Elusis (elusis) wrote,
  • Mood: irritated

Don't try to teach your Internet grandmother to suck eggs: On anonymity/pseudonymity.

I first logged onto a computer bulletin board system (BBS) in 1993 or 94. "Alias?" it asked. Alias? I didn't have an alias. But we had just studied the Eleusinian Mysteries in my History of Theater class, and "elusive" was always a favorite word, so "Elusis" was born.

When someone began bringing Usenet newsgroups through a gateway into the WWIV BBS networks, I was "Elusis" there too. Some people on Usenet posted under their real names, but many used aliases, handles, usernames, pseudonyms, call them what you want. I had a clear policy: do not use my real name. First, last, either, EVER. I can't recall if it was even possible to delete a post that was sent to Usenet in those days, but the few times someone who knew me in real life slipped, I let them know about it. In at least one epic flame war, someone taking personal issue with me used my real name; what angered me was both the violation of my privacy, and the assumed familiarity. I didn't want my real name in their virtual "mouth." They had not earned the right to know me by my real name, as my friends had.

Back in the day on Usenet, if you tangled with trolls, you knew the importance of taking at least basic steps to protect your privacy. The alt.syntax.tactical crew and the Meow brigade treated trolling like an Olympic sport, and had no compunction about their tactics. I have used anonymous remailers, including anon.penet.fi, to protect myself, and been very relieved that they were available. At a minimum, using an alias always seemed wise, even before the advent of Google, when Yahoo's shitty index was competing with Dogpile and InfoSeek and Lycos and nobody really had a handle on Usenet.

And yet somehow, while using a pseudonym, I managed to build plenty of relationships with people online. To this day, people will run across my email address or LJ name and say "are you Elusis who used to run a WWIV BBS?" I have managed to build a small, stable online reputation that has endured for 14+ years while providing a tiny modicum of privacy for myself. I have used this name for Usenet, email, LiveJournal, every site where I have a login, DJing, and other arenas. When I took a different name in the Rogues, it felt positively bizarre.

But I do know this: you don't out people's real names online. The sole exception I can think of is if someone is committing theft/fraud; for example if someone is selling used clothing on an LJ community but failing to deliver, and changing user names over and over, it might come to a point where it was necessary to say "look, this person goes by many aliases but if you get an invoice asking you to pay Wilhemina McDoucheyton, don't send them any money because look at all these people who have been ripped off." That kind of thing.

"Aliases" or "handles" or "usernames" do not equal "sockpuppets" or "trolls." The tradition of using an alias to which a reputation and relationships attach is, I would venture to suggest, far older than the World Wide Web and hardly solely limited to the Internet. I have been introduced to all kinds of people in real life who called themselves things other than what was on their driver's license. I had a boyfriend for a little while who, in my mind, had a silent "9" in the middle of his name because that's how he wrote it online, and another whom I thought of as "Panther" rather than "J____" because that's how I met him on the BBS's. I have known plenty of people whose DJ names I think of more easily than their real names even though we've spent hours together in the booth. There were people in the Rogues whose birth names I never did quite nail down, or who I never even realized *had* a different name than the one I was taught.

You know what characteristic a lot of the alias-ed people I know from Usenet and BBSs and goth clubbing and Renn Faire and other places have shared? Being fans of science fiction and/or fantasy. You know who should understand people who use funny names that are not their birth names and who are well-understood to be real, actual people and not some latent manifestation of a small group's delusion of persecution? SF/F people. (*koff*James Tiptree, Jr.*koff*)

So when discussion of racial issues in SF/F books turns into RaceFail '09*, which is still going on after six weeks which is like ten thousand years in Internet time, the argument that 1) aliases = sockpuppets and trolls, and therefore 2) it is OK to expose people's real names when you don't agree with them is not only laughable, self-serving, and mean, it is also coming from PEOPLE WHO SHOULD KNOW BETTER. The day I go to a gathering of SF/F fans and don't have anyone introduced to me as "Lord Penumbra" is undoubtedly a day I long for with all my heart, but it is not going to happen any time soon.

Arguments about why online anonymity is important are legion. Some are chronicled here, in an analysis which includes not only coffeeandink's sensible list of the usual and reasonably well-understood justifications, but also an analysis of how for minorities, often their name and reputation doesn't just affect them, it affects their family, and it affects other members of their minority group. Stories of not just outing but of harassment, abuse, and death threats that escalated to the point of being taken seriously by law enforcement (which takes rather a lot).

It is no coincidence that many times, the worst abuse (defamation and professional assassination, harassment that interferes with one's job, being frightened so badly that the target goes underground) is saved for women. Men who get in arguments with other people online don't get threatened with rape on a regular basis. Unsurprisingly, trans people get abused in this way too. People of color get driven from online spaces** for daring to speak out, even in defense of their own intellectual property, never mind offering a critique of someone else's work, and I know there are examples out there of direct abuse similar to the links I've posted above, I just don't have them at my Google-tips.

Speaking openly is a privilege. If you claim it, fine. You don't have the right to demand that someone else claim it as well, because they may have plenty of excellent reasons for not doing so. I don't even read SF/F fan communities, and yet it has been crystal clear to me, just through my social contacts with people who do (and because my interest in social justice and anti-racism has prompted me to follow up on links) that trying to speak truth to power even in the world of SF/F fandom, backwater of mainstream society that it is, is inherently unsafe unless you are allied with some pretty powerful folks whom you have convinced to defend you at every turn, no matter how many idiotic and dominating things you do over and over.

Back in the day on rec.music.tori-amos, we had developed an idiosyncratic culture that involved far more off-topic discussion than on-topic. Most of the long-time posters were there more to facilitate friendships than to share Tori Amos info, except for the brief bits of time when she was touring or putting out an album. We knew this was disconcerting for newer people, so we developed a system of thread markers to help easily distinguish on-topic content. We published a Survival Guide that was automatically posted... weekly? to help people find their way.

But every so often, someone would wander in and start spewing a bunch of bellicose crap about how the newsgroup sucked, the newsgroup was off-topic, we should all take it elsewhere if we wanted to just socialize, blah blah blah blah. And the regulars would have Yet Another Laugh over the temerity of Some People's Children to come stomping into other people's sandboxes and start trying to tell the sandbox owners how one should play in a sandbox, because lord knows they were the Supreme Lord of All Sandboxes and we should be bowing down and worshipping their superior way of doing things. The laughter took on a certain strained quality after a few years, though.

When the Defenders of White People Elizabeth Bear And Friends started off on their "how DARE You People use fake names on your Live Journal accounts! I call TROLL!" tirades, I thought back to the days of the RMTA sandbox and thought "of course - what the world needs is people with no knowledge of a particular venue's culture and traditions to start announcing how Ur Doing It Rong and insisting that everyone play by their norms, because that ALWAYS helps." And you know, I could spend hours (have spent hours; some people have spent days and even weeks) deconstructing their dumbass arguments, especially when they change every couple of days, but in the end for me it kind of comes down to arguing on the Internet and I know where my loyalties lie and which people I will listen to if issues of race are raised, and I had more than enough information to help me start thinning out the "unread books" bookshelf a little several weeks ago, so really? I will be fighting some other fights most of the time while pumping my chubby fist in solidarity with people who are passionate about fandom as an arena for participation and change and who are doing a beautiful, if tiring, job of handing out pants to the pants-less. So if assholes are going to march around demanding that anyone they don't know personally needs to prove his or her existance, racial and gender identity, qualifications for critiquing SF/F, personal story of oppression and struggle which can't possibly be as bad as ____'s, fuck those jerks is my conclusion.

But when they started posting people's personal info in an attempt to go after specific people who defy them because "well we've never seen any of these people at Cons and so they must not be Real Fans (tm) they must be fake because how can people with fake names be real," I am going to call FUCKERY. Because Elusis has been a Real Person (tm) for 14 years now, and Elusis knows people called gUs and Dances With Cars and Sexbat and Gavin and DJ Tower and Captain Hawk, has spent fairly significant time with some of them even, and none of those names are on their birth certificates but that doesn't make them fake people and trolls, it makes them an old chum from back in the day, and my dead best friend, and one of my first goth heroes, and one of the stormiest friends I've ever stormed with, and someone who taught me how to DJ, and someone I love with all my heart.

And when a friend says to me "remember, I don't like my LJ name linked to real-life activities because I'd prefer not to let strangers know what city I live in," I go "shit, I forgot, let me fix that" and pull it down and replace it with an initial. I do not initiate freaking World War Four over it and declare that their way of handling their privacy makes them morally inferior to me and mock them for their culture of anonymity as if such a thing had just been invented recently to annoy me personally. And I definitely not go make a post stating "'harrypotterrulez' is actually Eugenia Terpsichore and she lives in Oakland California and works for the University of Colorado, I'M JUST SAYING."

Because you know what that would make me? A fucking douchebag.

*Link apparently doesn't include any of the insanity that took place in February '09 as of this writing.

** Yes bfp eventually resumed blogging but I think it's no coincidence that she ultimately began wholly new blogs and seems to have changed focus somewhat.
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