Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Pseudonymous Politics

Danah Boyd muses about the abolition of walled gardens, taking more searchability as a thread to weave together contextuality and identity - in other words, perhaps we need walls to define context, to define identity. But more transparency (mostly through searching, but also - I would add - through stronger network externality effects*) seem to be the way the net is going.

I think this has important and interesting implications for on-line discussion, as it provides a nice basis for thinking about what identity means within political debate, and how it could be handled on-line. For example, my local issues forum has a "real name" policy - one assumes that by using a "real" name, not only are people are more likely to consider what they say more carefully, but also that the link to off-line deliberation is "preserved" to a greater extent.

But now compare this to other forums. In my experience, isolated identity can also prove to be a strength - of the community, and therefore also of the discussion. Despite - or through - a foundation of anonymity (though certainly not mandatory), the cypherpunks mailing list flourished in terms of arguments, to an extent that I would hope many practitioners of politics would be proud of. Perhaps the technical nature of the crowd acts as a counterbalance to some issues that arose (e.g. from the use of killfiles to discussion of the plausibility of content analysis to gauge identity), but the point remains - arguments do not depend utterly on knowing someone's "true" identity.

Naturally, if we reconstruct democracy in some selected image (rather than merely growing it and seeing what emerges), then issues of identity over "legitimacy of participation" arise. A forum on the Internet is inherently global, so how do I make sure that only local people can participate? True identities are one way to help encourage this. But no workable solution will be foolproof, nor need be. The question then, the decision to be made, is over whether pseudonyms help or hinder discussion. And, perhaps more vitaly, what the aims of the discussion are (which may not necessarily be simply to arrive at a decision).

I'd like to see some research into this - say, comparisons between deliberative groups that were pseudonymous and groups that weren't. There might be some out there, but I haven't come across it. Perhaps some hypothesising/observations might help air some thoughts:

  • Pseudonyms have a reputation of their own. People like pseudonyms as this reputation is separate to any previous/alternatives (perhaps a "local reputation"). The upside of this is that people are more likely to focus on arguments than on personal attacks. The downside, of course, is that there is less come back, so people may be encouraged to lie, etc. However, both of these are initial concerns in the evolution of a group - assuming that all pseudonyms within a group are new. How the group grows will affect how newcomers are reacted to (which will probably depend on a further mix of local reputations, and argument). In this sense (an important one, I feel), the group is more likely to see the ongoing discussion in an objective manner.

  • People may feel more attached to their pseudonymical identity, as it is their "creation". Thus, just as people invest time and money in building up a character within a game (such as World of Warcraft), they may also invest time in building up their newfound identity.

  • Anonymity within discussion may help people to "come out of the woodwork" if they feel it is unattached to the rest of their life. While there may be some effect on what people say, I would expect that only a minority of people actually go out of their way to be troublesome. This would probably be easily countered by the number of people who would feel encouraged to say things they wouldn't normally say under their true name.

Just a handful for now, to raise the question - there are certainly huge issues over legal accountability, technical surveillance, etc tat go alongside. Certainly, the target audience is a huge consideration. Hopefully in a follow-up post (and to get back on topic...), I'll have some thoughts over what this area of nymity means for a political sphere in which groups are often the most persuasive forces, and where one person may participate in many groups.

* As we become more and more connected, do we increasingly flock to less sites in greater numbers?

1 comment:

Luke Razzell said...

Interesting post. It sounds to me like you could make a great contribution to the Open Space event Identity Society is holding in the BT Tower on the 19th of this month. We have lots of techies, but we're keen to bring in sociological, ethical and political angles too.

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