Can pseudonyms and anonymity be used to hurt others? Obviously, yes. As a woman on the Internet, I’ve encountered my share of nastiness. This is a complex problem. Abusers will exploit whatever tensions they can find, in any social context. Abuse of power happens wherever there is power—and anonymity can be powerful. But I believe that almost everyone deserves safe space to figure out who they are and what they want to say. When people abuse that space, there should be consequences for those people. There are many ways of regulating discussion that do not involve silencing gigantic swathes of humanity.
Of course, our ability to control this space is not merely important from a navel-gazey or political perspective. It’s important for reasons of personal, physical safety too. My strongest case study is from 2010, when Google’s extinct service Buzz was unveiled. Several Internet friends texted and tweeted at me that day: “Don’t activate Buzz!” They didn’t email, because Buzz was set to turn itself on as soon as people opened their Gmail accounts. Once activated, Buzz would automatically and publicly display the top people emailed by that account. Some Gmail users were seriously harmed, including people with stalkers and therapists trying to protect their patients’ confidentiality. Buzz suffered in the ensuing scandals.
Conversations about pseudonym danger used to focus on hiding from people who disliked you, or planning ahead to neutralize the human errors that could lead to accidental revelation. In 2010, I realized that I would more likely be outflanked by an amoral aggregator, a thoughtless design—a tool to surface information that had previously been hard to find. On the other hand, humans can help you dodge algorithms: my friends helped me, and I helped the man behind @GSElevator. And it was ultimately a person rather than a data aggregator that outed John LeFevre.
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LeFevre, the man behind @GSElevator, told me he guarded his identity closely at first, then relaxed and gave more clues over time. (“Figuring out my identity did not take any stroke of stellar investigative journalism,” he said.) Although he wouldn’t give details, he made it clear that he was revealed because he let a lot of people know who he was, not because of a data-sniffing tool. (Andrew Ross Sorkin, who broke the @GSElevator New York Times story, declined to comment.) More interesting, to me, is the fact that LeFevre doesn’t appear to associate personal growth with the pseudonym. He seems to see the whole thing as essentially separate from himself.
“@GSElevator is not a person,” he said. “It’s a character, an enigma.” It all began, he said, as “an innocuous joke over drinks in a bar that gradually evolved over time.” In other words: it was a random experiment. A pseudonym can be a space for personal development, and it can also be a trick for cultural commentary brand-building, and it can be a random joke at a bar—and sometimes it stretches and changes from one to the other.
As the Internet is ever more aggressively tracked and policed, the market has demanded services to counteract that trend. Some people fight algorithms with algorithms by developing consumer software to go through your social media presence and seek out “compromising” pictures. This market has also produced ephemeral messaging platforms like Snapchat and anonymous commenting services like Secret. People know that we need this elastic space, and if we can’t get it on the mainstream Internet, we’ll find or build it elsewhere. Incidentally, Secret is rumored to be valued at $100 million—Snapchat at $10 billion.There’s plenty of chatter about how Secret, Whisper, YikYak, and other anonymous chat apps create an environment ripe for angst and drama—and they certainly do. But people aren’t just using Secret for vicious gossip. They’re posting all the things they’re afraid to say aloud, which includes unquestionably important stuff like abuse victims gathering emotional support in the midst of harassment. (Be careful, though, about whistleblowing on Secret, as the platform can and will identify you if legal controversy arises. If you need higher-quality secrecy, then you might consider using the Tor browser—and you should never do anything related to your “normal” life using your hidden accounts.)
Some people play pseudonym games on Secret, and I’ve even seen people build absurdist “personal brands” there. For example, this guy: be sure to read the comments, where he says “This is another secret from Dustin Boyer.” Boyer is a flamboyant San Francisco tech hipster who co-founded TacoCopter.com. He offers free burritos to anyone who accurately identifies one of his secrets. Maybe the next @GSElevator can safely emerge using similar tricks.
Google+ just repealed its much-discussed “real names” policy, and I can’t help wondering whether it was influenced by the popularity of Secret and Snapchat. Twitter, of course, never had such a policy and presumably never will. I’d like to think that most of the Internet is bouncing back from anti-pseudonymity.