Some of the best conversations take place online, and some of the worst. A friendly discussion of, say, the midterm elections decays into vulgar innuendo and references to Nazi Germany. Happens all the time, especially when the online chatters can hide their identities. People will say almost anything when nobody else knows who’s talking, right?
But Judith Donath, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, says it’s not quite that simple. Donath’s new book, “The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online,” argues that the ability to don a digital mask is vital to truly free speech on the Internet. “If you want to have a discussion about things that are very controversial or there’s a real danger of being traced, you need to have anonymity,” Donath told me in a recent conversation.
But doesn’t pure anonymity mean toxic speech? Not if you do it right, Donath says. Online communities have found that the solution is persistence. When people adopt a consistent fake persona and cling to it over time, they tend to become solid Internet citizens, rather than flame-throwing vulgarians.
Google Inc. is betting that Donath is right. Remember its social-networking service Google Plus? It’s been around for three years, and while everybody with a Google account is a member, Google Plus attracts just 300 million regular users, compared to archrival Facebook, which regularly draws a billion or so.
Facebook famously requires members to use their real names. It reduces hateful comments, while giving reliable data to the advertisers who generate billions in revenue for the company. Many people flout the rule, but if they’re found out, their accounts are canceled.
Google Plus formerly did the same. But in July, the company declared that new members can sign up under any name they choose, and let their freak flags fly.
The announcement horrified many longtime members, who dread an incoming wave of filth. “You’re just opening the floodgates to all the abusive behavior that we see elsewhere,” one user wrote, predicting a horde of comments from “cowardly vermin.”
But requiring real names doesn’t ensure good behavior. There’s plenty of crud on Facebook, for instance. And there’s the experience of South Korea. In 2007, that nation’s government mandated the use of real names on all domestic Internet sites with more than 100,000 users, to reduce vulgar and libelous messages. But even with their masks off, Koreans kept right on hurling insults. And since the sites were now stuffed with real information about real people, hackers swarmed in to steal identities. By 2012, the regulation was abolished.
Besides, adopting a pseudonym doesn’t automatically turn people into jerks. A fake identity requires real work. You build up circles of online friends and post comments on your favorite topics. Along the way, you develop a reputation among your fellow users. Once you’ve become known as the go-to guy on, say, model trains, you might branch out into some gentle criticism of President Obama. But you’re not likely to uncork a full-on racist rant; what would your fellow train buffs think?
There’s real-world evidence that it works this way. The San Francisco company Disqus runs the comments sections of about 3 million websites, including Wired, The Atlantic, and National Review. In 2011, the company studied the quality of its users’ messages, by tracking how many received positive or negative ratings from other users. “The results were a little bit surprising to us,” said Ro Gupta, Disqus’s vice president of business development. People who used pseudonyms posted more messages than those who used their real names; maybe having a secret identity let them relax and open up. In addition, the messages written under pseudonyms rated higher than those with real names attached. Even when disguised, most people try to make a good impression.
Few of us would post our naked pictures in the cloud, like careless Hollywood stars. But brandishing your true identity on the Internet can be risky, as well, revealing opinions and attitudes that might not sit well with your boss, your pastor, your drinking buddies, or your spouse. Better, says Donath, to serve up several versions of yourself, each with a carefully nurtured reputation for honesty and good sense. On the Internet, having multiple personalities is not a disorder.