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Pseudonymity and the point of no return
A conundrum. As usual. I must warn you this article is a self-contradictory stream of consciousness mess.
I was raised in the era where "don't share your real name online" was a standard rule. Pseudonymity practically paramount. I'm not old enough to have taken part in myspace, but I am old enough to have seen the rise of facebook and twitter.
In traditional web forums of the vBulletin and phpBB kind, and in online video games, it is customary to use a pseudonym and an avatar that is not a photo of yourself. Of course, the word "avatar" by definition means something that represents you but isn't literally you. Nowadays, websites don't ask for an avatar, but rather a "profile picture". They want names and faces, and plenty oblige.
When I say that the rule is "don't share your real name online", I don't just mean "don't connect it to your favorite pseudonym" or "make a separate profile with your real name". I mean don't share it at all. As in, you should always only use a pseudonym and there should be zero search results for your real name. That's difficult to guarantee, because any time you participate in a local club, competition, or event, there's a chance you'll be named in a roster or announcement that goes online. Where did I get this rule, anyway? I don't know. That's just how childhood programming works, I guess.
With a few exceptions, this is how I've lived my online life. It stresses me out when my name is published anywhere, especially linked to a physical place like a city or school, because it violates this rule that I have, thus far without enough question, taken as truth. If that doesn't sound stressful to you, perhaps you could imagine finding naked pictures of yourself shared online. If that still doesn't sound stressful, you must already be very popular.
But isn't it foolish for me to call y2k-era forum pseudonymity "traditional"? This is such an obvious bias on my part. People were posting on Usenet while the Berlin wall was coming down, which I was startled to learn. They wrote under their full names, and some even signed off with a postal address. I hope they don't mind that being copied around all these years later.
Anyway, as far as I can remember, this rule never came with a qualifier like "don't share your real name online until you're an adult" or anything like that. Maybe the rule is only for children and I just haven't grown out of it? Like, I was supposed to realize at some point that I no longer have to follow it? No, I'm sure that pseudonymity isn't just for children, or else doxxing wouldn't be considered such an aggression. I'm not the only one who perceives this rule as being generally applicable, and the use of real names as being a shameful symptom of eternal september:
Internet .1 - Finger protocol - Real Names, everyone pretty much knows each other (or the organization where you work) and is atmosphere is generally very friendly.
Internet .2 - Finger is no longer used, malicious users and hackers exist, social networks become very personal (Usenet, IRC) pseudonyms make sense, not just for privacy but to usher in a new sentiment of power and respect through anonymity. Computer security is very low.
Internet .3 - WWW becomes a thing, people still use pseudonyms and generally don't trust anything for good measure, computer security is very low.
Internet .4 - WWW evolves for the masses/commerce and social networks re-emerge on the web (Myspace, Facebook), people start to use real names everywhere. - A new generation exists that was never on the internet before .4. Computer security is much better.
Internet .5 - Pseudonyms don't become popular again thanks to the general ignorance of the tube watchers.
..not entirely accurate..just my 2C
When I got on the intertubes, oh-so-many years ago - the rules were simple: the ONLY piece of information you could freely give on public forums, or IRC, was your nick. Now, the only piece of information you are supposed to withhold is your credit card number.
I'll say this about the new ways: I'm extremely glad that I didn't have my teenage years documented and archived. Dodged that bullet!
Here I go again quoting HN users for general purpose life advice. Probably not the best idea.
I generally try to approach problems with a long-term perspective. I prefer things that are high-effort, long-lasting, and deliberate. That's one of the reasons I'd rather maintain my own website than play on any company's platform. The word "platform" is used so much these days it makes me sick. They spring up, screw people over for a while, then shut down. I'm not going to entrust them with anything I care about.
You could say that it's fine to have some real-name presence online: a boring, ordinary drone that blends in with the crowd; and to use pseudonyms to compartmentalize your hobbies, politics, and anything controversial. This is challenging because the more time you spend living in those pseudonyms, the larger a portion of your total life they become, and the more oppressive those compartment walls feel. If you do maintain perfect opsec, and keep your pseudonyms from ever touching, what do you have? A dozen identities, each a shallow dozenth of a person, and a dozen groups of peers that aren't allowed to mix? I don't think I want to invest such portions of my life into siloed identities, leaving my real name a boring husk of no consequence. I will only ever get to be one meatbag, at the end of the day. We like to treat the internet as if it's a separate place where you live a separate life, but it's not. This is your actual life.
When I first made my reddit account, I chose the name /u/GoldenSights instead of /u/voussoir because I specifically wanted to use a name that I wasn't using anywhere else. I assumed reddit would be a low-investment site that I would not want to connect back to my identity. But, through reddit's culture of bot programming (RIP) I discovered Python, and now I've been writing Python code for nine years. That's not the kind of time investment I want to keep hidden in a corner. If someone asks me what I've been up to for the past nine years, am I supposed to sheepishly say "uh, nothing, I can't tell you" so that I don't pwn myself? What a waste.
"Maintain perfect opsec". What kind of CIA espionage LARP am I on here? This sounds stupid. But really, there isn't that much middle ground. Either you allow your online names to lead back to your meatbag self, or you don't.
I gave up anonymity. I just learned to lean into taking control of my ID. Some time ago, I realized that there's no way for me to participate online, without things being attributed to me.
I learned this, by setting up a Disqus ID. I wanted to comment on a blog post, and started to set up an account.
After I started the process, it came back, with a list of random posts, from around the Internet (and some, very old), and said "Are these yours? If so, would you like to associate them with your account?"
I freaked. Many of them were outright troll comments (I was not always the haloed saint that you see before you) that I had sworn were done anonymously. They came from many different places (including DejaNews). I have no idea how Disqus found them.
Every single one of them was mine. Many, were ones that I had sworn were dead and buried in a deep grave in the mountains.
In fact, only two or three decades ago it was standard for the telephone service to print everyone's name, address, and phone number in a big book, distribute it to every house and charge you $5 a month extra if you wanted to opt out of the list.
In the past I've tracked down the names of people in old photo's with a viable house number by guessing the city and searching newspaper archives. Then confirm with a streetview. The archives will have articles mentioning people with their street address.
My thought is Americans have become really paranoid compared to people 50 years ago. And people are often under the illusion that people can find out a lot about you with little effort isn't true.
At the moment, my github page already shows my real name. That cat is out. I added that because as a computer science student there is a cultural expectation to use one's github profile as a public portfolio and to include it on resumes. I mean, once again, it would be really weird to say "I've been writing code as a hobby for this many years but I can't show it to you". I guess the pressure for employment was enough for me to break the rule. For a few years I had a linkedin account with a real photo, but I deleted that because linkedin is gross.
I am usually pretty good at resisting cultural expectations if I want to. I've never tasted alcohol, for example, and I don't swear. I never did use facebook or twitter or instagram or vine or tiktok. And while it'd be more noble to say that I am simply following my own beliefs and methods regardless of expectations, I know that I deliberately go out of my way to be contrarian. To not be a normie. But although I'm not harboring a secret desire to drink or to watch tiktok, and I am inwardly convinced of these choices, there's no doubt it is also very much an outward thing, a desire to be seen by others as the kind of person who does not follow the norm.
Sharing your real name and location online is different from following the other kinds of trends, though, because it involves crossing a significant point of no return. If I decide to try a drink, I can then decide to not have another one. I'd never be able to truthfully say I haven't tasted alcohol ever again — it would be a crossing in its own right — but it won't bring me any kind of future harm.
But once your name and location are public, you can't take it back. There is no return to anonymity. Is that important? Will that be a problem? Will it hurt me? Probably not. 99% chance not. But if it does, you can't go back. As long as you remain anonymous, you have unlimited time to ponder the consequences of deanonymizing; you can always delay that crossing. But once you are deanonymized, no amount of pondering can undo it. Are you sure you've thought it through? How sure?
The fearmongering that exists, or at least used to exist when I was young, about sharing your identity on the internet is that you'll get harassed by stalkers, molesters, and other crazies. Or, at least, scammers attempting identity theft or fraud or impersonation.
Wait... that doesn't make sense. Is that what this all comes down to? You've got to be kidding me. It seems like the vast majority of normies make their name, face, birthday, family ties, and whereabouts relatively public on social media, and the vast majority are not victims of death threats or fraud. It's not as rare as being struck by lightning, but if that's the entire scope of the threat then it doesn't seem worth the disproportionate worry about having my name online.
There are already billions of strangers' names on the internet. To me, I am very important, but to everybody else I am just one more stranger. It seems like knowing someone's home address is a big deal, but if you pan around on a map you've got thousands of people's home addresses right before your eyes. How meaningless. The fact that I write a blog makes me ever so slightly different from the norm, but the stuff I write is not nearly as inflammatory or unhinged as a whole lot of other stuff that's out there, available under the author's real name. I know the names, faces, birthdays, and/or hometowns of various filmmakers, actors, authors, athletes, musicians, CEOs, politicians, professors, and youtubers, and they're doing fine. Why would I not also be fine?
Horsley's website, created in 1997, listed roughly 200, as the website called them, "abortionists." These abortion providers were listed in three different fonts, as described by the site's legend: "Black font (working); Greyed-out Name (wounded); Strikethrough (fatality)." In addition to this list, the website included the abortion providers' personal information, such as their home addresses, phone numbers, and photographs.
The website, donned with blood-dripping graphics, both celebrated providers' deaths and, with a wink and a nod, encouraged others to harm the remaining providers on the list so that more names could be crossed off.
This fear is justified. Since 1993, eight abortion providers have been murdered because of their jobs. The most recent assassination was of Dr. George Tiller in 2009, shot while he was serving as an usher in his church. Several of the murders were preceded by Old West–style "wanted" posters that featured providers' personal information, a tactic still in use today.
Slate - Strikethrough (Fatality)
Ok, so, there really are risks associated with deanonymizing. There are also risks associated with stepping outside and eating solid foods. I don't expect to be molested and murdered over my work, but it's... possible. While I was proofreading this article, Maddox released an hour long tale of stalking and harassment, and I guess I'll just keep telling myself it wouldn't happen to me because I'm not as inflammatory as he is. Or maybe I just shouldn't risk it. I have two choices: one carries a small chance of harm and the other carries none; so even if I can't actually justify the thought process, I may as well stay on the safe side.
One of my assumptions has just burst. The assumption that remaining pseudonymous forever is not harmful. I am very lonely. Like, Joe Briefcase lonely. A lifetime of compartmentalization and self-imposed isolation between my real life and hobbies and work and creations and thoughts is taking its toll. My refusal to share my digital pseudonymous work with real-life coworkers / friends / acquaintances, and my refusal to make myself available for discovery / contact online is successfully preventing me from meeting like-minded people. There's more to it than that, but this isn't helping. I'm pretty certain that the expected value of this compartmentalized lifestyle is worse than a more public one.
Another reason to be more public is that if you don't define the web search results that come up for your name, you could be giving that privilege to someone else. If you ever do acquire some kind of enemy, and they publish your name and face with some message of hate, and they get to dominate the search results about you because you've kept all the good things about yourself a secret, that would kind of suck. Is this too contrived? Maybe.
This problem is on my mind because recently I have been attending some free outdoor concerts put on by the city as part of my effort to get out of the house more and curb my loneliness. I always bring my camera and take pictures and email them to the band as a way of giving something back. Plus it is useful and fun practice for me.
The reason this is a problem is because some of the pictures I've taken are actually really good, if you'll excuse the self-praise. I've got quite a few photos now that I think are pretty special, but you wouldn't know it because my /photography page is stagnating under the self-imposed pressure to not reveal who or where I am. In my hobby photography article, I already wrote that I'm not interested in taking meaningless eye candy pictures. Well, it turns out that meaningful pictures usually involve some quantity of recognizable people and places, at least for the genre and manner of photography I want to do.
So far, the responses I've gotten from the bands has been (presumably genuine) ecstatic appreciation. One of the guys I took pictures of last week was in the audience this week, and he and his wife approached me to say how grateful they were. As I said in my motivations for writing, visual arts can wow people in a way that my other hobby, computer programming, cannot. People actually want to share my photos on their website, and they want to credit me. "You can post the pictures but I prefer not to be credited" is so odd. Who do I think I am, some kind of Batman? Here I am sending an email to a musician whose email address I got from their website with their name and hometown and upcoming show dates, all public, and I'm playing Batman. My logic is completely incoherent. If I'm afraid of my work being known, maybe I don't deserve to do it in the first place.
Now that it's been a few weeks, I'm starting to learn the names of some of the also-regulars at these concerts. I've run into neighbors, coworkers, and even my dentist. Apparently one of the also-regulars goes to the same dentist. Is this what having a third place is like? People are beginning to ask questions:
Are you shooting for a newspaper?
No, just for fun.
Oh, what's your instagram?
Sorry, I don't do instagram.
Do you have a website where I can see your work?
Ummmm... I was just gonna email the band directly.
I don't give them a link to my website, partly because I don't know if I want to build connections between voussoir.net and my real identity, and partly because I would look like a big idiot with my 'portfolio' full of anonymous closeups and abstracts, with none of the live band photos which I just told them I've been taking for the past four weeks. So instead I just look like a different kind of big idiot who takes five hundred pictures and apparently does almost nothing with them and awkwardly terminates the conversation at any mention of an outlet. Gotta go, bye!
I am not interested in making a new pseudonym and buying a new domain name for this purpose, either. Once again, I don't want to put years of investment into another identity that isn't me, leaving my actual identity empty and uninvested. Besides, all it takes is one person to share that domain in a facebook comment with "thanks to [my name] for taking pictures at our event" and it's blown anyway. May as well be ahead of it.
So, my real name is already tied to my website. That line has been crossed. But to publish these pictures would be to cross another line: tying my identity to a city. An environment for which I have already expressed some disdain. With named buildings in the background and the band's name on their banner or drum set, you could find exactly where I was... and where I'll be next week. That's pretty normal, but I don't like it. My other option is to let this body of work stagnate.
I've been using the word "portfolio", but I'll reiterate that this is absolutely not some kind of side-hustle for me. I want to publish these pictures on my website not to generate leads, but because I'm proud of them. I publish all of my Python code for fun, and I want to publish my pictures for fun, too. Also, because when I'm standing face-to-face with someone asking "Can I see more of your work?", I want to be able to say "Yes", instead of "No".
You're overthinking it!
Update: I have not received any feedback, and I've taken some more good pictures. Scales tipped.
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