudonyms. Just speaking for myself, I think pseudonyms are fine - a very logical solution to the problem posed by anonymity. But as for anonymity, the more time I spend here at the discussion boards, the more I think anonymous posting is just a bad idea.

I know others disagree - and this has been discussed in other threads. I'm just bringing it up now in light of what struck me as an intriguing parallel with the dilemma that the Invisible Man found himself in. Until reading the Invisible Man, I had not realized the possible downsides of invisibility. Until participating in the discussion boards here, I had not realized the possible downsides of anonymity online either.

For those of you who post sometimes/always as anonymous, would you find the use of a pseudonym a barrier to posting? Or would that meet your needs...?


  1. I think pseudonyms are best, personally...but I know there are anonymous posters on the Coursera site who don't agree. :) Personally, I am not so VERY concerned about using my real name, because I realize that there are many people with my name in the world. I'm sure people COULD stalk me if they really wanted to, but I don't see myself as that intriguing, I guess.

    I think the people who don't want to use pseudonyms have become very defensive about it. The fact that they're so defensive says something about the the reason why they're anonymous, if you ask me.

  2. I'm just baffled by trying to carry on a conversation with multiple anonymous people at the same time. Over at the thread where I made the mistake of publicly advocating for non-essay writing, I was being attacked by a bunch of anonymi, could not tell one thread of the conversation from another and finally gave up. I'm also on the verge of just giving up on the discussion boards entirely. Normally that would be the most interesting part of the class for me (esp. since the peer review is all anonymous)... but man, it's just not a very nice place to hang out much of the time. Are people really that rude in person? Ha, maybe they are!

  3. Some commenters do have valid reason to maintain anonymity. Blogging for adjuncts and following Global Voices Online Advocacy are examples. As far as I can none of the Coursera anonymi have either category compelling reason. Some of the international students could have valid reasons to go anon but I doubt they are the trolls.

    Managing multiple blogs, the confusion of multiple anonymi drives me nuts too.

    I almost always post and comment everywhere as myself (keeping track of one identity is almost too much for me at times. If not as myself, then under a pseudonym. If blogs can manage that on comments then Coursera can figure something out too.

  4. I've been a victim of online harassment (way before there was such a thing as cyber-bullying recognized in the real world), stalking (friends called at their jobs and threatened because the person could not find my personal information online), and had my writing taken from me, plagiarized, and even had some of my blog posts used to attack my children and my now husband but then boyfriend.

    I don't allow anonymity on my journal for all of these reasons. I also have a very hard time being online at all for all of those reasons. And I loathe that coursera allows anonymous posting on the forums. I feel that if you can't stand behind what you want to say then you have nothing to say that I want to hear. And it's obvious what happens when people can hide behind being anonymous. They say hateful things and, as I've said before, many times what they say would not be tolerated in any other educational environment.

    Pseudonyms I think are not only perfectly fine but ought to be allowed for those of us who signed up with our real names but would rather not have it all out there. I realize that I carry an inordinate amount of incredibly negative past experience but I don't think I've become overly paranoid about these things. Paranoid, yes. Just not overly so.

  5. Satia, I am so sorry you had a really bad experience - I've heard from students also who have had bad experiences, too, and it's been very educational for me. I use my real name without any hesitation, but I also don't do anything personal online at all, just stuff related to work and school, so I even feel obligated to use my real name. But if I were doing personal stuff, I would definitely be building my online identify with a pseudonym for that purpose.

    I agree with you that Coursera has done a terrible job at creating an environment where people can feel safe. One of my threads there got a malicious tag yesterday ("onanism") which I decided to delete (not that I really care... although I was sort of curious about whether the mean-spirited person who did the tagging would tag it again after I deleted it). I've seen people add malicious tags to threads like "dontreadthis" or "totalcrap," etc. Again, Coursera just seems oblivious to all of this, which is very discouraging for me to see. I totally understand that there will be mistake, even big ones, as they are getting started, but they do not seem very quick to fix their mistakes and they also seem completely averse to apologizing for them.

  6. When I write anonymously it does not hurt me so much if someone writes a rude comment to my posting.
    I'm easily hurt but I don't take it so personally when my real name isn't attached to the text.

    I personally try not to be too rude (just a little) when posting anonymously but some people's writings seem quite rude even when they write their name at the end of the text (of course there's no way for me to know if that is a real name).

    When I do use a pseudonym I often use a throwaway one - i.e. I always use a different one if the system does not enforce using always the same one.

    On international forums I like to try to hide my nationality just to avoid any assumptions - guess I'm a slightly paranoid personality. You won't find out much about me if you google my name.

    Writing as anonymous is a kind of a protection mechanism but I do try to be a Responsible Anonymous Writer.

    1. A throwaway pseudonym can be used responsibly; unfortunately, though, it is also used by people for malicious reasons, which is what I am seeing at the discussion board. Based on my bad experience with the discussion boards at Coursera, I've decided that the Responsible Anonymous Writer is a small minority in a large group of malicious people... I'd never really participated extensively in an online environment where anonymous was allowed before, and my conclusion is that the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages. The goal of being a responsible anonymous writer is not something that I am seeing there at the discussion boards - instead, I am seeing people who resort again and again to anonymous attacks, while not making themselves available to the same scrutiny since I have no idea what the overall tenor of their posts is like... while they feel free, of course, to make sweeping dismissals about my posts overall. It's an ugly business. In fact, I'm about to go write a post now about why I am basically not participating in the class anymore.

  7. In such a large environment, I would have preferred to sign up under my real name and then use my usual online alias. Unfortunately Coursera doesn't allow that. I rarely post to the online discussion boards at this point because they are both toxic and pointless. Any real conversation is buried under 4-5 toxic ones.

    1. Agreed! Coursera brought this on themselves by not having anticipated the range of options in advance. There are LOTS of possible solutions; I personally prefer the idea that people could choose to have a persistent pseudonym for a given class if they want, including the option of different pseudonyms from class to class, but persistent within that class. Although they don't really want to answer the question, I'm guessing a lot of the anonymous posters would resist that solution, because it takes away from what they see as the playfulness of being able to get away with all kinds of nonsense that does not attach itself to their identity in the class.



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