The Apolitical Semiotics of Identity in Virtual Communities; or, Using a Fake Name Online

 

I overheard a conversation recently, where the participants (both infamous Ricochetti) were discussing their reasons for using their real names online. They made a compelling argument for it: standing by what you write and not hiding behind an alter ego. It got me to thinking about the many measures I take to cloak my real identity and to question the premise of doing so for so many years.

You see, I got my start in computer networks back in the dark ages of 2400-baud modems, a magical time when sysadmins would telnet into their WU-FTPd servers as root, and gopher was the standard for information exchange.  I had no admin rights to anything, but I did have what I thought was a collection of clever nicks on local BBSes. I have thankfully forgotten all of them.

Nobody used their real name. It wasn’t even considered. You built a reputation around your nick; and on various systems that rep could be radically different. Most of us were punters, just downloading Doom shareware and PKUNZIP.EXE. Some of us built software collections (“l33t warez”) to expand our share ratio and gain access to higher tiers, better perks, and longer online quotas. The truly “elite” were at the top of the pyramid and the rest of us dreamt of getting there ourselves (as many forum participants do today).

On a BBS in the 1980s, the top of the metro Chicago pyramid was to have root access to an Internet-connected multiuser timesharing (usually UNIX) system. This tended to be restricted to kids with brothers who went to a University like Northwestern or UIUC; but a few lucky rogues did have it. My first Internet-connected server access turned out to be on an IBM mainframe running VM/CMS.

Who are you on a mainframe? This version of VM allowed six-character UserIDs and all the good ones (whatever I thought those to be at the time) were taken. So I went with my initials: irb.

This early mainframe access was pretty clunky but I was so happy to finally have access to Internet. Through conversations with other logged-in users (where, having some experience with BBSes I didn’t immediately ask for w4r3z or access) I was offered a login to a much more popular and powerful VAX VMS system. Again I chose “irb” but that’s because I was already known by that on the mainframe.

From here, I built up a reputation as someone eager to learn the system, and perhaps the SysOps saw this with a mixture of pity and relief that I wasn’t just looking to pingflood people; they offered me access to my first UNIX system! It was one of seven NeXT cubes running NeXTStep 2.0. It was awesome.

I’d finally made it, I thought. I spent nights typing in every key sequence I could just to see what they would do: ps, w, top, talk, finger. I started attending local UNIX club meetings and, when it was clear that I wasn’t actively trying to bring the servers to their knees, was even made the backup admin. This meant that every couple of days I had to change the backup tapes at a certain time.

We all knew each other’s real names of course, but none of us used them, even in person. We lived a good part of our lives online and that separation from and connection to these worlds made up a significant portion of our identity. We had access to things the “normals” didn’t even think about and couldn’t connect to if they could. It was a secret society of sorts, and our nicks were our secret names known only to the cognoscenti. Having one meant you had access to something esoteric, mysterious, and (we thought) valuable.

Now, on these UNIX systems we all had the ability to set some of our account information ourselves, and one of the fields we could set was the Real Name field. Almost none of us had our actual legal names in this field. For mine, I set it to “Most Holy”, a reference to a comic book series about a power-hungry aardvark who becomes Pope. People actually called me that in high school so it fit; again, here was a fake name I was more recognized by (to some) than my given name.

Eventually, more people did get online though, through fancy web browsers like Mosaic and Netscape, and Internet services like AOL and NetCom. Websites and blogs became commonplace and users weren’t limited to six- or eight-character usernames as much.

To some extent of course we still build brands or reputations around usernames. “iraqveteran8888” and “gatewaypundit” come to mind; but over the last 20 years or so many people have been using their real names as well: PaulHarrell and @CliffordBrown are a couple of good examples. However, when I got my start on the WWW, I was a bit skeptical of what this thing was and where it would go. I always set the equivalent of the Real Name field to something else, and went for “irb” as a username. irb was my identity online and any “real” name was, as it had almost always been before, a fiction.

Given all this, it may not surprise you to learn that Jarvis Morse-Loyola is not my real name. It is in fact three consecutive elevated train stations in Chicago. I’ve long thought that “irb” is, for Internet purposes anyway, my “real name.” I may not have the reputation of RMS or ESR, Space Rogue or Rasterman, but what reputation I’ve built over the years is tied to the irb username, and that’s always been the more important part for me.

There’s also a certain irreverent history to fudging the Real Name field online, and it’s so ingrained in my experience that I only began to question it recently. Dodging government agencies and creditors never really came into it for me, or if it did (as in the former case), it was a happy symptom. Usernames used to be a much more meaningful symbol of having access to and understanding of something that required expertise to participate in. I’ve been loath to give that up and resistant to corporations that have tried to require it (like the failed Google+).

However, there is nonetheless a perception of value to be attached to the idea that an author is willing to sign (what we assume to be) their given legal name to a piece of writing. My guess is that it offers a sense of accountability, that if a person earned a reputation for offensive behavior, that reputation would follow them around from site to site and into their real lives; they couldn’t just change their name and start over. Too, we probably believe that we could find these offensive people if we really wanted to, unlike trying to get the personal info of someone calling themselves some ridiculous name like “Most Holy.” Again it’s just a perception since a troll or troublemaker could very well call themselves “Leland Mattie Robinson” and we wouldn’t really know.

So, what do you think? Should I come clean and start writing under my real name, or keep up the hax0r tradition of using an alias? I will add tangentially that, if pursuing a higher quality of interaction is your goal, making the site pay-to-post (like this site is) works much better, from what I have seen.

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  1. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    It is up to you. 

    I don’t because I do a lot of contracting, and HR departments are both woke and nosy.

    • #1
  2. Phil Turmel Coolidge
    Phil Turmel
    @PhilTurmel

    I do because I know that anonymity is always just one hack away from exposure.  Almost nothing is certain to stay anonymous on the internet.

    • #2
  3. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Phil Turmel (View Comment):

    I do because I know that anonymity is always just one hack away from exposure. Almost nothing is certain to stay anonymous on the internet.

    I’m with Phil.

     Also the free sign up via Facebook back becoming a charter member Required me to use my Facebook name including my middle initial.

    • #3
  4. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    I appreciate that some people need to keep their identity secret or they’ll lose their jobs. I’m fully cognizant of that and I don’t just dismiss people for work.

     And I also think those people have no business telling anybody else that they should mayter themselves, which I have seen happwn.

    • #4
  5. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    Keep your anonymity.  It’s may be like locking your car door even though leaving your windows open — it keeps some people out.

    • #5
  6. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Retain what privacy you can until the doxx-happy can be made to pay for the harm they do. 

    • #6
  7. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    I’m not really anonymous. I mean, I have my real face in my avatar and everything.

    • #7
  8. Mad Gerald Coolidge
    Mad Gerald
    @Jose

    I believe in never ever putting any personal info out there where any malign troll can take advantage of it.  No one is invulnerable, but I am as close as I can be.

    I do not use anonymity to be nasty to people.

    • #8
  9. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    I appreciate the account of building an identity, a brand if you will, across multiple (possibly linked) systems. In the context laid out in this post, “irb” is the equivalent of a professional name, a stage name. That identity has value and integrity in its context.

    I came into the “virtual” world in 1993, hand coding my first web page on a now defunct internet provider, as well as building early versions of my grad school department web pages. In that context, I was interested in building and defending my own name brand. Once social media came along, I staked out my name as an early adopter of Twitter and Facebook. I quickly tired of Facebook and eventually soured on Twitter.

    At the same time, I took the use of my real name and face as a source of caution in what I wrote. Whatever I wrote, it would be clearly attached to me. This almost certainly makes me unemployable by some number of entities, but that also means I am unlikely to face sudden ambush by leftists expressing illegitimate offense.

    • #9
  10. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    I use my nickname on Ricochet because it works as a pseudonym.  I also self-publish on Amazon Kindle using a pen name.  It may only be a single flimsy layer of privacy, but I’ll take it . . .

    • #10
  11. Jarvis Morse-Loyola Coolidge
    Jarvis Morse-Loyola
    @irb

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    At the same time, I took the use of my real name and face as a source of caution in what I wrote. Whatever I wrote, it would be clearly attached to me. This almost certainly makes me unemployable by some number of entities, but that also means I am unlikely to face sudden ambush by leftists expressing illegitimate offense.

    I find that to be a very attractive proposition. I’ve also made it a point not to do web searches on prospective employees because their personal opinions are none of my damn business as an employer. I suspect I’m in the minority on that one. 

    • #11
  12. OmegaPaladin Moderator
    OmegaPaladin
    @OmegaPaladin

    Phil Turmel (View Comment):

    I do because I know that anonymity is always just one hack away from exposure. Almost nothing is certain to stay anonymous on the internet.

    With determined hackers and people with resources?  Sure.

    However, stopping a bored co-worker or disgruntled loser from getting enough to start trying to cancel me is worth something to me.   If someone pops my name into Google, they are not going to find political stuff after some stuff in the college newspaper.

    • #12
  13. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    There’s a guy I know whose Twitter name is the same handle he used on the local BBS back in the late 80s. I still think of him by that name. 

    Or would, if I hadn’t muted him; non-stop lefty biatchery. 

    • #13
  14. JosePluma, Local Man of Mystery Thatcher
    JosePluma, Local Man of Mystery
    @JosePluma

    Jose Pluma has been my nom de plume for my entire life; it adds a certain air of mystery. 

    • #14
  15. Tikhon Olmstead Coolidge
    Tikhon Olmstead
    @TikhonOlmstead

    Most Holy, er, @irb

    I am a n00b with tech jargon, but if you are doing mainframe stuff, use a nick. It’s part of the deal and part of the culture, it sounds like. You are so deep into this culture that I can’t see you switching to your real name. That would be like changing a cultural fundamental. Wouldn’t it? And I don’t know what the point would be.

    I think anonymity is about intent and purpose.

    The White Rose movement was a student movement against the Third Reich. They had good reason to try for some anonymity. The purpose it served was they could continue distributing more leaflets over time under the nose of the Gestapo, and potentially save more lives and make known the truth of the diabolical matter. Mailing leaflets with their signatures would have been counterproductive and not brave.

    Anonymity can be a key strategy under certain political circumstances.

    When Alexander Schmorell, the co-founder of the White Rose movement, was arrested by the Gestapo and put on trial, he denied nothing and recanted nothing of what he wrote. When it came time for skin in the game, he was all in. He knew the consequences. He did not shrink from it. And he was canonized by the Orthodox as a New Martyr having penetrated the appearance of things and wrote the leaflets from a spiritual and not merely political standpoint. For example:

    Every word that comes from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war, and when he blasphemously uses the name of the Almighty, he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the foul-smelling maw of Hell, and his might is at bottom accursed.

    True, we must conduct a struggle against the National Socialist terrorist state with rational means; but whoever today still doubts the reality, the existence of demonic powers, has failed by a wide margin to understand the metaphysical background of this war. Behind the concrete, the visible events, behind all objective, logical considerations, we find the irrational element: The struggle against the demon, against the servants of the Antichrist.

    But anonymity can also be a way to not really have to have skin in the game. I sympathize with the Burning Bush priests (or whoever they are) to finger wrongs done. But anonymously? Who are they afraid of? The Gestapo? Fauci? Zuckerberg?

    Their bishops? Their people?

    St. Alexander Schmorell called out Hitler and faced the Gestapo in his mid 20s. Anonymous clergy writing “epistles” online, forgive me, seem to have fallen short of a martyr’s bravery. There needs to be more skin in the game for credibility. Especially because theirs is an intramural battle of persuasion, not fighting the Third Reich!

    Neither speaking firm love against a leader nor the Nazis is your situation.

    Stay anonymous. Be irb. Unless you need to put more skin in the game when it matters. Then name up.

    • #15
  16. OmegaPaladin Moderator
    OmegaPaladin
    @OmegaPaladin

    What did Alexander Schmorell accomplish by getting killed?  Serious question here.   I run into a fair number of people you say that I should be happy to risk my job for my political beliefs, and quote all kinds of martyrs and heroes.  However, if I just wanted to die for my country, that’s easy enough.  The question is whether the sacrifice actually does anything meaningful.

    • #16
  17. The Scarecrow Thatcher
    The Scarecrow
    @TheScarecrow

    I used my real name here for years. Then one day I got a nasty letter from an ex-girlfriend, citing a comment I made here on a post which apparently had made it to the main feed so she was able to find it with some sort of search of me. (She would never normally read Ricochet.)

    The comment, which was actually kind of sweet, had some small error – I mentioned that I had bought her dishwasher when I guess I actually bought her microwave. She flamed me viciously, accusing me of lying about her online to a bunch of racist a**holes.

    (I of course replied “Wait a minute, we’re not scruffy-looking!”)

    I changed my handle here shortly after that, thinking that the stuff I post here is really for you-all, because I trust you – I have no interest in commenting on the news of the day to the public-at-large. Or on anything, for that matter.

    • #17
  18. Tikhon Olmstead Coolidge
    Tikhon Olmstead
    @TikhonOlmstead

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    What did Alexander Schmorell accomplish by getting killed? Serious question here. I run into a fair number of people you say that I should be happy to risk my job for my political beliefs, and quote all kinds of martyrs and heroes. However, if I just wanted to die for my country, that’s easy enough. The question is whether the sacrifice actually does anything meaningful.

    Serious clarifying question: What values are behind the question about what it accomplished? What does an act need to accomplish to be justified? What does any soldier accomplish by dying on the battlefield to oppose evil? He fought and died in a physical and spiritual war in the life circumstances he found himself within to oppose an evil regime. I’m not sure I understand the question.

     

    • #18
  19. OmegaPaladin Moderator
    OmegaPaladin
    @OmegaPaladin

    Tikhon Olmstead (View Comment):

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    What did Alexander Schmorell accomplish by getting killed? Serious question here. I run into a fair number of people you say that I should be happy to risk my job for my political beliefs, and quote all kinds of martyrs and heroes. However, if I just wanted to die for my country, that’s easy enough. The question is whether the sacrifice actually does anything meaningful.

    Serious clarifying question: What values are behind the question about what it accomplished? What does an act need to accomplish to be justified? What does any soldier accomplish by dying on the battlefield to oppose evil? He fought and died in a physical and spiritual war in the life circumstances he found himself within to oppose an evil regime. I’m not sure I understand the question.

     

    Let’s take a soldier storming the beach at Normandy.  If he ends up going home in a box, his sacrifice is worthwhile because it helps defeat Hitler.  If you have an idiotic commander instead of Ike, you could have a situation where soldiers die and nothing whatsoever is accomplished.  If the commanders in general are not accomplishing anything, then it is really questionable whether more soldiers enlist.  Wasting the lives of soldiers is a thing.

    What I want to know is how Alexander helped inspire more resistance by his stand.   Did he unnerve his interrogators with his resolve and unbreakable faith?  What benefit came from his putting skin in the game, as opposed to lying to keep the White Rose running?

    • #19
  20. Tikhon Olmstead Coolidge
    Tikhon Olmstead
    @TikhonOlmstead

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    Tikhon Olmstead (View Comment):

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    What did Alexander Schmorell accomplish by getting killed? Serious question here. I run into a fair number of people you say that I should be happy to risk my job for my political beliefs, and quote all kinds of martyrs and heroes. However, if I just wanted to die for my country, that’s easy enough. The question is whether the sacrifice actually does anything meaningful.

    Serious clarifying question: What values are behind the question about what it accomplished? What does an act need to accomplish to be justified? What does any soldier accomplish by dying on the battlefield to oppose evil? He fought and died in a physical and spiritual war in the life circumstances he found himself within to oppose an evil regime. I’m not sure I understand the question.

    Let’s take a soldier storming the beach at Normandy. If he ends up going home in a box, his sacrifice is worthwhile because it helps defeat Hitler. If you have an idiotic commander instead of Ike, you could have a situation where soldiers die and nothing whatsoever is accomplished. If the commanders in general are not accomplishing anything, then it is really questionable whether more soldiers enlist. Wasting the lives of soldiers is a thing.

    What I want to know is how Alexander helped inspire more resistance by his stand. Did he unnerve his interrogators with his resolve and unbreakable faith? What benefit came from his putting skin in the game, as opposed to lying to keep the White Rose running?

    Those are good questions.

    I probably disagree with the premise a little bit, if I’m understanding you correctly, that is. I may not be.

    It seems like the criteria is some type of “product” or “effective outcome” versus “ineffective outcome” or “lack of effect.” The product and effect or effectiveness seems to be measured by “tangibly leads by measurable cause-and-effect to progressing resistance or ending the war.”

    I’m not trying to straw-man you, just express what I’m hearing.

    I think this fails to recognize there are all sorts of reasons to do something that may not lead to any accomplishment within a specific category. I think I will just concede this to you. Alexander may not have done anything you value as “accomplishment.”

    But there are more accomplishments than you place value on (or recognize?). For example, simply doing whatever it is you are able to do to oppose the evil in your corner of reality. Whatever that looks like is what you are able to do. That is your “accomplishment.”

    And there is a Higher Judge with whom we all have to do. I caution against factoring the Dread Day of Judgment out of the equation of “accomplishment.” Alexander certainly minded that day, and he acted. We all might do well to factor that into our choice flowcharts.

    Does this move our conversation forward?

    • #20
  21. Hans Gruber Pfizer President Inactive
    Hans Gruber Pfizer President
    @Pseudodionysius

    Ho. Ho. Ho.

    • #21
  22. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Hans Gruber Pfizer President (View Comment):

    Ho. Ho. Ho.

    Even your pseudonyms have pseudonyms.

    • #22
  23. DrewInWisconsin, Oaf Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Oaf
    @DrewInWisconsin

    I don’t because I’ve been doxxed before and had crazy leftist stalkers attempt to contact my employer and get me fired because they didn’t like my political views.

    I have no interest in experiencing that again.

    I’ve left enough clues here and there on Ricochet that I could be tracked down with enough effort. But only behind the paywall.

    Even so, that still gives me pause, and I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t just traipse back through my Ricochet history and regularly delete old posts.

    • #23
  24. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    I’m happy I’ve moved to private practice. Somebody doesn’t want me to sit there because they don’t like my politics which I do not inject into my therapy then I don’t think I’m gonna be able to work with them as a client anyway.

    • #24
  25. Gary Robbins Member
    Gary Robbins
    @GaryRobbins

    I was contacted by email by someone who figured out who I was.  I notified Ricochet and was told that he had already been thrown off of the platform, so Ricochet could not help me.  If I had it to do over again, I would not use my name.  

    One “benefit” of Facebook is that you have to use your name and not a synonym.  

    • #25
  26. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    I was contacted by email by someone who figured out who I was. I notified Ricochet and was told that he had already been thrown off of the platform, so Ricochet could not help me. If I had it to do over again, I would not use my name.

    One “benefit” of Facebook is that you have to use your name and not a synonym.

    • #26
  27. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    Percival (View Comment):

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    I was contacted by email by someone who figured out who I was. I notified Ricochet and was told that he had already been thrown off of the platform, so Ricochet could not help me. If I had it to do over again, I would not use my name.

    One “benefit” of Facebook is that you have to use your name and not a synonym.

    Did you change that word in Garry’s comment?

    • #27
  28. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Flicker (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    I was contacted by email by someone who figured out who I was. I notified Ricochet and was told that he had already been thrown off of the platform, so Ricochet could not help me. If I had it to do over again, I would not use my name.

    One “benefit” of Facebook is that you have to use your name and not a synonym.

    Did you change that word in Garry’s comment?

    Nope.

    • #28
  29. Lawst N. Thawt Coolidge
    Lawst N. Thawt
    @LawstNThawt

    I have my reasons.  They are excellent reasons for me.   The main one probably wouldn’t matter to many, but it is significant to me.   Do what is right from your perspective.  Perhaps, listen to what others say on the topic, but don’t let it interfere with the choice that works best for you.   

    I think the main sign we live in a free society is that we are free to choose so many things.  Generally, these choices don’t affect others and as long as they don’t, when we are the others, we shouldn’t question someone else’s choice.  

    Some may argue that my name here is more telling than the original.

    • #29
  30. carcat74 Member
    carcat74
    @carcat74

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    Tikhon Olmstead (View Comment):

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):

    What did Alexander Schmorell accomplish by getting killed? Serious question here. I run into a fair number of people you say that I should be happy to risk my job for my political beliefs, and quote all kinds of martyrs and heroes. However, if I just wanted to die for my country, that’s easy enough. The question is whether the sacrifice actually does anything meaningful.

    Serious clarifying question: What values are behind the question about what it accomplished? What does an act need to accomplish to be justified? What does any soldier accomplish by dying on the battlefield to oppose evil? He fought and died in a physical and spiritual war in the life circumstances he found himself within to oppose an evil regime. I’m not sure I understand the question.

     

    Let’s take a soldier storming the beach at Normandy. If he ends up going home in a box, his sacrifice is worthwhile because it helps defeat Hitler. If you have an idiotic commander instead of Ike, you could have a situation where soldiers die and nothing whatsoever is accomplished. If the commanders in general are not accomplishing anything, then it is really questionable whether more soldiers enlist. Wasting the lives of soldiers is a thing.

    What I want to know is how Alexander helped inspire more resistance by his stand. Did he unnerve his interrogators with his resolve and unbreakable faith? What benefit came from his putting skin in the game, as opposed to lying to keep the White Rose running?

    Afghanistan comes to mind—was anything accomplished by the deaths of our 13 soldiers?  Has anyone been brought to account for the droning of the aid worker and his family? 

    • #30
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