Re: Anonymity on ANTHRO-L

Tue, 3 May 1994 22:59:36 EDT

Seeker1's followup to my original post showed up in Kent before it showed
up on the listserv and I forgot to CC my reply to the list. (I'm just
the model of coordination this week, aren't I? Here's what I sent back
to him, more or less.

On 5/03/94 Seeker1 said:

> That point is quite simple. A name is used in a social context; many
>of us have names that go on official documents, ranging from birth
>certificates to tax forms... but then go by a completely different
>nickname. It's well known that in many cultural contexts, people have
>different names, each of which are used in different social situations. To
>assume that most people have only one name, I think, is ethnocentrism. ;-)
> Sometimes that nickname is only used with family and friends. Not to go
>heavily into the 'anthropology of naming,' but why not stop and consider a
>few things. Using your own name in cyberspace is a cultural convention -
>one which many internetters are choosing to violate...

I'm not convinced that it is a netwide cultural convention. If anything,
"real name only" seems rarer than "handle accepted".

> There are people out there who are signing messages with names which
>are opposite in gender to their own. There are people out there who are
>signing messages with bogus credentials. In some cases, there are hackers
>posting under other peoples' names simply because they've hacked their
>accounts. Some posters are fictitious identities. There is simply no way to
>verify the identity of people in cyberspace, short of authentication
>through 'digital signatures,' and possibly voiceprints. I take it on faith
>that "Michael Bauser" is "Michael Bauser", someone I've never met, but is
>presumably a real flesh-and-blood anthro person, and not, say, Dan Foss'
>evil twin "Skippy" Foss.
> I see this as simultaneously good and bad. People use handles in
>BBSes. MUDs, IRCs, and so on; why shouldn't they also do so on mailing
>lists? Obviously, using a handle does some interesting things - it attracts
>attention (why do you use it? why did you choose it?) and it prevents
>people from prejudging you on the basis of gender, age, or other things
>either directly provided or inferrable from your name and/or .sig...
> But then there's the rub of using it to launch anonymous attacks on
>people, and evade responsibility. People *are* using the Internet in this
>way, and it's happening all the time... as for me, I go by the slogan of
>the WELL: "You own your own words." Seeker1 takes full responsibility for
Which I believe to the principle used by most UseNet/listerv/FidoNet readers.
I entered this discussion by noting that Anthro-L's apparent need for more
substantial "real world" biographies was unusual. Danny Yee and I seem to
be debating _why_ Anthro-L wants biographies right now.

>anything he says. Indeed, he takes the additional responsibility of
>consistency, using the same handle everywhere (the WELL, America Online,
>BBSes, etc.) rather than switching identities like many hackers do. People
Just because I'm good at nitpicking, see below, after the part about handles
and BBSs.

>can find out who Seeker1 is, and anything about him; all they have to do is
>ask. I may post as Seeker1, but I don't care whether people really know
>whether Seeker1 is Steve Mizrach or not. Most of you do... and have never
>heard of him.

> Would it be different if Seeker1 was 'really' Clifford Geertz? Or
>someone else with a reputation (good or bad) seeking to conceal it, trying
>to participate in debate free of the 'baggage' people attach to them by
>virtue of the things they've already written? Or just to live through a
>'net personality' free to exhibit traits different from their own in
>'ordinary' conversation?

Here I'm uncertain. As I said before, I think the stability of the
identity is often more significant than the name, and if Seeker1 was revealed
to be Clifford Geertz, it wouldn't invalidate people's opinions of Seeker1,
but it would be a "noisy" complication, and I assume that most people would
be frustrated if all of the Net was constantly changing idenitities (I note
it's a pivotal complaint directed towards the recently (to UseNet) arriving
members of America OnLine. "Those people change their names too often.").
Therefore network users prefer to deal with *stable* identities and minimize
interaction with transient ones (unless, like Detweiler, Bruce Becker, or
John Palmer mangle transience into a signature trait, in which case flames seem
to cascade from all directions).

> It's curious, but the only place where I've ever seen the practice of
>using handles on Internet called into question is on ANTHRO-L. (So much for
>Cultural Relativism.) On FutureCulture, LERI, FringeWare, and many other
>lists, it's basically the norm... now, I could use handles on those lists,
>but then not on ANTHRO-L, but occasionally I lean toward foolish
Which was more or less my point. I think there are "places" in cyberspace
where the local norms accept handles and some places where they don't. Most
local-level BBS systems, for instance, allow handles (secondary names whose
full name is known to at least the sysop), while some don't allow handles of
any sort, and a few even insist on pseodonyms (to the point that even the
sysop doesn't know the user's "real" name). By the initial reaction to your
handle (and the relative rarity of handles on the list otherwise), I think
it's safe to assume Anthro-L's norms are "anti-handle". I'll hazard a guess
that most "academic" listservs have a similar attitude.

Which reminds me. I saw "Steve Mizrach" announce the Surprise Party in the
College echo on FidoNet. I assume you used your real name because the board
required it or you know FidoNet (officially) requires it.

[You quoting me quoting you deleted here to save space.]

>I stand by that statement. The net will not be a Great Leveller as long as
>people keep dragging their hierachies (and forcing people to abide by them)
>back into it.

>>Maybe he's just annoyed by people listing titles in their .sig. No, wait,
>>that wouldn't make sense because he....

>... puts 'bogus' titles in his own .sig? Maybe this is a time-honored
>tradition known as parody? Self-promotion is a fact of life, but some
>people try and promote themselves to different audiences.
> Consider. Some ANTHRO-Lers just put their university in their .sig
>file. Why? Can the fact that they derive some 'institutional prestige' from
>it have something to do with it? Others signify their area of
>specialization, for reasons that James Carrier suggests - to advertise
>competence. Me, I'm advertising something different. Mostly, disrespect for
>arbitrary convention.
I think that .sigs have a predominantly emblematic use in that they usually
signify an individual's connection to a larger group. While university or
employer references are the most obvious, I have to count things like Kibo
numbers, gay/bi/lesbian triangles, and references to PGP keys as signs of
association. My .sig mentions Kent State quite specifically because I
decided a emblem was normative and I wanted my .sig to be beneath notice. As
my personal area of research quite directly involves UseNet and e-mail, I de-
cided it best not to flaunt social conventions early on. I'll get idiosyncra-
tic later.

I'm thinking of taking this one up with Danny if I've got the time. I think
he's putting too much confidence in .sigs as carriers of significant info. I'm
inclined to classify many .sigs as folk art, myself.

>>First, I don't advocate anonymity or anonymous pseudonyms on an academic
>>list. I frankly believe "no professional pseduonyms" should be added to
>>every school's acceptable use policy. Note that I said "professional".
>Please define what, precisely, is a "professional pseudonym." I am curious.
What I meant by "professional" was the idea of trying to carry on "profession-
al" (in our case, anthropological) debates without *ever* revealing one's
primary identity. I'm differentiating "pseudeonym" (an assumed name, with
primary name kept secret) from "handle" (assumed name, primary name publically
available). I've classified the string /Seeker1/ as a handle, since (in your
very first post) you told Anthro-L your real name. If you had gone Xenon on us
( and everything) I would be annoyed on the (admittedly
ambiguous) grounds of it being unprofessional. (I'm not very fo
)(much about building up respect deleted)

>>L. Detweiler's "Anonymity on the Internet" FAQ (posted to groups like
>>alt.anonymous and alt.privacy) has some transcripts of the ultimate
>>UseNet debate on the subject. One might note an8785 managed to get a
>>fairly strong identity w/o a "real" by becoming a symbol of the whole
>Detweiler has, as you probably have heard, gone stark raving bananas, and
>does everything he can to make life on the cypherpunks list a pain in the
>butt, mostly by posting under a wide panoply of pseudonyms. Some
>contribution to the 'debate.'

Nuts or not it's a recognizable identity...often the nuttiest ones are the
most well known. Have you seen the Daniel Karnes/David DeLaney feud over
in news.admin.policy?

> One of the things I'm doing right now is studying Hacker Culture.
>Hackers use handles as a matter of course. In fact, people often know you
>are not a hacker for not using one. Perhaps this is another one of those
>cases of anthros internalizing the habits of the people they study...

No doubt your having a handle would make Hackers more accepting of your
presence, and thoroughly appropriate in that circumstance. Internalization is
understandable as well, although might I ask, how much experience with BBSs,
networks, and computers in general did you have before you began your studies?
I didn't bother to get a modem for my pc until last summer and I seem to have
internalized *a lot* of stuff.

>>ANYWAY, my point (I almost forgot it myself) is that pseduonyms are
>>widely accepted in many places (and often normative on local BBS systems),
>>we're participating in or make generalizations that don't apply to it.
>>That would be rude. But again, I vote "no" to anonymity on Anthro-L.

>As do I - if by "anonymity" one means a complete refusal to be traced or
>otherwise held responsible for what they say.

We agree here, really. As a personal rule, I usually call people by
whatever name they prefer, unless, of course, I can come up with an amusing
and insulting nickname, 'cuz I'm a jerk like that. I should point out, though
that linguists hold the opinion that multiple-naming is related to the
importance of the referrant for the referer. Hence nicknames for friends,
lovers, enemies, and public personages, but relatively direct naming convent-
ions for strangers. Besides, "Seeker1" seems awkward in the second person
to me, and I'm not sure why.

>>I might (no, I will) note here, that when Seeker1 first showed up on
>>Anthro-L, his first post or two got completely ignored (i.e no responses)
>>until he got everybody worked up by mentioning the emotional subject
>>of postmodernism and deconstructionism. My thought at the time was
>>that many of you might not care for talking to someone who used a
>>handle, got involved anyway when he hit a hot button, and then accepted
>>his reality when he revealed himself as a competent conversationalist.

>Why, thank you. ;-) Sadly, this 'history' has ignored various other
>anonymous posters to ANTHRO-L - in particular, "Lt. Commander Data." (I
>like that one, myself.) This may be because they are no longer around, and
>were never asked to defend their praxis...

I forgot about Data when I posted, but I do recall wondering why he wasn't
challenged. Either you set a precedent of some sort, or you handle *alone*
wasn't enough to get people worked up. Now, your .sig on the other hand, I
distinctly recall Daniel Foss taking a shot at. You know, Steve, when you
consciously challenge a hierarchy, you should expect extra attention to be
directed at you. That's basic social psychology.

>>(it started during my winter break), but I'm curious. Does anybody here
>>admit to hesitating (or even refusing on principle) to respond to Steve
>>Mizrach because he had a silly handle?

>Now I resent that. ;-) It's not silly. I think it's much better than
>"AnthroGuy" or "CyberDude" or something like that...

>>If so, when did you change your
>>mind, and why? Or better yet, is there anybody who still won't talk to
>>Seeker1 ? (The latter may answer by e-mail, if they prefer.)

>Hey, they can say it here. I've got an asbestos suit, 100% flameproof.

So far, Dwight Reed's one posted reply is the only one I've received, if it
makes you feel better.

>>If it helps, _I_ was a little annoyed by the
>>handle, but on the other hand, the handle I use on local BBSs (because
>>it's normative there) isn't any better.
>Hey, share it. Hope it's something more interesting than "MikeB," or
>"MBauser," or something like that.

I knew _somebody_ was going to ask. It's "Islander". Chosen because I
wanted something with minimal philosophical, technological, or sexual
connotations (you know how local BBS chats get sometimes) and relative
uniqueness. I grew up on a island (Grosse Ile, Michigan) and that's
something damn few people in the flatlands of Ohio can say.

The one unanticipated flaw being that when I finally meet other BBS users
face to face, it's really easy for them to mishear my name as "Highlander".
They ask me about Gilligan a lot, too.

Michael Bauser (mbauser@kentvm.bitnet or
Dept. of Anthropology, Kent State University, Kent OH 44242, USA