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:
- The actually create two very similar personnas, and then some adminy type does the checking on the logs and all are revealled
- 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.