First thoughts on Inclusion in the Civic Culture

Amartya Sen, somewhere in Development as  Freedom, describes a ladder of inclusion in institutions. At the lowest levels are the excluded who are outcasts from the institution and cannot access it.  The first level of inclusion is when you have access but nothing more. The second when you are informed about changes although you have no real participation in the decision process. The third is when you are consulted in the decision-making process although the consultation is non-binding. The fourth is when you representation within the decision-making process either by voting for a representative or by actually having a vote but no formulation power. The fifth is to have the ability to actually formulate and actively participate in running an institution. The sixth is an odd in that now instead of you being dispensable to the institution it is turned around and the institution is dispensable to you. The seventh is the invert of the first where you no longer participate in the institution as you have moved on elsewhere. It does not quite work for civic culture as this is not a single institution but it does point out that the problems are engaging the people at the very top and very bottom. I think civic culture spends a lot of effort into trying to keep people in the 6th rather than 7th stage and what I want to look at is how to get people into the 1st rather than 0th stage. I am broadly suggesting three stages, specialist civic groups, developmental streams and integration policies.

Specialist groups come in two overlapping forms and are normally charitable. One sort seeks to alleviate the reasons for the exclusion such as poverty, disability or lack of English. The second groups aim to provide spaces where people who are excluded can participate in civic culture in a sheltered environment. This might be by having local shared meals, writing groups for people who are excluded for a specific reason or maybe gardening schemes that help them to grow food. What this does is deliberately lower the bar to access to civic culture but it often does this at the price of limiting the access. Primarily these are charitable groups.

Developmental streams are ways that individuals get the skills that enable them to participate more fully in Civic Culture. The most obvious group of this sort is the Scottish Poverty Truth Commission, who train people to advocate for themselves to people who are unaware. My memory tells me we have had Poverty Truth Hearings in Sheffield in the past but I can find no evidence of this. The nearest group is currently in Leeds. However, that is aimed at the political economy but there are so many ways this could happen. The raising of creative writing in an ES0L class. The ability to find support from community entrepreneurs when a group wants to set up a group for themselves.  This is an activism stream aimed at changing individuals so they can participate.

Integration policies really are the flip side of developmental streams. That is if people are to be helped to be able to join in civic culture, it is also true that civic culture needs to make arrangements so that it can be open to people. The WEA which runs a number of writing classes has clear statements on this and does reduce fees for people who cannot afford full ones, plus make allowances for those with disabilities. I am not suggesting that all should go this way but all institutions in this area might like to consider how they can encourage the participation of the widest range of people in Civic Culture.

I am going to be honest now. I think these three as a minimum are essential if we are to widen participation by those who are currently excluded. It will not be easy, and with every success those that are left will be harder to reach. The option not to deliberately seek their inclusion with society is that this group will grow and eventually we will have a society divided between the stage 7 and the stage 0.

Meta- Institutions: Building Connection, Building Capacity

Jesus bids us shine with a clear, pure light,
Like a little candle burning in the night;
In this world of darkness, we must shine,
You in your small corner, and I in mine

Well, one candle does not give off much light and the further away it is from other candles the less the area around it is illuminated. To actually be able to do things, even things like tying shoe laces, you need to have several candles fairly close together.

The thing is the specialised group functioning on its own may well be doing its utmost to tackle the darkness where it is but without other groups around shining on similar topics it is really not much use. I know the wisdom of doing one thing and only one thing well but it does not work like that. To be effective in civic culture the group needs to do a number of things including:

  • have a basic functioning organisation that means it can meet its legal requirements e.g. handle money, safeguarding, insurance

  • be able to recruit people to be involved with its aims. This may be for a short or long term.  Groups may well need more people involved at specific times e.g. when hosting a specific event or while conducting critical campaigning. They, however, also need people for the long haul otherwise the next time the issue comes up everyone starts again from scratch.
  • effective communication channels within the group so that those involve know what is going on at a level where they are happy.

What is more, as these are shared by all groups they lead to duplication.

Now we have some meta-institutions but they are sector based. Voluntary Action Sheffield (VAS) probably has the widest brief. It states it role as:

VAS supports voluntary and community organisations in Sheffield at all stages of development

This can cover things such a churches, tenants groups as well as charities. It aims to link volunteers to such groups. They “provide particular support with legal matters, accountancy, payroll, HR advice, IT consultancy, CRM software, fundraising, development and enterprise.

However, let’s say you wanted to join a writers group. It is no good going to VAS. Indeed there is not at the moment any organisation that has a list of groups. My suggestions would be to look for a writing class with the WEA and select the most appropriate of those or wait for Off the Shelf where a number of groups showcase their work.  Then you could look out for readings such as Writers in the Bath or the Gauntlet. The only snag with that is that you need to be part of the writing scene to find out what is happening and the best way to be part of the scene is to be in a writing group. Now, this is particularly bad at present as there used to be a group called Writing Yorkshire that had an overarching brief. It closed a year ago.

So what we have at the moment is a third sector where we have volunteer groups who do charitable work set up in their corner, interest groups setting up their corners and professional bodies such as  Med-Chi or Statistics Activity Network each in their own corner. I could add campaign groups, political parties and trades unions. There are synergies between groups. The problem is to create something similar to Sheffield Chamber of Commerce but focussed on the Civic Sector rather than the commercial and with an added brief to foster relationships across sub-sectors of the brief.

This is necessary because at present the cohesion relies on a small number of people who belong or support a wide range of groups. These individuals are capable when they want to, of pulling together a number of different groups. Far more importantly they are able to put people in contact with each other. The more such people there are the healthier and more coherent a civic culture is. If I were to play with the idea I would base it around a monthly meeting but with a four-month rotation: one month would have a purely  social event, another a talk on an area of interest, a training and the finally may be a sub-sector introduction with a speed dating element even maybe crossing over with the chamber of commerce.


Imaging a Vibrant Civic Culture

There are two levels to this. The big level is the institutional one and the small level which is the individual. We need a model that sees these not as in opposition but as complimentary,

Institutional Ecology

Firstly let me deal with the fact that we have a limited understanding of institution largely formed by work of Foucault and Goffman who worked with big or total institutions. In fairness to Foucault, his institutions were the creation of society and not the actual organisations that society had created. As a result, we tend to think as institutions as complex organisations that have legal structure and seek to control the behaviour of those who come under their care. The archetype is the Total Institution where it is possible for an individual to exist in an artificial environment that takes complete care of their needs and seeks to make them behave according to its aims. The classic example is the asylum, but you can think of Radical Reformation Churches as striving to do this.

What I want to introduce are two different concepts that together reshape the whole way we look at institutions. The first I am going to call the partial institution. It does not desire to be everything to everyone but has limited and well-defined aims. The second is the meta-institution which is an institution that seeks to do things for other institutions. This might be to provide venues for them to meet, provide legal advice, provide training or build alliances between different partial institutions.  Total and total-like institutions do not need these meta-institutions; they have the resources internally to meet these needs. However, partial institutions by their limited nature do require these sort of institutions.

Now I can get down to specific. Most of a good civic culture would not be made up of big or total institutions and civic culture itself is not a total institution.  Rather it is an ecology of partial institutions with meta-institutions existing symbiotically with the other partial institutions.  The partial-institutions would be numerous and diverse. The roles that they fulfil within the ecology would differ as their aims differ and there is no sense that one shape fits all. The legal framework in which they exist would seek to be commensurate with the purposes that they exist for and not force a conformity of organisational structure. It would be totally normal for these partial institutions to be formed and to close. A healthy ecology is marked by the creation rate being equal to or exceeding the closure rate and the mean survival time being a reasonable but not excessive time. There would be enough interconnections between partial institutions that the ecology is connected.

Let me expand that last sentence to deal with meta-institutions. There are two types of connections that partial institutions can have with each other. The first one is the connection by an individual. When an individual is active within two partial institutions they produce a connection between them. This may or may not be actualised. Some people are very good at keeping parts of their life separate, others naturally connect people to other people. The second is through meta-institutions. Where partial institutions use the same meta-institutions then there are links between them. What is important is that there are good meta-institution within the ecology. If the links are solely by individuals then the ecology is very open to rupture and breakdown. For this reason, I would argue that there needs to be redundancy and overlap between meta-institutions as if there isn’t then the failure of a meta-institution will lead to problems in the ecology.

Individual Engagement

It is possible for individuals to keep in contact with civil ecology just through friendship but it is difficult. Indeed when a friendship group goes beyond the purely spontaneous it becomes one of the smaller partial institutions. For a healthy civic culture, the aim should be that everyone is involved in at least one partial institution. I am not at present defining what involvement is and that ideally people should engage on average with two to three partial institutions. I acknowledge that many people will find they use largely the same set of partial institutions as their friends. This is not a problem. The problem with engagement with a single partial institution is that sends that institution towards becoming a total institution. What would be very good is if these partial institutions were diverse not three reading group but perhaps a church, a film club and a protest group.

Another thing is that if this is done well we should be able to link anyone within a civic culture to anyone else participating within 4 degrees of separation rather than the usual six. It might be silly but when we start to get this level of separation then it is as if the person on the edge are just friends of a friend of a friend. That changes our perspective on who other people are.

Some care needs to be taken that people are engaged at the two extremes of society. At the bottom level, this is because people often have such difficulty surviving that they do not have the resources to engage with any institution if it is not going to help them survive is. If we can connect in the friendship groups that they have already into the wider meshes so much the better. To do this the institutions that help them survive need to change their perspective and see the individuals who are engaging with them, not as clients but part of the structure. The second group are those among the very rich who wish to abrogate their belonging to society.  To counteract this firstly the institution ecology must not be seen as just that which cares for the disadvantaged. It also needs to have a focus on providing resources that can not simply be paid for. That means a move away from an economy where everything can simply be paid for.

The Social Meshes

The result of these partial institutions and individual belonging is that we create meshes that connect people.  If you want to think them as a net (or nets) where the people are strands and the partial institutions are the knots. The more separate meshes there is the more movement there is in society and the more change there is and the easier it is for someone to become dislodged from the edge of a mesh. On the other hand, a highly connected society becomes almost static. It is impossible for new partial institutions to become and the old ones tend to become moribund. Indeed in the end, if the meshes become total then any change threatens the whole and revolution becomes inevitable. So we need a balance between the need to adapt and the need to keep people in the mesh.

The job immediately at hand is to create healthy meshes

  • Build mechanism for getting people more engaged with partial institutions and wider civic society
  • The to build meta-institutions that support a healthy ecology in which partial institutions can be born, grow, fail, and die.
  • To create mechanisms that support people who are likely to become disconnected from the social meshes.



There is work to do!

I have been holding back from writing this and will probably take a while to publish. People are hurt upset and angry and nobody likes someone telling them some home truths in that situation but there are some that need to be said.

We need to become builders and, unfortunately, our house is in such a state that we are going to have to start at the foundations.

Let me tell the uncomfortable story.

The people who lived through World War II seem to have a very specific focus afterwards. They wanted to make the world a better place for all in society than it was before the war. A place where the need to go through experiences like those suffered by many during the fighting did not reoccur.  They sought to build the institutions that would make sure that this happened and those institutions would be so strong that the children would not need to build them again.

Little did they see that their children far from appreciating those institutions would see them as expensive, unnecessary baggage and set about dismantling them. Anyone Baby Boomer or member of Generation X feeling smug about this and thinking I am talking of Millenials, better do a quick rethink. It is us, the Baby Boomer and Generation X who are those children. Baby Boomers were born to those who fought in the war, Generation X are the children of those who grew up during the war. We have had the luxury where of living in a world where no major international powers fought each other. They have held proxy wars, been involved wars in attempts to control other parts of the world and there have been wars between weaker countries

We claimed this as the removal of these institutions would empower people and increase equality.  The discourse became ‘institution bad’. The irony was this undiscriminating approach to institutions is that it attacked the most vulnerable institutions first. These were not the big ones that reflected the interests of the powerful but the small ones that voiced the interests of the everyday citizen. The result is today that to control the power within the institutions you either need to have money or friends. What have disappeared or are under attack are those institutions that gave people influence because they existed.

Now I do not want to go back to flawed institutions. We need to learn from the failing of institutions in the past. They built institutions that saw the state providing the mesh that held society together. The Victorians before them built institutions that saw philanthropic paternalism of large total institutions as the solution to societies problems. I do not want to recreate the past but I do want to find a way forward to create a society that has institutions that connect us into a common whole and where people are not allowed to fall through the cracks.

Why we need to imagine the New Jerusalem

File:Konrad von Grünenberg - Beschreibung der Reise von Konstanz nach Jerusalem - Blatt 35v-36r.jpgI did not think when I posted the previous the blog on a need for liberals to look forward that it was the start of a series.  It was a one-off blog but I have since been fleshing things out a lot more. Let me start with the question “When did social progress occur?” There seems to me to be two key times when that happened in relatively modern history. Quite a lot of social progress happened during mid to late Victorian times and then also post-World War II. First I need to make clear one critique here is not sustainable. These were not times when the “City of Gold” became a reality, they are times when moves were made that reflect what I see as the social reform was achieved towards something inspired by the imagery of it.

In Revelation 21:1-4 (ESV) we read:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”

It is a place without pain and suffering and where God dwells with humanity so things happen according to his will. At its core “imagining the city” must take seriously the reduction of pain and suffering and living in harmony with God. For me, harmony with God is not marked by religious fervour but by the way we treat other people as icons of Christ particularly the weak and the marginalised.

Before I tell you what in my opinion they have in common,  let me tell you one significant difference. They are not both times of wealth in the UK.  Yes,  the British Empire was at its zenith during the Victorian times and we manufactured goods that the World wanted. However, the 1950s were post-World War II and for much of that time, the UK was experiencing austerity.  What is more, the British Empire was largely being dismantled and in the words of 1066 and All That, “America was thus clearly top nation”, So this progress was made despite financial constraint rather than by extra.

What they have in common is both stand out as high tide marks of institutional strength. The Victorian model was that largely of philanthropy and campaigning, while the 1950s was state formalised institutionalism. If you like Victorian was bottom-up while 1950s was top-down. Both were followed by anti-institutional movements. Now institutionalism is not in itself what I think of as good, I think that for people to be busy creating institutions, there needs to be a good cohesive civil society. A society where the owner of the biggest conglomerate feels that they are connected to the sick child in a damp B&B.

Many of the old-fashioned civic institutions are failing. I do not mean state institutions like NHS; I mean things like Working Men’s Clubs, Trade Unions, Literary and Philosophy Societies, Local Professional Associations. These are groups that make up a lot of the third space. By this I mean a space between the Big Institutions – e.g. State, Finacial Markets and Business and the closed small space of family and friends. In this, I am picking quite strongly on what Ray Oldenburg calls “Third Space“. The difference is that whereas he talks of individual Third Spaces, I tend to talk of the whole as “Third Space”. His US argument and from what I know of the last fifty years in the UK would suggest a steady decline in the institutions in this space. The occasions where we function outside the two sphere’s of family and work has decreased because of this.

With the failure of these broad -based civic institutions,  many activities formally done bythem have been taken over by professional bodies. I freely acknowledge that the number of charities in the United Kingdom has increased as Hilton et al state. What has to be understood is the nature of the charity has also changed. It is no longer a group of like-minded individuals who get together to accomplish a task and may raise money with respect to it. There is a separation between those who do the work and are financially paid to do so and those who raise the money. To belong to many of these charities involves no more than putting your hand in your pocket. You never need to meet another silly faced human.  If you decide to raise money that normally involves some interaction with others but often largely those individuals are colleagues and family. The others on the increase are small caring and support groups such as described by Robert Wuthnow. Although in Britain they are less likely to be Bible study and more likely to be hobby focused.  Their problem is they often only attract a very specific demographic. Campaign groups which are also on the rise seem to adopt one or other of these two models. The medium sized group that attracted people from a variety of settings to engage with its aims and more generally socialise is in steep decline. This is in line with Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, which is often wrongly represented as portraying an overall fall.

This means that the following is largely true:

  • many people exist in a social bubble largely made up of family and colleagues with few friendships that go outside this
  • equally the charities, support groups and campaign groups also function in a bit of bubble and do not necessarily connect to those outside their sphere. What relationships there are tend to be with like. Writers groups will connect to other writers groups, feminist groups to other feminist groups, health charity to health charity etc.
  • the small support/hobby groups do not have the skill to grow much beyond their current base yet are probably the groups that engage most fully many people. People do not get experience in other groups to bring back to the group and given current legislative practice, there are major disincentives to doing so.
  • Many people are not engaged outside of work and family (close friends) networks. When these break down they can very easily lead to those individuals being isolated.
  • cohesion between this third space relies on a few individuals who are active in multiple organisations. These individuals are increasingly either becoming professionals or are facing burn-out.
  • that means that Milgram’s Six Degrees of Separation is only maintained by a small thread because it is these cross civic institution ties that are essential for the process to work. What we are getting is smaller more highly connected groups and then fewer links to wider groups.

I think I will leave to the next post why this is of concern. Let it just be stated is what I am describing is a thin gruel for sustaining a common life. However it is not good enough to know this is thin gruel, we need to imagine what it would be like to have a properly sustaining common life.


Why I post pro-refugee, pro-immigration and pro-muliculturalism stuff to Facebook

A while ago a friend posted some anti-asylum stuff to Facebook. Typical right wing hyperbole, the thing was this friend should have known better. The church she goes to supports Sheffield’s City of Sanctuary. It was fairly easy to counteract the stuff from the governments own sources! She responded with “at least now we can talk about it”.

Well reporting this sort of stuff is not a good idea, arguing nearly always forces people into a more extreme position than they held before. I have known few people rethink positions in arguments unless they started the discussion in an attempt to rethink. So I decided to disengage. I could I suppose have deleted the post from my Facebook stream.

The problem was not that people held it but that I knew she was in contact with a number of people who held much stronger views than me on this and she had not picked it up. So I started to think about it. I decided it was time I put a marker.

Firstly I did not really want to join a campaign, there were plenty very worthwhile ones but I felt that campaigns are often over strident and I wanted to take the pressure off people. I also decided that putting out a lot of statistics and legal stuff was not going to get me anywhere.

Secondly I decided that what I needed to do was to encourage people to see asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants as fellow human beings. That meant seeking out the human interest stories, the people who relate their experience with individuals who can make the day to day reality come to life in this country.

Thirdly my task was to try and get people to think and not to tell them what to do. Doing this meant that I needed to limit the amount of stuff I put on Facebook stream. There is lots of stuff out there, but I wanted not to become a person who only talks about one topic. There had to be other topics in discussion and these had to be non campaign as well. Only when this was part of the mix on my stream would it be effective. This is also why I will post when I sign a petition but I am not going to say to other to do it as well. It is up to you.

I do not know how long I will keep it up, but I do want to try and do it for quite a while.

Two types of Doctorate

I am coming to the conclusion that there are two types of PhD in existence. Let me start with the prompts for this thought. There is Pat Thomas’ blog on enjoying academic work and also a post on LinkedIn that suggested that we should no longer have part time PhDs.

I am going to consider two doctoral students. There is on the one hand Bob. Bob is young bright and wants to be an academic, he is interested in his nanotechnology and has got a fully funded PhD in one of the major research teams in the world. As this is a research team, his supervisor has chosen the topic, he works with other researchers and team meetings are an important part of his research. He has presented a couple of papers at conference and has been first author on one and a third author on another paper. He sees research as collaborative but knows that he will have to write up his research though he can expect his supervisor to vet it closely. He works long hours but also is a long distance runner and takes his training quite seriously

Then there is Bill, he is bright, but as he has spent most of his life teaching in variety of schools he is no longer young.  Having taken early retirement and come into a legacy, he has decided to follow through on his interest in the establishment of the local schools prior to the education act. Wanting to turn what had been an interest for a number of years into something more formal, he had approached a lecturer at a nearby university who had an interest in the history of education, who had agreed to take him on in a part time basis, having seen some of the writing he had already done for a local history society. Bill is grateful for the access to the library, his supervisors supervision and the occassional chance to meet other people in the area at the occasional seminar. He has paid his own way to one or two conferences and presented a paper there. However he has several articles published of which he is sole author. Bob puts what time he can find into his thesis between looking after his wife who confined to a wheel chair with arthritus.

These are of course fictional and deliberately drawn to be polar opposites. Bob is your quintessential career academic. He is enthused with the ideas of nanotechnology and is happy to be doing research into an area of it. That his supervisor actually decided what his thesis is about, does not really matter too much, he just is excited about studying it. He expects that at least at some stage to work with other resesearch teams and to have to work up the system to become lead researchers. For him the doctorate it just part of his involvement with nanotechnology. He would be unhappy if he did not get a job that allowed him to continue in this area of study. For Bill the opposite is true. If his supervisor started to try to direct him away from the investigation of origins of local schools to something the supervisor was more interested in, then Bill is likely to just walk away. Bill is not wanting the job that comes from having a Doctorate he is wanting the ability to indulge his interest in a topic that enthuses him and is paying for it. Bill is not going to be upset if he does not get a job from his research, partly because he is not at that age and partly because he is acknowledges that that is not why he did this.

The result is that Bob and Bill look at working in academia very differently. For Bob this is his equivalent of a being an elite sportman, it is what he is working for and he darn well hopes to get there. For Bill it would a surprise and a delight that enables him to continue exploring what he is interested in.

Now what I am going to suggest is that Bill will be far more aware of his enjoyment of academia then Bob. Not because Bob is a worse academic, he isn’t, indeed the stats show Bob has a much greater potential to be a leader in his field then Bill, but simply because where as for Bob being in academia is something he has striven and worked for; for Bill what has driven him is the curiousity and he finds himself in academia because that is where his curiosity has led him and therefore he receives the environment of academia as gift where as Bob sees it as a goal.

Out of Our Control

A blog “Growing Green Patches” blogs about her daughters attitude to Storm Sandy and I am struck by the familiarity of the situation. The thing is her daughter who is staying near New York is unconcerned about it, while she several thousand miles away is very concerned. Many will say as she implies that this is just a mothers reaction but I want to suggest something more is going on.

I have been there, the first time I recall this was during fuel shortages during the Winter of Discontent. Our relatives in South Africa had us all frozen to death in our beds, in actual fact, my sister and I were enjoying extra days holidays from school and every time the fuel tank seemed to be on the point of running out Dad tipped it up slightly more so as to allow the oil to flow towards the outlet which was not at the lowest point of the tank.

My fathers explanation at the time was newspaper hype, but thinking back, about Storm Sandy and other occasions I do not believe that. There is as much hype where we are as anywhere else.

Then there are my experiences of stalking. The first I was involved in it was not me being stalked! I can remember being very worried about my friend who was being stalked. I can only put some of that down to the fact that I knew I was really out of the situation and did not know what was going on and could not influence it. Equally some years later I ended up with a minor stalker. I would not class it as in the same category as the previous one but this time it was me being stalked. Oddly enough it was not until others began to pick up on this that I realised that people were actually worried about what was happening. I felt no personal threat at all. The thing was I knew what was going on, I had at least some ability to determine what was going on and yes some of that was to ask for help.

So what is happening in these situations. The person involved is nearly always well aware about what is going on. They are making rational decisions on what to do in the situation and then getting on with life. Oddly this provides a cushion from the over active imagination when you start thinking about what might happen. Participating actually makes you more able to cope with things. Those outside the situation are unable to see the elements of choice within it and their dire imagination takes hold.

Or take my parents my mum has mild dementia, nothing unusual in that know that before she showed signs of developing it both my parents thought dementia was one of the worst things that could happen to a person. Now they are living with it and adapting to it. Again the perspective of being directly involved seems to make the whole thing less difficult, probably because both my Mum and Dad are finding ways to adapt and tackle it.

Come to think of it, I can see this pattern in a lot of situations. When we imaginatively think our selves into a situation we tend to concentrate on what is being done to an individual and not consider the individuals experience of agency. The response is then a largely emotional one, while for those in a situation the response is often at least in part rational  (ask now what do I do, weighing up the options and responding).

I do not think this is quite normalising things. People know the situation is abnormal yet theie agency within it enables a far more pragmatic approach than those outside of it.

Respect the Culture of the Internet

An incident still annoys me and it is probably ten years since it happened. I was studying Sociology and doing one of the how to courses, which had its bit on ethics and the need to anonymise. One guy did a bit on exploring internet culture and the thing that rankles is that he totally disregarded this advice, so much so I am sure I know and can get in touch with one of his informants.

He took a bit of conversation from a chat room. It was a short exchange between two people using nom de plumes. It looked to him as if people were using pen names and therefore he thought he did not need to anonymise. What is more the name was short and not a recognaisable name in any language. Surely this name was not a give-away. It is, it belongs to one specific person who has used it for the best part of twenty years or more. If I see that name anywhere on the internet I assume it is her who typed that. What is more the personna she portrays in the interaction is typical of her personna elsewhere where I do know her.

Lets go back to the beginning and to usenet boards and maybe even earlier. Names were limited, the maximum length was eight characters if you were lucky. So you could not have JohnSmith as your name. The challenge in those days was to find an eight letter code that was both memorable and not taken. Once found people tended to stick with it. In a very real sense they developed an ownership of that code. Towards the end of those days a six letters in a search engine would have got you most of my internet activity except work stuff (there it was five). Now you’d have to go down half a page to find something that relates to me as others use that code. However some have stuck with their name or code and some of those are very short.Therefore when people move from forum to forum you can look out for the same names and find the same people.

So despite what the social scientists like to think, the internet was never a lot of nameless geeks rampaging around having careless fun. The geeks from fairly early on established a culture that maintained identity across bulletin boards, message boards and discussion rooms. There was no policing except the more codes you used the more names and codes you had to do, sock puppetry (having multiple codes on a single discussion board, was looked down upon). In a stuation where discussion boards appeared and disappeared pretty frequently by doing so people often knew who they were talking to or at least knew what previous interaction they could recall.

Now with something like twenty years of being on the internet (alright so I was technically on one of its precursors in 1984 and I have very rarely been off since but using really started around 1992 with the present job). I can say that on the internet it is possible to fool everyone sometimes and some people all the time but it isn’t possible to fool everyone all the time. It is simply too much effort for most people to keep two or more different consistent personas going. They normally make one of two mistakes:

  1. The actually create two very similar personnas, and then some adminy type does the checking on the logs and all are revealled
  2. The go for the spectacular, with heightened stories or crusading for a particular perspective (Kierkegaard the first internet troll?). These draw attention, almost certainly as much suspicious attention as any others. Such people are either unmasked or are asked to leave as they are causing problems.

To do it successfully you must keep a low key, everyday persona who is distinct from yourself for long periods of time. Its not easy, imagine trying to write fiction that is as boring to yourself as paint drying and you get some idea of what they have to do. My suspicion is the vast majority of people who try that get bored. What is the point of being , clever if no-one knows about it and if anyone knows then your game is up and you are no longer clever.

So when you investigate social behaviour on the internet, please do not fall for the simplistic assumption that pen-names are anonymous. They may be or they may be the way that individual is most widely known.