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An Analysis of the Online Identity Battleground 4: Legal Names and Cyberbullying

aestetix makes herein an emphasis on the correlation between the use of real names and pseudonyms online with people’s behavior on the Internet.

Myth #2

Myth #2

Number two for the myths, thanks Adam: “We can stop cyberbullying by forcing people to use their legal names. People who do not use their legal names do not contribute positively to discussions.” I had a freaking hour-long argument with the guy about this at NSTIC. Very nice guy, but we’re working on him.

Using a nym is unrelated to a person’s misbehavior online

Using a nym is unrelated to a person’s misbehavior online

Did anybody see this? (See left-hand image) This was the Violentacrez, the Reddit Gawker guy. He was creating this subreddit called “Jailbait”, where they were posting photos of underage women – fully clothed, just had that label “jailbait” on it. And there were also some boundaries issues and they were using the photos without permissions, and things like that. I’d be pretty pissed off if I was on there or if my daughter was on there, wouldn’t you, guys?

Here is the issue: I’m not saying the guy isn’t a douchebag; Violentacrez is the name, and his legal name is Michael Brutsch, this was all outed. I think it’s fantastic that there was some kind of justice brought to it, because it’s community standards and social things. The one issue that I really have with Adrian’s article is that it didn’t draw the distinction that it’s not because he used that name Violentacrez that he did these horrible things, it’s because he’s a douchebag that he did these horrible things.

The only time we see this in the news is when somebody is a freaking pedophile, child molester, criminal, things like that. Those are the only times these names ever pop up in the news, and for many people that’s the only exposure to them. There’s a lot of other folks who use them to have general common discourse – that’s why I used Publius in the example, right? Just disambiguate douchebaggery from names, very important distinction.

Snapshot of Amanda Todd’s video

Snapshot of Amanda Todd’s video

Next you have Amanda Todd (see right-hand image). Did any of you guys see this? This came up in the news the same week as that. This was absolutely horrible, very tragic story. This girl, she was 15 years old, she was cyberbullied and killed herself because of it. If you get a chance, go see this video; it’s about 8 minutes long and it covers horrible things that they did to her. But the challenge was: all of her cyberbullies were bullying her on Facebook, and if I recall, Facebook has a real names policy. And yet this kept coming up and people were saying: “We can’t use pseudonyms”. Wait a second, that doesn’t actually matter here. Cyberbullying is horrible and we definitely need to work on it, but it has nothing to do in this context with names.

The hive mind

The hive mind

I assume you guys know about Anonymous, or maybe you don’t? There’s a number of ways I’ve described Anonymous. In the examples here (see left-hand image) I used kind of the hive mind. You think of memetics – memetics are really important here because the only structure you have everyone following the top of the hierarchy, which is just an idea.

And over here does anybody recognize the photo on the left? Phineas Gage. Phineas was a railway worker; spike went through his brain in the 1850s, I think. And he stayed alive; he lived 10 years on after the accident. His personality changed though. And I think it’s really indicative of kind of the larger scope of how humanity works together – you have this notion of the hive mind, which is kind of what Anonymous is.

And how do people try to stop Anonymous? They try to take somebody out, tweak them a little bit, maybe put them through some Clockwork Orange therapy and reintroduce them into the system. Or: “Oh my god, there’s all these trolls, let’s try and step that out and force them to use their Facebook names,” something like that. Well, it turns out that it doesn’t actually work at all.

To address the first issue with it, it’s kind of like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle or Schrödinger’s cat, because if you make a change in the system, you can no longer know how it operates.

TechCrunch implementing new commenting system

TechCrunch implementing new commenting system

And the second one – well, let’s ask TechCrunch (see right-hand image). A couple of years ago, I think it was March 2011, they decided to go for Facebook comments, and they did this to cut down on trolls. They were getting about 1000 comments per article a day.

The mixed reactions

The mixed reactions

A couple of days later (see left-hand image): “Facebook comments have silenced the trolls – but is it too quiet?” And they had a lot of issues, like why isn’t anybody commenting here anymore? They’re all using Facebook and it should be better, right?

Commenters are wanted back

Commenters are wanted back

And after a long deliberation, on January 22: “Commenters, we want you back.” (See right-hand image) They wound up going to the system called Livefyre which basically allows you to use Facebook; it also allows you to use Twitter and Google, or TechCrunch’s database and things like that. So they actually gave people a lot more choices, and it turned out, as you can see, 954 comments on that article, so they helped them get that better.

Case study by Disqus

Case study by Disqus

The thing that I want to point out here though is that if TechCrunch had researched this a little bit, they would have discovered that Disqus did a similar case study about a year before that (see right-hand image). And Disqus is similar; it’s kind of this plug-in thing where you can have users leave comments through it. And they have about 60 million users. It’s kind of hard to see on the slide, but the caps down here: “Pseudonyms are the most valuable contributors to communities because they contribute the highest quantity and quality of comments.” And they determined quality by whether it has been flagged for spam, whether it has been upvoted or replied to, things like that.

Average comments per user by identity

Average comments per user by identity

Here (see left-hand image) is a nice visual graphic: the green are pseudonyms, the red are “real” names, and the middle are anonymous users. So you can see 61% were pseudonyms, so that’s a lot of quantity, right? And that little bar graph up at the top, it’s kind of hard to see, but it’s segmented into three parts. On the left side you have positive, middle is neutral, and on the right is negative. So the interesting thing: on the top, the green part, 61% positive comments from pseudonymous users, whereas on the bottom, the red one was the real names – 51%. So they actually found that not only did they get more comments, but they had more quality comments from it all. So, something to think about.

The Social Number network

The Social Number network

There’s another question that comes up: what if people just don’t use names at all? There’s actually a social network that launched in December of last year called Social Number, and what it does is it allows you to log in and create an account picking a number, not a name. And as you can see here, people are leaving – this one is: “What do you do, or suggest can be done to handle some problem?” And the sender is not a name but it is a number.

And there’s a distinction I want to make here, because there’s a lot of confusion as to what pseudonomy and anonymity is. I don’t actually think this is anonymous; I believe that it is pseudonymous – people are choosing numbers because all the numbers are different, which means that it does not anonymize, it dehumanizes. And that’s a very important distinction.

Social Number account settings

Social Number account settings

Something else: I created a profile in here to see how it worked (see left-hand image). Check this out: this is the account settings profile, and notice they have Education here if you went to school, so they say “Education” in here, but not the name of your school. And then fast forward down a little bit – your work experience, how many years, maybe what your title is, the skills that you have, but not the place of your work. So it’s all the typical things that we find in a social network, all the names removed.

A post on Social Number network

A post on Social Number network

Here is an example of a post on there – ironically, about Anonymous (see right-hand image). Look at that – it’s a typical post, somebody’s blabbering on, and they have an avatar, a picture they’ve uploaded, and the name is simply a number. I mean, this just launched a couple of months ago, so it’s hard to say whether it will be successful, whether people will use it, how it will be used. But just something to consider – that there are efforts into this.

Read previous: An Analysis of the Online Identity Battleground 3: The Essence of Identity

Read next: An Analysis of the Online Identity Battleground 5: Can We Trust “Identity Providers”?

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