I'll Put My Name On This Piece Declaring It Idiotic To Argue Against Anonymity Online

from the that's-just-wrong dept

This happens every few months — whenever there’s a flare up of “bad behavior” on the internet. Some genius thinks he can solve everything by just “getting rid of online anonymity.” The latest to step into this well trodden, widely debunked, canyon of ridiculousness… is Lance Ulanoff over at Mashable. He seems to think that he’s the first person to seriously consider the idea of doing away with online anonymity, and it only serves to show that he’s barely thought through the issue at all. First off, it’s simply wrong to associate anonymous comments with trollish comments. Yes, some anonymous comments are trollish, but most are not. And, in fact, many trollish, harassing comments come from people who have their real names attached to them. This has been studied widely, but Ulanoff doesn’t even bother to look for evidence, he just goes with his gut. The largest single platform for harassment online… has been Facebook, which famously requires “real names.” That hasn’t stopped harassment, and nor would it do so on Reddit.

Ulanoff completely brushes off privacy concerns, by misunderstanding them. Completely:

Please, please, spare me all the privacy arguments. I know that each and every one of you is terrified that if your real names appear anywhere online, a cyber-crook will start wearing your identity like a cheap suit. Of course, you often forget that you?re sometimes complicit, in some fashion, in the crime: Answering phishing attack emails, using terrible passwords, not shredding your snail mail. Granted, sometimes the cyber thievery happens when hackers scoop up tons of private data on a third-party server.

Yes. This all happens. And I still want to end online anonymity ? even if it does leave us a little more exposed online and, though not my objective, destroys Reddit.

Preventing cybercrime is not the main reason why people like to remain anonymous online (again, if that were true, why would anyone be using Facebook?). Many people have really good reasons for wanting to be anonymous online, having to do with not revealing details of their personal life. Want to have a discussion about surviving rape? Maybe you don’t want to blast that out to the public. Hell, want to have a discussion about being stalked online? Perhaps not the best thing to put your name out there in public, right? Or what if you’re criticizing a boss? Or whistleblowing? Or questioning anyone who has authority to make your life miserable?

Ulanoff lives in a privileged world where apparently he can’t ever imagine needing to speak truth to power (this is a reporter?!?) or where he might want to be able to discuss things personally without everyone in the world knowing about it. Lucky him. Most of the world is not so lucky.

We need to shut down online anonymity and stop confusing it with privacy. The answer to protecting yourself online is not to be someone else and please do not talk to me about online identity as if it?s some fluid thing to be protected. If you officially change your name, your address, your email, your phone number, please, by all means, change it online. ?FunkyDawg? is not your identity. It?s a handle.

On virtually all of my social accounts, I am ?LanceUlanoff.? Granted, I?ve built a tiny online brand around my name, but I?ve also found this transparency much easier to manage than a bunch of random handles and identities. It also keeps me honest. I am accountable for the things I post on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Again, this is because you’re in a position of privilege where you don’t need to go in search of people to talk to about how your parents beat you. Or you don’t need to find a community to talk to about coming out. Or about finding a new job. There are all sorts of reasons why anonymity matters, and Ulanoff doesn’t seem to have considered any of them. And they’re not just the “extreme” cases of rape or sexual orientation or things like that either. There are lots of reasons why people might not want to reveal their personal interests or hobbies. What if all of your co-workers are staunch Republicans and you secretly support Hillary Clinton? What if you don’t really want the world to know that you are the world’s most knowledgeable expert on the TV sitcom Taxi? It could be anything. Maybe you like steamy romance novels and you think your friends would make fun of you for that. Maybe you think hockey is a stupid sport, but all your friends are really into it. Not everyone’s life is an open book, nor should it be. There are lots of reasons we don’t reveal everything about us, and it takes quite a lot of ignorance to assume that just because you happen to live in a comfy situation where your life is an open book that everyone else’s should be as well.

Even if sites like Reddit continue to allow members to hide behind screen names, they should know, in the Reddit system, who they are: Full name, age, birthdate and maybe even address. If Reddit does this, it will not only cut down the number of attacks, it will likely scrub Reddit of much of its disgusting, hateful and racist content. It might also help the site, assuming it survives, monetize more activity than it is now.

Again, this is a total myth. Facebook has much of that info and yet all sorts of hate and attacks happen on Facebook all the time. Ulanoff can’t seem to get over his initial conflation of “anonymity” with “bad behavior.” There is some overlap in the venn diagram, but it’s nowhere near as complete as he seems to think it is. Also, if Reddit has that info, then it’s at risk. Notice all those hacks and data leaks lately? How safe will the woman seeking help to leave her abusive husband feel knowing that some hackers might leak her name and address at any moment?

None of this, by the way, should hamper ?Free Speech? on Reddit.

Yes, actually it will. A ton. Because all those people who would like to feel comfortable discussing things in such settings will go away. The Supreme Court itself has made it clear that anonymity is a key part of free speech. Ulanoff should familiarize himself with some of its statements, such as:

Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.

And yet, Ulanoff ridiculously thinks that he’s the one protecting people from an “intolerant society” because he’s too ignorant and too privileged to recognize all those people who rely on anonymity.

Oh, and then he closes it out with his own, incorrect, definition of the First Amendment:

I know that most of the members who hated Pao and wanted her out were angry about the necessary changes she was making and they often decried her actions as an attack on free speech. Sorry, but, in my book, hate speech does not equal free speech.

In your book it may not, but under the Constitution it does. That does not mean, of course, that Reddit needs to put up with hate speech. That’s a decision for the company to make on its own. But Ulanoff’s argument here is so confused as to be laughable. It’s like a high school student who just discovered these issues and didn’t bother to do any research before spouting off his opinion.

The facts are pretty clear: anonymous speech is incredibly important in protecting free speech, mostly in protecting people from harassment or risks. It is a key tool that allows people who are facing difficult situations to find each other and discuss. On top of that, most content from anonymous individuals online is perfectly reasonable and fits within community norms. Finally, requiring real names has never been shown to adequately limit trollish behavior. So Ulanoff is spouting off an idea that puts more people at risk, limits communities that need such connections the most and does nothing to actually stop trollish behavior.

If, however, these Reddit members really believe it is their right to harass, spew hate and post their insane ideas about various races, then do it without the mask of a user name. Put your real name and photo on the site. Stand up for what you believe in, you bastards.

Again the ignorance and the privilege shine through. Ulanoff can’t imagine a world in which anyone would say something anonymously unless they’re being a “bastard.” You’d think that someone who has spent as much time online as Ulanoff apparently has would at least know enough to do some basic research, or at least talk to some people who actually do rely on anonymity every day.

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Comments on “I'll Put My Name On This Piece Declaring It Idiotic To Argue Against Anonymity Online”

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Anonymous Coward says:

One of the bastards here...

One of the primary reasons I don’t like posting with my real name is because I don’t want people I know to see *where* I’m posting, what I’m posting about, and how often I’m posting.

I enjoy political discussions, but I don’t generally enjoy being confronted by my friends/family/coworkers on my political views.

I’d like to continue doing this in private, during my spare time, during work breaks, etc. I’d like to not be harassed or “educated” by friends and family on their personal views and how they conflict with mine.

I also don’t want to enter my personal details into every website I might read or comment on.

I don’t have either a facebook or twitter account (and probably never will)… The few accounts I do have are extremely barren, as I refuse to put any material on them that might be controversial or open me up to a rash of bullshit that I don’t want or need.

TexasAndroid (profile) says:

Re: One of the bastards here...

This, pretty much. I like to keep my online and offline life separate. I’ve used the same online handle for a long time, and have left quite a history trail. But I don’t go around offline broadcasting what that handle is. Nor do I like to have much identifying information available online.

One reason for this, among many, is that as a Wikipedia admin, it’s practically in my job description that I’m going to be pissing people off now and then. I enforce rules, and often enough am telling people that they, or their band, or their company, or their organization, etc., do not meet the requirements to have a page on Wikipedia. People do not like being told NO. And limiting their ability to track me back to my offline self just seems like a prudent way of handling things.

David Poole (profile) says:

nametags in public

Requiring real names online would be the same as requiring we wear name tags–“Hello, My Name is Firstname Lastname”–in public.

Want to go to a coffee shop with some friends and talk about the latest Star Wars? Better bring your name tag so everything you say is correctly ascribed to you by all present.

Want to go wander around the farmer’s market, talking to vendors about their products? Sorry, full name tag required so if you say something mean about someone’s product, everyone will know who said it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: nametags in public

Don’t most people already have smartphones w/ cloud storage?

Seriously though: let’s just switch to government issued SIM cards with ICCIDs replaced with SSNs. Toss in an AR app so that we can all point our cameras at anyone else and see a detailed history, current employment, annual income, political party affiliations, religion, etc.


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: nametags in public

But perhaps someone can identify your handwriting. Or, if you used a printer, someone can identify small imperfections within the print that can uniquely identify your specific printer when analyzed closely.

Take a picture with your smartphone, scan an image with a scanner, post it on the Internet thinking it can’t be traced back to you? Someone can identify imperfections in the lens that can show up in the picture when analyzed closely.

Heck, I remember reading that some companies have previously purposely put unique identifying information within printers, scanners, and cameras that can uniquely trace a picture or printout to the specific device responsible when the print or image is analyzed closely.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: nametags in public

Heck, I remember reading that some companies have previously purposely put unique identifying information within printers, scanners, and cameras that can uniquely trace a picture or printout to the specific device responsible when the print or image is analyszed closely.

That is of limited value in identifying a person unless there is a database of owners with their address. Oh wait, many companies want owners to register for warranty purposes…..

Anonymous Coward says:

Chilling effects of forced identification

I have at times volunteered in various online communities as a subject matter expert. I use a persistent pseudonym in each community (so you can link up my posts to each other, but not to my real name). I am pleased to state that other posters consider my content helpful to the point that they will direct me to threads I missed, on the belief that I can provide help in that thread.

For personal reasons, I absolutely and immediately reject any community where “real names” are a requirement to join, regardless of whether I expect to post anything sensitive in that community. For that reason, I have no Facebook account, no Google+ account, etc. I would sadly, but without hesitation, abandon any community that switched on such a policy.

SteveMB (profile) says:

Re: Chilling effects of forced identification

Actually, I’ve created placeholder Facebook and Google accounts in my real name just to make sure somebody can’t steal it (an act which would be much easier if “Lance Ulanoff”* had his way).

Do I have other accounts under some other plausible-sounding “real name”? Maybe. Maybe not. You don’t know, and neither do they.

*I put the name in quotes since I have no way of knowing whether it’s his(?) real name, to point that out and thereby underscore the fatuousness of his(?) position.

brainmist (profile) says:

Re: Chilling effects of forced identification

I’ve used primarily one pseudonym and its nickname (that’s right, my pseudonym is so old it has a nickname) online for nearly 25 years. For perspective, Zuckerberg was six years old when Rain Mist first started making political commentary. It’s a concrete enough legacy that I’ve used the nickname when I felt like I needed some level of anonymity for my pseudonym. It’s a name that carries greater chance of online recognition, and greater attachment online, than my actual legal name.

This idea that a username isn’t “real”? Is a noob concept. Back when we were logging into local bbses on black screened dumb terminals with green text, a username served to provide a bit of adjectorial info on the user. It provided extra context in lieu of, say, facial features, to what would otherwise be a jumble of nonsense syllables in an era when one’s last name has no connection to one’s profession. Your user name was a tidy bit of bespoke when making first impressions; it was part of our assertion that, regardless of how our parents had named us and society might categorize us and stereotype us as geeks, back when geeking was uncool, online we owned every piece of our identity.

I was real named on Facebook by some nasty little (anonymous, just roll around in that hypocrisy) troll, for who knows what reason. I refuse to surrender my identity for this decade’s social network, because it is replaceable, has competitors, and, with its current appeal being largely to much older users, seems likely to be approaching the end of its lifespan. My user name? Non-negotiable.

Entertainingly, when I got on G+ as an early/ beta adopter, I did it with a professional name and my username. I also sent a long explanation to their feedback system regarding my use of a legacy name, because, while Facebook is trivial to me and seems likely to wane eventually, Google has far more weight and durability; life would get uncomfortable without them. They never replied….but they also made no moves against what remains my primary account. Last year they dropped the “real name” requirement entirely. And they’ve always done a great job of allowing compartmentalization, so your political comments can stay tidily within a target circle.

Seegras (profile) says:

Re: Re: Chilling effects of forced identification

Same here. My nickname is real.

Most people know me (and call me) by it. Including those at my workplace.

You can google it. You probably wouldn’t find my homepage when looking for my given name, but you sure find it with my nick.

So yeah, I do have a problem with “real names policy”, because actually, the name they want is much less identifying, does much less belong to me than my nickname.

Anonymous Coward says:

Registration isn't always easy

So, registration isn’t always easy. Some sites don’t allow the email addresses as the username, you must select a screen ID. If the ID you use on all of your other sites is in use, you have to select something else. It’s madness when you have different login IDs on each site.

Screen ID: Bill
Taken. Maybe Bill37?

Screen ID: _Bill
Taken. Maybe _bBill05?

Screen ID: ____________Bill
Screen ID too long.


Anonymous Coward says:

I have a coworker whose wife has been stalked by an ex-boyfriend and he’s been violent in the past. Since the ex knows they’re married, he insists that his information is not posted on the company website so that the ex will not know approximately where they live.

My coworker would tell this reporter that protecting his troll-harassed fragile ego is nothing compared to protecting your wife from a potentially homicidal maniac.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

It’s really weird. I always post as an AC on principle, even though I don’t tend to make any overly polarizing or trollish comments.

The only times I’ve been glad to be anon are those when I tell what I believe to be really, really bad jokes. And of course, those are the only ones that have ever gotten a funniest of the week.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

The most common reason why anonymity is good

Yes, it’s important for people who want to discuss things like their experiences being raped, etc.

But the best reason for anonymity is much simpler and more common than that. It lets us do online what we have always been able to do in real life: to be able to interact with different groups of people in relative isolation.

Without being able to have this sort of isolation, all anyone can safely do is engage in the type superficial “public speak” that you have to do whenever you are speaking in front of a wide mix of people.

Anonymity allows people to speak their true thoughts on any topic. Get rid of anonymity and you get rid of a tremendous amount of valuable exchange of ideas even on topics that aren’t particularly controversial or sensitive.

I’ve maintained multiple online identities for decades for this exact reason.

Anonymous Coward says:

Mr. Ulanoff appears very vindictive. He wants my real name and address which I find scary. What is he going to do with that information if I post something that angers him? Is he going to come to my house and beat me up? Sue me?

I’m glad there’s anonymity on the internet to protect me from hot headed, retaliatory, individuals such as Mr Ulanoff.

The Supreme Court sums it up best.

“…to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.”

Mr Ulanoff’s intolerance is shining through like the sun.

383bigblock (profile) says:

The Real Reason

The only real reason Ulanoff could possibly want to require registration of real names is for retaliation purposes. Who gives a rats ass if the person’s real name is used or not….unless of course you want to spin up a retaliation offensive against that person thereby attempting to chill free speech through online reverse bullying. This is about as hypocritical as you can get. Again, there is absolutely no reason to know the real identify of a anonymous poster unless you had plans to retaliate or go after them. I guess Ulanoff isn’t ready to show his cards on that one.

Anonymous Coward says:

Part of the problem I think is a few too many people have not only taken “John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory” as gospel, but they’ve taken it as the sole cause of trolling and flaming on the internet, without any further critical thought, or investigation, or nuance. Such simplistic thinking is followed by the “obvious” solution of “Let’s just get rid of anonymity on the internet, that’ll fix everything!” That more than a few people are total assholes on Facebook, or Twitter, or any number of other instances only where their real identity is known, simply doesn’t occur to them.

Of course the other thing proponents of “let’s ban anonymity” forget, is that pen names and stage names have been around for centuries. Ever hear of Samuel Langhorne Clemens? You probably know him better as Mark Twain. James Oliver Rigney, Jr,? Much better known as Robert Jordan. How about Eric Arthur Blair? Probably not, but I’m betting you’ve heard of his pen name George Orwell. Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland? More widely known as Joan Fontaine. Marion Morrison? You’ve probably heard of him by the name John Wayne. Norma Jeane Baker? Marilyn Monroe. Publius? Depending on the specific work, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.

In short, people have been using different names than their real one for a wide variety of reasons – including privacy – for centuries. This is not something new and different. Unsurprisingly people who say we should do away with anonymity online are seldom interested in discussing this past of obscuring identities. Probably because it would undermine their position to have to try and justify why this celebrity gets to use a pseudonym, but John Q. Public does not.

Teamchaos (profile) says:

The only real reason Ulanoff could possibly want to require registration of real names is for retaliation purposes.

This sounds familiar, as in the only real reason the left wants non-profit issue advocacy groups to reveal their donors is for retaliation purposes.

If I can make an anonymous comment, shouldn’t I be able to make an anonymous donation?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“Non-profit issue advocacy groups” is code for “it’s against the law for me to bribe this candidate by giving them a gazillion dollar “campaign donation”, so I’ll give it to this group that was set up to promote the main issue on which he differs from his opponent”. And saying that money equals speech is the same as saying the rich deserve a bigger voice in politics than do the middle class or poor people.

Teamchaos (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Non-profit issue advocacy groups” is code for “it’s against the law for me to bribe this candidate by giving them a gazillion dollar “campaign donation”

Not necessarily and absolutely not in all cases. You should have the right to donate to causes you believe in without fearing losing your job or protesters showing up at my house.

Anonymous Coward says:

Ulanoff is an idiot and a moron. I run an anime forum community and while I don’t allow visitors and guests to post on my site, every registered member is allowed to post in every corner of my site. I don’t allow anyone to use their real name nor allow them to post personal information about themselves.

When an internet troll, spammer or flamer posts something that is detrimental to my community, I ban their account, can their IP address and ban their email address.

What’s so hard about that?

Anonymity is a good thing but getting rid of anonymity doesn’t make internet trolls go away. If they want to cause trouble for your site, they can simply “make up” or create a name out of thin air. Anonymity will never go away, trolls will just create a made-up real name such as Davin Matthews or John Davenport and you would never know the difference.

Sheogorath says:

Re: Re:

When an internet troll, spammer or flamer posts something that is detrimental to my community, I ban their account, can their IP address and ban their email address.
Ah, so that’s why I can’t sign up on your website. Someone must have been on the T-Mobile UK network and/or using Opera Mini when they did (or a mod decided they had done) something to get banned. Screw you.

Real Full Name, Address, Phone, Email, Photo, Fin says:

NOT Victim Blaming

“Of course, you often forget that you’re sometimes complicit, in some fashion, in the crime: Answering phishing attack emails, using terrible passwords, not shredding your snail mail.” – Lance Ulanoff

Oh, now do one about rape victims, murder victims, hit-and-run victims and mugging victims.

“Put your real name and photo on the site. Stand up for what you believe in, you bastards. ” – Lance Ulanoff

tqk (profile) says:


Not everyone’s life is an open book, nor should it be.

Go ahead, Lance. Post your entire family’s entire medical history online for all to see. Surely there’s no need to hide that. Everyone has a medical history, after all. We’re all just human. What could possibly be so special about yours and your family’s? What have you got that needs to be hidden from the rest of your peers? This is just simple honesty and courtesy isn’t it? Then we can discuss whether we have any need to keep secrets from each other, to keep the bad actors honest. That is, of course, assuming your family hasn’t murdered you yet.

I’m amazed that a grown man (assuming LU is his real name, and he’s actually male) writing stuff posted on-line in the 21st Century for all to see can be so lazy as to not bother to do any research whatsoever prior to spewing irrational, ignorant bullshit! What a lazy fool. AC above is correct. I expect he’s going to wish he’d posted this drivel anonymously real soon.

andy says:


I would never ever put my details on a place like reddit or any other for that matter is that there are too many really crazy people out there, which i am sure ulanoff is about to find out. Also it is illegal to do so.

Damn has he not read the stories about people sending SWAT teams to peoples homes due to being angry over them winning games on xbox or playstation consoles, or even because they just want to scare them.

And there are so many examples of how people have been attacked by the mob when their identity has been spread all over the internet.

There is a very valid reason why reddit states very clearly just as you are about to comment that anyone who posts any identifying information or tried to get the mob to seek such details will be banned from reddit. The reason is that the reddit mob have on occasion hurt people that have absolutely nothing to do with whatever story people are upset about and some have been hurt very seriously because of their being identified as someone else.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Because I TOTALLY can’t make up a real sounding name.
I totally can’t have multiple identities.
I totally can’t bypass your simplistic thinking and create a living hell within the parameters you want to impose on the world because Reddit must die in your viewpoint.

This is more of the ME TOO bandwagon, leveraging the hype of the moment to spout off stupid shit to get more clicks.

If I ever used my real name, lets look at what wouldn’t have happened.

Prenda would never have had to sue to try and id me. Mainly because I do not have the resources to fight the litigious, I would have remained silent about the scourge of copyright trolling. They would have been able to keep going for lord knows how long.

I wouldn’t have said a majority of the things I’ve said online, because I value my privacy.

I wouldn’t be out, because I still have the fear that fscker with a ball bat will show up again.

I would have never been a published author. Gay erotica not exactly resume building material if you aren’t pursuing that path.

I would stop following many of the stories I do now, because not being able to share my viewpoint or ideas would frustrate me to no end.

I manage multiple online identities for myself. I like to keep things in the right compartments, and avoid crossing the streams. My copyright “activism” might be frowned upon in some of the circles I move in, and its less hassle to be someone else than have to explain over and over why I told the (insert profession here, cause I’ve done it a lot) to go fsck themselves.

Now to hear the lawyers tell it, I am an evil troll.
Of course when pressed for an example it boils down to I said mean things about them online, and ripped apart the lies they tell their targets.

I often say I am a shitty poster child, but stupid thinking like this could have ended my activism before it started. How would that make the internet a better place?

JustMe (profile) says:

Serious questions for Ulanoff

Do you have curtains, shades or blinds on your windows at home? Of course you do, because you value your privacy.

Do you leave your snail mail out on the porch for your neighbors to look through? Of course you don’t, because some things you do, and some purchases you make, aren’t anyone’s business but your own, and you value your privacy.

Do you post your SSN, and all of your email addresses and phone numbers online? Of course not, because you value your privacy. Would you let your mother post her own info online? Of course not, because she values her privacy.

I look forward to your responses.

Sheogorath says:

On virtually all of my online accounts, I am “Sheogorath”. Granted, I’ve built a tiny online brand around my name, but I’ve also found this persistent identity much easier to manage than a bunch of random handles and identities. It also keeps me honest. I am accountable for the things I post on blogs, Techdirt, and Ello. Just putting it out there.

LanceUlanoff says:

Re: Re: Hey I'm LanceUlanoff(TM)

I assure you I am the Real Lance Ulanoff™©­® and not some random anon, because this is the internet, and if I use my real name, Lance Ulanoff™©® it means I am 100% the real deal. Do you really think people would even do that? Just go on the internet and tell lies?

The Real Lance Ulanoff™©®

Sheogorath (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Hey I'm LanceUlanoff(TM)

The Real Lance Ulanoff™©®
Now I know you’re lying. First off, nobody trademarks their name except for celebrities. Second off, you can’t copyright a name. For one thing, it’s too short. For another, if you could copyright your name, then you could sue the parents of everyone with the same name even if (as is likely) they’ve never even heard of you. Too bad, so sad. Try again, anonymous troll.

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