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Binary Balance

Life on the digital knife edge

Story behind the 'Do you use your real identity on Hacker News?' poll

In my younger days I used to find that during social interactions online I would end up in a lot of Someone is wrong on the Internet kind of debates. I’d be arguing with some anonymous stranger(s) about some relatively pointless issue. At that time I almost exclusively used a pseudonym, so the other person would be doing the same thing from their point of view. One afternoon, after what turned out to be a particularly uncivilised and ultimately unsatisfying exchange over an online forum about the merits and accuracy of using the acronym ‘DHTML’ in today’s modern web industry, it hit me that this anonymous person looking out of my eyes who is so intent on proving themselves correct across the Internet to someone they don’t even know is really doing this primarily because of a largely unacknowledged fear that he’s not good enough, that he’s not smart enough, that he doesn’t know enough, and so he needs to prove that he is worthy to anyone he can. The anonymity that can be afforded by the Internet means that I could be far more aggressive in pursuing online arguments than most people would dare to be in the offline world and in a funny way, this seemed to offset the fact that I was trying to prove myself to a person I don’t even know and whose opinion should objectively mean very little to me. But that day, I decided to stop. I’d stop the pointless arguments, I’d stop with this driving need to prove myself correct to anonymous strangers and I would try and stop similar (though far less pronounced) behaviour in the offline world as well. I like to think this was one of those relatively rare, palpable moments when you actually see yourself growing up a little. I kept travelling the Internet under a pseudonym for some years after that (and in some places I still do) but generally I would lurk more, comment less and try and be civil when I did comment. I still occasionally, almost inexplicably would find myself getting drawn into pointless debates but at the least, I would realise what’s happened and disengage more quickly.

I’ve recently come to the point where I believe another small yet palpable positive shift is to start using my real identity more online. I realise that for any extroverts out there, much of what I’ve just written may sound sort of ridiculous, but for those of us of the more introverted persuasion, yes these can be the kind of issues that occupy our mind.

Hacker News (HN)

I’ve been a member of the Hacker News community for a little over 2 years now. For almost all of that time I’ve used a pseudonym and had no information listed in my profile. I’m now nutting up and using my own identity online in more places than I used to. I decided that Hacker News is going to be one of these places.

I wanted to create an entirely new account because the pseudonym that I had previously used on HN I still use elsewhere and while I don’t go to great lengths to maintain complete anonymity while using this pseudonym, I would still like to keep it at least somewhat distanced from my real (for ‘real’ read ‘offline’ or ‘birth name’) identity.

Gathering a little data

I was interested to know how many other people used their real identity on HN. From browsing the site, I had a feeling that there was a relatively large number of people who used their real identity on HN but I was interested in going some way towards confirming this. I remembered that you can post a poll on HN and using this feature seemed ideal for my little experiment.

HN has a reputation system whereby users can vote submitted posts up and vote comments on those posts up or down (known as ‘upmodding’ or ‘downmodding’), this is one of the ways by which the website tries to facilitate quality discourse, while discouraging pointless debate, name calling, etc. Each user accumulates a certain amount of ‘karma’ points which are a reflection of how much that user’s submissions/comments have been voted up or down by other users. Only users whose karma points are beyond a particular threshold are able to downmod comments, flag inappropriate submissions for review by the site administrators and create a poll asking HN members to respond to a question.

So that was the catch, I didn’t want to use my old pseudonym to post the poll and my very new de-anonymised account did not have enough karma points to allow me to post a poll. In a serendipitous turn of events, I happened to be contacted by Alex Le who had noticed in one of my comments on HN that I had mentioned that my partner is in the wedding industry and as Alex’s startup (marrily.com) is related to weddings, he was wondering if we were interested in trying out his site, giving a bit of feedback, etc. The idea popped into my head that perhaps Alex could post my poll for me! I sent an email back to Alex telling him my partner and I would of course be happy to check out his site but if he wouldn’t mind, could he post a poll for me on HN? Alex was kind enough to facilitate my somewhat unusual quid pro quo, and I had my poll up on HN in short order. Thanks Alex!

Both myself and - I suspect - Alex were surprised at the popularity of the poll. It seems to have run its course now, having dropped off the front page of HN and I’m happy to say that (at the time of this writing) the poll has attracted a total of 1,247 responses to my question and 96 comments. There is some irony in the fact that this is without a doubt the most successful post that I have ever contributed to HN… and I wasn’t the one who posted it.

The results

It would seem that my hunch has held water. 1048 people indicated that they would consider themselves to be using their real identity on HN and 199 indicated that they would not. So that’s 5.26 non-anonymous users for every anonymous one. This is a more skewed proportion than I was actually expecting.

There was comment that my poll question ‘Do you use your real identity on Hacker News?’ was somewhat ambiguous. For the record I did not strictly mean do you use your birth name as your username on HN, I meant do you use an identity that could easily be connected to your real identity. Examples of this might include using a pseudonym for your username but having information listed in your HN profile that states your birth name and who you really are, or using a pseudonym for your username that could easily lead to your real or birth name via a little Googling or Facebooking or the like. While I didn’t intend to travel down the philosophical rabbit hole of asking what ‘identity’ truly is (I’ll leave this to someone with more time on their hands), most people seemed to interpret my question as I had intended and I actually think it was an advantage that people had to decide for themselves whether they thought they were using their real identity or not because they are probably in the best position to make that judgement.

As with any relatively popular submissions on HN, my poll generated some insightful comments. The top rated comment on the poll was from Jacques Mattheij who said:

Yes, absolutely. I think that unless you have something to say that can immediately hurt you when it is linked to your identity the general mode of conversation on the internet should be tied to your real world identity. There are two reasons for that: The first is that you will be aware that you’re saying stuff on your personal title and that if you decide to go postal on someone that it will reflect bad on you in the longer term. Anonymity seems to bring out the worst in people. The second is more subtle. When you say stuff attached to your name you’re putting a calling card out there, people will remember the overall tone of your content and they’ll build up a mental image of the person that goes with that content. Over time this will translate in to more concrete (for instance real-life or collaborative) relationships to grow out of the more casual online ones. So reserve the anonymous stuff for the ‘leaks’ and the ‘revelations’, don’t bother with the anonymous attacks and the trolling. And do the rest as you.

I pretty much agree. The point Jacques makes about ‘putting a calling card out there’ and this leading to ‘more concrete (for instance real-life or collaborative) relationships to grow out of the more casual online ones’ is a large part of the reason that I decided to start using my real name online in more places. Living in a location that’s not particularly hard-wired to the heartbeat of the technology scene, I have found it difficult to make new ‘real-life or collaborative’ relationships with people of like business interests to my own (i.e. entrepreneurship with a technological bent, web development/design, the Internet/eCommerce in general) and I realised that this was never going to happen more easily if I didn’t get myself out there.

I also suspect that a part of why HN still enjoys a relatively high quality of submissions and comments and - as far as I can see - very little overt trolling is that so many people are using their own identity or something very close to it on HN. As opposed to sites like Reddit1 or 4chan where free expression enabled by anonymity is the focus.

HN user araneae said:

Ironically, I find myself self-censoring with a fake identity in HN more than in real life. A few comments ago, I posted something (which netted me total, about -40 points) that I wouldn’t have hesitated to say IRL. And I also posted it under my real name on Facebook (a friend posted the same article there.) But I did hesitate to post it here. And there are many occasions when there are things I haven’t said that I would in person. And that’s because unlike real life, how much you “downvote” is invisible. Downvoting someone else has no consequences for you. There are new HN controls (like you can’t downvote responses to your posts) but that still is a blade of grass on a lawn. In the real world, people might think less of you if you say something (some might consider) sexist, but they’re not going to do anything to you at all. So you’re protected from backlash. But when people are allowed to anonymously punish you, it makes you hesitate a bit more.

That’s an interesting viewpoint, but not one I can say I identify with personally. Anonymity for me has always allowed for greater free expression (for better and worse) and whether someone can downmod my anonymous online identity for saying something they don’t like has never been of great concern to me. I was never interested in competing in the karma stakes on HN. I also suspect that just because the backlash of saying something controversial offline may not be as obvious as losing karma points on HN, this doesn’t necessarily mean that a backlash doesn’t occur.

HN user j_baker said:

On the other hand, your internal censor has a way of making things more constrained and mediocre. You probably eliminate a lot of the bad and trollish comments, but you probably also cut out a lot of the good comments. (For the record, I use my real name as you can tell. But there are times where I’ve wished I could be anonymous and say what I really feel.)

I find this a more compelling reason for staying anonymous. I don’t think anyone can seriously argue that free expression is not aided by anonymity. But free expression - at least as it tends to manifest on the Internet - is not the best fit for every venue. Spending any amount of time on the /b/ random board at 4chan can show one both the extremes of hilarity and some of the darkest aspects of human nature. While I will always support such anonymous gathering places and the kind of free form discourse that they allow, I come to HN for something different.

HN user Dove said:

As widely as possible. My real name is accessible from my profile. My handle is my most widely used internet handle in non-gaming contexts; using it is a means to recognition, not anonymity. My reasons: (A) When I was 14, I embraced anonymity online out of a (perhaps justifiable) fear of internet stalkers. Now that I am an adult, sound of body and mind, I’m not so worried about that. I use my real name almost everywhere online. (B) This particular community is about real life things like jobs and businesses. There’s a strong possibility I’ll someday get a job / start a business / join some serious real-world undertaking based discussion and contacts here. If that’s the case, I’d rather be “Catherine Darrow from Seattle” than “Dove from the internet”. (C) I think it is wrong to judge people in one context based on controversial opinions held in another. I don’t vote for politicians based on religion; I don’t ignore the technical opinions of programmers with wacky political views; I don’t disrespect the high level manager who likes to live it up on weekends. Not everyone holds this view, and aliases are a way to defend yourself against people who don’t. But I would rather that tolerance became common courtesy, and “don’t judge people in a professional context based on random forum comments” became simple common sense. By establishing a gentle tie between some of my more controversial views and my real identity, I take a small risk to make a small point.

There’s some great points there, but the one that stands out to me the most is (A). The Internet can be a scary place and it behoves those who have grown up with the Internet and who now are becoming parents to educate their children on its use and how they can adequately protect themselves from the possible dangers. Remaining anonymous (or at least mostly anonymous) on the Internet until one is confident in their own ability to navigate the seas of information would be something I would heartily recommend, particularly for those who do not live and breath the Internet as most on HN probably do.

HN user sethg said:

Just about anything I might post under a pseudonym, or otherwise shielded, could be connected with my real-world identity if enough people try hard enough. So I’d rather make everything open, and think before I say something I might regret, than rely on the sense of security that a pseudonym would bring. Every once in a while I suspect this attitude marks me as an old fogey; I feel like people who have grown up with the Internet are more sophisticated about online identity management. I’m not sure if they’re more more sophisticated about online identity management, they strike me as just being more blas√© about it. Maybe that’s the way things are moving, some part of me feels that greater openness throughout society is a good thing in general and I agree with Dove when she said: ‘… I would rather that tolerance became common courtesy, and “don’t judge people in a professional context based on random forum comments” became simple common sense.’ But I’m too cynical to think that the way most people - at least non-technical people - regardless of age, manage their identity online comes from any degree of deliberate sophistication and that it doesn’t open them up to more possible risk than they probably realise.

HN user alexophile said:

I was originally registered under my ‘real’ name (amohr) but, due to a mixup with the password reset, I wasn’t able to access it for a while, so I took the opportunity to make this account. However, if you’re someone looking to google me for whatever purposes, searching for “alexophile” will yield more accurate results than “Alex Mohr” as I’m competing for pagerank with a cg researcher from Pixar and a multimedia networks researcher (the jerk that took alexmohr.com) Basically, using a unique nick is nice, not for anonymity, but for more convenient aggregation of my online identity.

This is actually a viewpoint that never even occurred to me and one that HN user Dove also touched on in her quoted comment above. Possibly because my ‘real’ name is pretty unique as ‘real’ names go. But as counter intuitive as it might have seemed to me at first glance, this makes perfect sense. Sometimes (maybe a lot of the time) a more unique name you give to yourself makes it easier for your identity to remain coherent than using the name you were born with.

In conclusion

I’d like to thank HN for humouring my curiosity. From all indications it doesn’t seem like HN needs much encouragement, but I would urge people to consider using their real identity on HN if they do not already. In my humble opinion, the advantages of doing so far outweigh the disadvantages. Indeed, had I not switched to using my real identity and contact details in my profile on HN, Alex Le would never have contacted me, I would not have had my poll up on HN when I did and I would not have had the fun of writing this blog post today.

Using our real identities on HN and being accountable for what we say there is not surprisingly one more small way that we can help to ensure that HN stays the place of quality discourse that we all know and love. Even if this may mean at times that we self-censor some of what we might really like to say. But hey, you’ve got Reddit and 4chan for that stuff.

  1. Reddit is the website that the majority of Hacker News’s sense of humour has been transplanted to. 

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