Would real names stop trolling?

I occasionally go spelunking in the darker parts of the Internet and am amazed at how readily it is possible to identify people saying awful things. So it was interesting to come across an article yesterday arguing that the use of real names does not improve online behaviors, and in fact can increase harassment and discrimination.

In The Real Name Fallacy Nathan Mathias argues that it not anonymity which is giving rise to social problems, and backs that up with a series of studies. Mathias is really pointing out that system designers cannot make safe environment simply by forcing people to use their real names: “The idea of removing anonymity was on the surface a good idea, but published research from the field and the lab have shown its ineffectiveness.”

I don’t disagree with Mathias’ argument, but it has made me wonder, again, if there’s more to anonymity than simply the use of names or other readily identifiable information.

First, there’s the fact that the Internet is a big and widespread place so you’re afforded practical anonymity by the lack of propinquity. Does it matter if someone knows your name if you are sitting in Newcastle and they are in Montreal? The chances of your paths crossing in any real-life situation where you might have to face down your victim are small to negligible. I would argue that provides a form of anonymity behind which it is easy to hide even if you’re identifiable.

Then there’s the safety of the herd. Just like football hooligans or hens-night parties, people will do things in groups they would not do when by themselves. So, often, we’ll see people jumping into crowds of abusive people and in doing so they lose their individuality and become part of an unidentified mass – the anonymity of the herd. (That herd also serves to reinforce in the mind of the attacker that they are doing something that is alright, or even good, because they are surrounded by people saying similar things.)

So there are various sorts of anonymity afforded by the Internet, not just the luxury of choosing a display name. In that, I agree with the argument that forcing people to use their real names may do little to solve online harassment. But I do believe that anonymity is at the heart of the problem – although there’s no easy technology fix that will remove that anonymity issue. There is, as I’ve argued in the past, a compelling place for teaching ethics and encouraging people to act as if someone is watching them. However, and this is the key, that requires a change to society rather than to technology

While technology, and it’s attendant anonymity, is giving a new outlet to people’s racism, misogyny, and so on – it is not creating those positions. It may well be reinforcing the positions in the echo chamber of the herd, but it’s not creating those positions in the first place. We need to attack the root causes. As Nathan Mathias points out in his article: “Designers can become seduced by the technology challenges of detecting and responding to problems; we need to stop playing defense.”

In short, we all need to start trying to change the way people think because anonymity is a more complex beast than the use of a name, and it’s not going to go away.

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