Using real names online doesn't improve behavior


Originally published at:


I’ve always been a strong believer in maintaining context-specific identities. Online and offline. Offline it happens so naturally that we don’t even notice it - we are a different person to the people we work with than we are to our kids and a third person to our spouse. Yes there is overlap, but much of each identity is unique to the context. For example, you’d never tell a dirty joke to your kids that you’d have no problem telling your spouse.

But I’ve always had a nagging suspicion that while anonymity and pseudonymity online was a benefit for the individual it was likely a net loss to the community due to encouraging anti-social behavior. What turned me around was a description I read about how online abuse is often turned into a performance. That the abuser wants to be publicly identified because they are performing the abuse as a way to build social credibility with those who approve of the abuse.

That video of those people torturing that poor kid in chicago is an extreme example. They took no effort to conceal their identities. They streamed the video live to an audience. Lots of people think those four were dumb for recording their crimes for the entire world to see. But that was the entire point, it was a performance. They thought the risk of punishment was worth the social cred they were building with whatever sickos were watching the livestream.


I think bringing civility to today’s generations of Internet users is hopeless. We’ll have better results teaching children in elementary school basic online etiquette…just as we teach children “meat-space” etiquette. It comes down to parents who teach their kids to say “please” and “thank you” and not bully their peers. So it goes with online behavior.

If you’re already a troll, there’s no hope for rehabilitation. We can only train our future generations not to be online doucebags.


The problem is that they go out into the world already populated by douchebags and learn from them as well. We need some kind of break to change peoples minds as a whole, like how Prohibition changed peoples minds permanently about drink or how the Depression changed people’s minds about wealth for generations.

Maybe the Trumpocalypse will do this.


Wow, this is amazing. I did some papers on this back when Google was doing their stupid, misbegotten, Schmitt for brains real name push that helped strangle G+ in the crib, but nothing this comprehensive.

It was always a bad idea - people who would care about having their real name on things are more socially sensitive to begin with, and for the Assholes having it in their real name makes it much harder to back down.


This makes for that weird dynamic on FB, where you get loads and loads of platitudes by people who don’t want their public record on politics or religion to be used against them (me, for instance) and then you get stunning trollery, by people who are arsewipes, posting under their real name.


It still amazes me how for most people, they insist that one’s “real name” is given to them by others rather than chosen by themselves.


Absolutely vile comments attached to a full name, real photo and often place of employment/study are a common enough sight on facebook-login websites.

Makes one wonder if the popular GIFT explanation was wrong all along, perhaps overly optimistic.


I think the mistake is when people think it is all or nothing one way or another.


I’m thoroughly convinced the removal of anonymity just revealed who was doing it before posting under their real name. There is some percentage of assholes in the world, and that asshole that proudly shows himself in public gathers with his asshole buddies online in their asshole hangouts where they then run rampant together frolicking through the widest audiences possible online. You know where you find less assholes online? In small curated places online, just like in real life.

It’s not magic.


What I remember from my Communication classes was Normal Person + Perceived Separation + Audience = Total Fuckwad, although I think the professor called it anti-social something narcissistic something. Whether they’re anonymous or not, it’s that non-f2f that makes people either really evil or really righteous (or both).

Except for places with judicious moderation. That really was a finding in papers back in the forums-everywhere days of the late 90s and early 2000s. Moderation is a good thing, in moderation.


You might like this:


It’s enlightened viewpoints like this that make your barony the finest in all the kingdom, my Lord Groznik.


Somebody finally studied Mike’s posts?


The one thing I have learned from trolls I know IRL is “Asshole” isn’t an insult to a true asshole. Some people wear it like a bade of honor and don’t care if it is attached to their real name.

I’m a gay man and a Furry, I have been active in the fandom for more than 20 years but I keep that life separate from my professional life. I have many context-specific identities that I slip into and not always out of hiding for safety but I suppose there is a level of that. Part of it is just not wanting to deal with awkward and really annoying conversations.

I experienced having my home lit on fire at 3 in the morning and I always suspected it wasn’t random. So there is always that fear in the back of my head that I may be attacked for just being me and I would benefit little from mixing identities.

The whole “Real name” thing ignores how many subcultures will have the equivalent of “Fan name” where you are known by an identity that isn’t the face you wear professionally or even to blood relations.

The whole Drag Queen facebook insanity comes to mind.

This is really a question of engineers thinking they understand a problem but actually don’t.


“Bitter one”?


It isn’t engineers, I think, but police forces and politicians. Politicians cannot imagine how anybody would not want to be out there under their real identity (because they are all narcissists) and police forces work on the "if you’re honest you have nothing to hide."
Engineers invented NAT.


The GIFT explanation was a pretty clear example of confirmation bias and correlation != causation, but it spread so quickly because pretty much everyone online has had at least one experience of an anonymous person being an asshole.

Part of the problem may be that real-named assholes only get their own asshole statements attributed to them, while anonymous ones tend to get mentally lumped together. So the anonymous ones end up looking like a much bigger problem.


Engineers in places like Facebook and Google thinking they can solve their trolling problem. They thought it would just fix things if people just used their real names. It’s like how they might limit the number of characters thinking nobody would have a last name more than 10 characters.

It’s like that great “Falsehoods programmers believe about names” article from a few years back.


Are you sure that’s engineers and not the sales department (remember, they are not selling to the users but to advertisers) thinking a real name policy would make the data they were providing much more valuable, but wanting to promote it as an anti-trolling measure?

I may be being unintentionally pedantic here; by “engineer” I mean chartered professional in a recognised engineering discipline. Zuckerberg (for instance) may be a genius programmer but, because of his career trajectory, he hasn’t been exposed to the kind of professional development that would, for instance, cause someone to be aware of issues around identification localisation and internationalisation.