Do real names really make people nicer online?

Mathew Ingram at GigaOm has an interesting look at some Livefyre research suggesting that if you force people to use their real names to comment on your site, the vast majority will just stop commenting.

Most of those surveyed said that they responded anonymously (or pseudonymously) because they didn’t want their opinions to impact their work or professional life by being attached to their real names, or when they wanted the point of their comment to be the focus rather than their identity or background. And close to 80 percent of those surveyed said that if a site forced them to login with their offline identity, they would choose not to comment at all.

The bottom line is that by requiring real names, sites may decrease the potential for bad behavior, but they also significantly decrease the likelihood that many of their readers will comment.

That led me to an interesting question this morning: do real names really reduce the potential for bad behaviour in comments? It’s a popularly held belief, but there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of evidence out there to support the idea that meatspace identities are any more useful than persistent pseudonyms when it comes to holding people accountable for their actions online. On Twitter, Martin Belam points out:

…but there’s a big gap between “named staff members early in comment threads” and “real names for everyone”.

I can find some evidence that persistent pseudonymity is a positive thing. Disqus did a very large study in 2012 on their comments database; though their methodology is opaque, their results showed pseudonymous commenters posted both the largest number and the highest quality comments across their network. Pseudonyms make people more collaborative and more talkative in learning environments; they positively influence information sharing; they encourage people to share more about themselves in the relative safety of an identity disconnected from meatspace.

There’s also evidence that anonymity – a complete lack of identifiers and nothing to chain your interactions together to form a persona, as distinct from pseudonymity, where you pick your own identity then stick with it – is a negative influence on the civility of debate, and that it engenders more adversarial conversations in which fewer people’s minds are changed.

There’s a Czech study into the differences between anonymity and pseudonymity and how to design for reduced aggression, apparently, but the actual link 404s and the abstract isn’t detailed on the difference. There’s interesting research into the social cost of cheap, easily replaceable pseudonyms, which allow effective anonymity through the evasion of reputation consequences; Reddit and Twitter are great examples of communities where you can see this behaviour in action.

Investigating this issue isn’t helped by the fact that researchers have in the past conflated anonymous and pseudonymous behaviours, but there’s increasing awareness now that the two engender big community differences; it’s also skewed by places like 4chan and Reddit being prominently discussed while less adversarial communities like Tumblr or fandom communities are less often scrutinised. (Male-dominated communities are covered more than female-dominated communities, and widely seen as more typical: so it goes.)

I’ve found one study that suggests anonymity makes for less civil comments, but I can’t access the full study to find out what it says about pseudonymity. There are suggestions, like Martin’s, that moderation helps keep things civil; there’s evidence that genuine consequences for poor behaviour helps too. And there’s this:

“While evidence from South Korea, China, and Facebook is insufficient to draw conclusions about the long-term impacts of real name registration, the cases do provide insight into the formidable difficulties of implementing a real name system.”

But where’s the proof Facebook is right when it claims its real name policy is vital for civility on the site? Where’s the evidence that Facebook comments are more civil than a news site’s because of the identity attached, rather than because the news site goes largely unmoderated and Facebook’s comment plugin broadcasts your words to everyone you know on there? Or because most people just don’t comment any more, so arguments die faster? I am struggling to find one study that demonstrates a causal link.

So this is an open request: if you know of more studies that indicate that denying pseudonymity improves comment quality, let me know on Twitter @newsmary or share them in the comments here. If I’m wrong, and it makes a big difference, it’d be great to be better informed. And if I’m right, and it’s community norms, moderation and reputational consequences that matter, it’d be great to put the idea that real names are a magic bullet for community issues to bed once and for all.

On silence

This week, Helen Lewis-Hasteley posted at the New Statesman the words of seven women speaking about the abuse they’ve received online. That’s spawned a huge conversation, a #feministwishlist hashtag and a lot of other posts, much of which Helen’s rounded up here.

I think I was 12 years old the first time someone on IRC told me explicitly what they’d like to do to me, sexually, then swore at me when I told them I wasn’t interested. I learned, fast, that if I wanted to be taken seriously or heard at all – if I wanted to ensure that random, entirely unsolicited, often threatening sexual advances wouldn’t happen – I’d best pick a male name, online. Or at least be gender neutral. Being female meant I was fair game. It sometimes seems that in 15 years not all that much has changed.

I have maybe half a dozen online pseudonyms I’ve used at various times. There’s one in particular I’ve been writing, commenting, talking under since I was 12. Nowadays I don’t use it much, now I speak under my own name here and on Twitter, but when I’m not pseudonymous I speak about different things. I’m mindful of what I’m saying, not just for what it is but also for the reaction it might provoke. If someone wanted to track me down, it would no longer be particularly hard, with this open identity.

I am lucky, and often thankful, that the pseudonyms I use have never – as far as I know – been linked to me. I won’t repeat the abuse I’ve gotten under those other names, because I barely had the spoons to deal with it the first time round and I’m damned if it matters what the exact words were, anyway, and because it could open floodgates or let people link those identities to this one.

And in deciding that, I know in my bones that I’m setting myself up to be dismissed, to have my experiences belittled because I choose not to share them explicitly, to be called a liar or worse; that’s the kicker, you see, that eventually you know in your bones what could be coming, so you self-censor.

Some women speak and continue speaking, whether they are abused for it or not. For some women, who speak and are abused, the price for speaking is too high and silence is the only choice that lets them protect and care for themselves. For others, the existence and the experiences of those women is enough for them to decide, consciously or otherwise, that the risks of speaking will always outweigh the rewards.

And for some, like me, a partial silence descends.

I weigh words. What’s safe, given how easy I would be to find in real life, and given what I can cope with on a given day. How much of myself to reveal while pseudonymous, which details to fake and which to hide. It is laughable to suggest that identity online is uncomplicated in such circumstances. Either I can be myself, or I can speak without fear. I am uncomfortably constrained in both skins.

This is how bullying works. It’s how hate speech works. The abuse doesn’t even have to be directed at you personally – just so long as people are being torn apart for having a characteristic that you share, you may welll be worried about being torn apart for the same reason. Not just women, either – the mental health blogging community is 99.9% pseudonymous, for instance, with very good reason.

I’ve seen people argue that women should be stronger, should just suck it up and deal with it, as though silence about abuse is not a form of partial silence. I’ve seen people say women aren’t being silenced, because of all these women who are not silent, as though all women speak about the same things and measure risk and reward the same way, and as though there’s no gradient between silent and outspoken. I’ve seen suggestions that women should only write on moderated sites – presumably sites they don’t moderate themselves – as though restricting the venues of our speech doesn’t amount to silencing. And I’ve seen people say pseudonymous environments are bad for women because of harassment, when some of us find them the only places we can speak without worry.

All these arguments are bollocks. And I’m bored of hearing them. And maybe saying so will put me in danger, maybe it’ll mean a threat or a few abusive tweets or maybe just an argument I’d rather not have to have. But I’m fed up of being told how we ought to moderate our behaviour. All these options just end up with us being a different sort of silent. I’d like us to be free to speak.

Maybe it’s just me. But somehow, after this week, I doubt it.