The Scourge of Online Anonymity

by lizard

There is a long, rich literary history of writers using pseudonyms. This Economist article describes three reasons writers have chosen to writer under an assumed name:

Many people write under an assumed name. Indeed all the columnists for The Economist—Bagehot, Lexington, Schumpeter and the like—write under inherited pseudonyms. For novelists this practice has long been widespread. In the 19th century Mary Ann Evans took on the name George Eliot in order to separate her novels, such as “Adam Bede” and “Middlemarch”, from flowery female-novelist stereotypes. In America around the same time Samuel Langhorne Clemens published fiction under the name Mark Twain (pictured above, with Eliot and Ms Rowling). Novelists who want to write crime fiction on the side have long masked their identities. John Banville, an Irish novelist who won the Man Booker prize in 2005, writes crime novels as Benjamin Black. Julian Barnes, another Man Booker-winning author, writes thrillers as Dan Kavanagh. And crime writers themselves may also take on different personas. When Agatha Christie, one of the masters of the dagger-and-cyanide genre, wanted to write romantic fiction, she did so as Mary Westmacott. Patricia Highsmith, the author of “The Talented Mr Ripley”, a gruesome thriller of swapped identities, published “The Price of Salt”, a lesbian romance, under the name Claire Morgan.

Three main reasons spurred these writers to take the name of someone else. A pseudonym gives them the liberty to write things they might not otherwise feel able to. It gives them an opportunity to be taken seriously, something especially important to female authors in a world of Victorian male critics, or to dabble in a genre that, despite the work of great crime writers like Raymond Chandler, is still not really considered to be proper literature. Most of all, a pen-name distances established authors from their previous work.

Anonymity online, specifically the anonymous comments on articles and blog posts, is a different creature, and I can understand why Don Pogreba would gravitate toward the conclusion that “…anonymity is an overall negative for online discourse” in a post titled The Psychology of Online Comments.

But if you read the whole post, it turns out that it’s not necessarily anonymity that Don has a problem with, but the cumulative negative tone anonymous commenters contribute to, something to do with a phenomenon called the disinhibition effect. After a quote, Don then says this:

While I have considered moving to the Facebook platform to make comments more likely to be associated with real identities, the most important issue seems to be one of climate, not one of anonymity or individual rude behavior. If the climate of the comments section is hostile, it will encourage more hostile comments—and I am simply tired of dealing with them. I’m also tired of getting drawn into fights that are a profound waste of my time—and embarrassing to be involved in.

It will be interesting to see how Don goes about changing the climate of his comment threads. Already two comments from Mark Tokarski have been removed, but perennial insult artist, Larry Kralj, who referred to John Walsh as a Nazi in this comment thread, still gets free reign.

I addressed Larry Kralj’s ravings at the Cowgirl in this post back in July, and it’s pretty entertaining to reread Don’s comments in that comment thread. Actually, the whole comment thread is worth reading.

I write as “lizard” and publish poems as “William Skink” because it gives me the liberty to write about stuff I wouldn’t necessarily write otherwise, topics like conspiracy culture and illegal drug use. I do take Don’s point that with anonymity comes a greater degree of responsibility, and that’s something I’m going to do my best to remember.

I’m also going to remember that criticizing those in power comes with risks, as one of my fellow contributors can attest to. People in power don’t like being held accountable for their actions, which means, for some people, anonymity provides protection against retribution.

Anyway, thank you to everyone who continues reading this little Montana blog. Without readers, the time I dedicate to keeping this space current and, I would hope, interesting, would be a waste.

  1. larry kurtz


  2. NamelessRange

    I think that ideally, for a comment to maximize its utility, it will not be posted anonymously. I think on the background evidence when a comment is anonymously posted, there is a higher prior probability that that comment should not be taken seriously. That probability though, can be overcome by content.
    I also think there’s a difference between publishing work like a blog or poem anonymously, and commenting on an article anonymously.
    There are legitimate reasons to blog or comment anonymously. When I started in the Montana Internet World I thought I wanted to write about philosophy of religion. We live in a country where adhering to certain beliefs can draw insanely disproportionate negative reactions. I always refer to the poll that showed atheists being viewed in a more negative light than rapists in America, though now outdated. If asked I don’t lie, But I also don’t advertise. There is a difference. Putting something in writing on the Internet is eternal advertisement that I don’t want to affect my career or family. And this is just one example of many possible ones, where the consequences of blogging or commenting under your real name, can be too great on the back end of the cost-benefit analysis.
    Pragmatism isn’t cowardice in this instance. It is simply one of those instances where consequences matter more than certain individual values. Namely, the integrity of any individual given comment.
    That’s not to say there isnt some sort of bias or struggle going on in the minds of people commenting anonymously, and anonymous commenters should strive to only write things that they Feel are in line with their true identities and beliefs.

  3. I write SEO for people and they’d be shocked to learn people are leaving anonymous comments. Where’s the backlink love in that?

    I’ve got 6 ‘romance’ novels out under a pen name myself, so I understand the reason for anonymity, but if people already knew my name was associated with those books, what would be the point?

    If you think some of the comments here are hostile, try hanging out in some of the self-publishing forums. Go to Goodreads and see what they say over there if you write a bad review of the wrong book. This is civilized in comparison.

  4. Pogo Possum

    I left these comments comments over at Intelligent Discontent and thought it worth repeating here for those who are opposed to all anonymous posts. I agree that anonymity is often abused, but there is a call for it at times.

    My experience following a number of blogs is that the frequency and degree of moderation/censoring of comments often tends to be directly proportional to the degree the commenter disagrees with the political views and statements of the moderator. Uncivil commenters (even those prone to childish name calling) tend to be tolerated much more if they do so while defending the moderator and trashing anyone daring to raise a counterpoint.

    One of my old law professors had a fondness for quoting Justice Black. It is worth considering for anyone thinking of accross the board banishment of anonymous comments.

    “Anonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures and even books
    have played an important role in the progress of mankind.
    Persecuted groups and sects from time to time throughout
    history have been able to criticize the oppressive practices
    and laws either anonymously or not at all… It is plain
    that anonymity has sometimes been assumed for the most
    constructive purposes.”
    Justice Hugo L. Black

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