Solving the pseudonym problem in social networks

Years ago I had comments on this blog. They're long gone now.

When I first added them (and we're talking nearly 8 years ago), the people and the comments they left were great, but that didn't last long. As anyone who's ever used the Internet has seen, the comments quickly started to fill up with idiots and trolls and the quality went to hell. I reacted the way almost everyone else does, trying to get rid of the bozos, at first I tried filtering, then banning, then I tried various third-party services, etc. etc. but eventually it becomes too much of a burden and I got rid of them.

Whole businesses - Slashdot, Digg, Reddit, Quora - have been built on the premise of trying to figure out what to do about Internet Morons. All the systems work in their own way, but none are ideal. Because no matter how hard you may try, as soon as you allow people to use a pseudonym, well, they lose their fucking minds. It's a fact. The most vicious, nasty, horrible comments, web posts, etc. are the anonymous ones written by people hiding behind nicknames like FuckYouAsshole or OogaBooga who just 13 minutes before I checked just now, wrote "F**kyou SPOOK-MONKEY. Go back to Kenya" in the comments of a Yahoo! News article about President Obama.

The more guarantee of anonymity, the more subhuman people become.

Pseudonyms are simply long-lived anonymity. This is why sites like Facebook and Google are trying to get rid of them. From the angle of someone who had to deal with the assholes of the internet before, I can totally see the logic behind this.

But wait, that's bad, right? Pseudonyms have had a long and glorious history of being used for righteous causes. Mark Twain, Voltaire, Ann Landers, Lewis Carroll, Publius, Silence Dogood, Wonkette, George Orwell, Belle Dujour, Dr. Seuss! Can you imagine life without these names Obviously, there's value there and something that should be protected as a continual and irrepressible part of the human experience. The idea that any service would want to limit pseudonyms, let alone be able to fight against the tide of history behind them, is ludicrous.

So what's the solution? How do you balance the fuckwad nature of anonymous Internet trolls with the higher ideals of famous pseudonyms or the simple desire of some people to retain a level of online privacy (however deluded they might be about this). Well, to me, it's pretty obvious.

Simply let people mark their names as pseudonyms.

That's it. A simple checkbox. "Is this your real name? Yes/No" I'm not sure if anyone else has suggested this since I've basically ignored the ongoing debate about it (both sides seem to get pretty lathered up talking about it), but the solution is a balance between the extremes that is sure to please no one, which is why it's great. Choose any name, nickname, handle, nom-du-plume, user ID, that you want, but if it's not your real name, you gotta say so. Pretty simple.

I don't care what that name is. Don't think I'm like one of those nutty Catholic countries that have a list of legal first names you can choose from. If it's your honest-to-goodness name, what your Boss and your Mom call you, then could be Chunky McMixalot for all I care. If that's your name, that's your name. If you've changed it. I also don't care, as long as I can have a lawyer send a subpoena to your house if you kill my dog, I'm good.

Now, if you want to use a pseudonym, that's fine too, but you gotta tell the rest of us. We all want to see a flag next to your name, or a star, or something that says essentially, "this person wishes to engage in public dialogue and relationships online, yet not endanger their personal reputation or legal standing in any way, therefore their words and actions must be judged by their quality alone."

This is what a name like Silence Dogood, Publius and maybe even Mark Twain signal to the people reading their words in the past. A bright, blatant signal of anonymity and distrust. You want pure anonymity? You can't have it, because a lot of other bozos on the Internet spoiled it for the rest of us. That doesn't mean I need to know who you are either. I want to be able to add you as to my friend list, but also block you if you're a jerk. I also *don't care* if you don't want your Boss and your Mom to know you're into weekend-long S&M leather parties. I don't have to worry much about my dog, because if I see you're anonymous, I probably won't give you my address in the first place, and I'm definitely not buying stock based on tips I read from you either (unless of course, you've shown a good skill for that before).

It seems a pretty good balance to me. The privacy nuts can bitch and moan, but hey we live in the real world. Deal with it. But hey, if you're a website and want crazy fascist-like guarantees that every user name is actually what a birth certificate says so you can sell our underwear size to your advertisers? Well, that ain't happening either. Nobody happy? Perfect!

Seems pretty simple to me.


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