In defense of aliases and anonymity

In the early 1990s, I had just finished high school and was working at a summer camp where I met Jeff. After a day at camp, both back at our parents' homes, Jeff and I would talk on the phone. One night he asked me whether I had a modem. I wasn't entirely sure what that was, but next to the family computer was some device with a bunch of lights that my dad sometimes used to send data for work. It turns out it was a nice, shiny, 1200 baud modem that became my ticket to the online world.

Jeff walked me through the steps of dialing into his BBS, creating an account, and jumping into the discussions. "What do you want your handle to be?", he asked me. No one used their real names on a BBS. I needed a handle, an alias.

That was my introduction to the Montreal BBS scene of the 1990s.  A BBS was a dial-up online bulletin board system where you could participate in group chats, personal chats, play games, and more. Kind of like facebook, but with fewer images, no ads and less invasion of your personal privacy.

I started hanging out on Jeff's board and then joined a few other friends' boards and then some friends of friends' boards. I even joined one of the coolest BBSes in Montreal, one run with an iron fist by one of the foremost geek girls in Montreal. She was an amazing moderator and was quick to ban anyone who caused trouble. I never met her IRL and I never knew her real name, but everyone in the BBS scene respected her. Her alias stood for a lot more than her last name ever could.

Names didn't matter then and, to a great extent, names don't matter now.

Introduction by Google

Would you walk into a job interview for an engineering job and introduce yourself this way?

"My name is Jane. It is nice to meet you. I've written over 100 articles on breastfeeding a toddler, my dancing hamster video went viral and I'm really into BDSM."

Would you walk into your first parent-teacher interview with your child's teacher and say this?

"I'm Dexter's mom. I'm a recovering drug addict, I was quoted in Today's Parent about how horrible my child's last teacher was, and by the way I boycott the company that sells that water you're drinking."

What about your kids? Do you think they introduce themselves to new friends by saying this?

"My name is Mark. I was still wetting my bed when I was twelve, my mom ate her placenta, and here check out this album of pictures of me in the bath."

No. In real life, we keep people on a need to know basis.

There usually isn't anything wrong with anything in our past, but there is just a time and place to bring things up. We don't blurt out every detail of our lives the moment we meet someone.

We filter.

We share the relevant information.

"My name is Jane. It is nice to meet you. I have 10 years of experience working in electrical engineering in both an academic and applied setting. I'd love to tell you about the project I just finished and how the experience I gained there could benefit your team."

Ah, that's better.

Putting your name out there

"I feel like, if I can't say it with my name beside it, I shouldn't say it."

My friend Maureen Turner Rasmussen said this in the context of a facebook conversation about using pseudonyms online. She isn't the only one who feels this way. I've heard many people say this over the years and websites like facebook stipulate that people must use the same name they use in real life.

If you're a normal mainstream person, with normal mainstream children, and your online life is either boring or closely tied to your work, perhaps that works. But if you're weird, or you're an activist, or you're struggling with something and need support, then sometimes you can't or don't want to use your own name online.

Let's look at some examples that illustrate why:

  • People struggling with mental health issues may want to write about it online or seek out support without telling their employer, their neighbours and every acquaintance about it.
  • Feminist bloggers and reporters are constantly threatened with rape or with hurting their family members, including their children.
  • Activists may feel it is important to speak out about an issue, but they worry it could affect their job, a family member's job, or their future career prospects. The decision to be "out" on the Internet as an activist, isn't just the activist's choice. It is a choice that needs to be made as a family because it can impact them all.
  • Teachers, coaches, politicians, political staffers, police officers and other people who are in positions of public trust can have things they say or do online taken out of context very easily and used against them. Most teachers and police officers I know are on facebook with a real sounding fake name so that they can't be found. They have a right to privacy too and a right to not be stalked by the public that they serve.
  • People may have a temporary situation that they can't tell others about yet, like an early pregnancy, job hunting in other cities, or preparing to ask a spouse for a divorce and may need to ask questions and seek out support discreetly.
  • Parents may need support in handling challenging situations with their children (or other family members), but don't want to disrespect their child's right to privacy (in that moment or in terms of the tracks it will leave behind that could follow that child forever). I'm a member of a couple of facebook parenting groups that have thousands of members. I can't possibly know who is lurking in there and I would feel very exposed asking any type of support question in there under my real name.

As a bonus, you never know these days when something will go viral. I've met a number of people who became accidentally and suddenly famous for something they never intended to have define them.

In the age of the Internet, people who have a vast online presence are much more exposed than others. We all Google people before we meet them for a date, a meeting, or a job interview.  It isn't just adults who do this. Children Google their teachers, their friends' parents, their neighbours, their coaches and more. I've learned things Googling people that they probably shouldn't have put out there and that they probably wish I didn't know.

Some people are an open book. The Internet knows a lot about them and they're okay with that (for now). Other people keep their online presence very limited and carefully curated. But what happens when you fall somewhere in between? What happens if you want to be active online, but still want to protect your privacy and choose who knows what about you? You use an alias, of course.  But these days instead of aliases being the norm, they're considered weird and inauthentic.

Protection from the anonymous

People who are against online anonymity have reasons for wanting people to always use their real name. They feel like anonymity allows hateful trolls to say things they wouldn't say with their name attached to it. They feel like dangerous predators hide behind fake names and fake identities in order to take advantage of people. They worry there are people who are pretending to be something they are not. 

I wish that a real names policy actually resolved those fears, but it doesn't.

Unless every website out there is going to require government issued photo ID to open an account (not likely to happen anytime soon), then people can be whoever they want to be online. People create fake personas all the time. Some of them do so maliciously and some do so just to protect their privacy. In fact, I'm sure there are people you know and trust who you think are using their real names when they are actually using a real-sounding pseudonym. Or they have their open, transparent and "authentic" profile, and then the private one where they say things they couldn't possibly say publicly.  And finally there are even people who create fake personas in real life while using their real name (See Rachel Dolzeal or Franck Gervais). 

Requiring real names on the Internet does nothing to protect us from malicious behaviour. It just gives us a false sense of trust.

Creating trust in an alias

How does knowing the name on someone's birth certificate or driver's licence (or thinking that you do) make them any more credible than someone whose real name you do not know? 

From the early days of Montreal BBSes to the message boards of the 2000s to the blogs and social media platforms of today, I've developed trust relationships with people whose real names I do not know. Their opinions are not less valid because I don't know their last name. Their friendship isn't less important because I haven't sat in their living room and met their husband or wife.  When I do sometimes learn someone's real name, that doesn't suddenly change things in a monumental way. I come to trust people online in the same way that I come to trust people in real life -- by observing the way that they act and interact and by listening to what they have to say, not by checking their ID.

What I do online is a sideline. It isn't what pays the bills. It can be fun and meaningful, but it isn't ever worth risking my career or my family's safety or privacy.  I'll tell people my real name on a need-to-know basis, but I've never felt the need to have it plastered across my blog in order to be more authentic.

Some people may come to a point where they feel their alias is no longer needed and they're ready to share their identity with the world. My friends Elan and Dresden each did that. But deciding the opposite is impossible.

Once someone threatens to rape you, once someone chooses not to interview you for a job, once someone threatens or mocks your child, once a creepy person shows up at your workplace or calls your home, once your spouse gets fired from their job, once your employer gets criticized. Once any of these things happens because of something you said online, you can't take your identity back. 

The Internet is forever.

Social media and gaming companies: Stop making kids lie about their age

As I write, I'm listening to an episode of CBC The Current on the dangers that anonymous apps pose to children and teens. While Kik (the app they are discussing) hasn't come up in our home yet, the discussion is related to a lot of conversations that we do have in our home.

My kids are technologically savvy and they have parents who are very connected on all kinds of social media. My kids are eight and eleven years old.

Can I have an instagram account, mom?

No. My answer is no. At the moment, instagram, facebook, YouTube, twitter, Pinterest and just about every other social network out there have age restrictions. So do a lot of gaming sites and apps, even ones that are obviously appropriate for and targeted at a tween aged crowd.  "You must be at least 13 years old to use the Service," says Instagram.  "You will not use Facebook if you are under 13," says Facebook. Youtube goes a bit further (and wordier):

You affirm that you are either more than 18 years of age, or an emancipated minor, or possess legal parental or guardian consent, and are fully able and competent to enter into the terms, conditions, obligations, affirmations, representations, and warranties set forth in these Terms of Service, and to abide by and comply with these Terms of Service. In any case, you affirm that you are over the age of 13, as the Service is not intended for children under 13. If you are under 13 years of age, then please do not use the Service. There are lots of other great web sites for you. Talk to your parents about what sites are appropriate for you.

Wait -- YouTube is not for children under 13? Exactly who are those Kinder Surprise Egg unboxing videos targeted at then? What about the Kids CBC, Disney Junior, and other corporate accounts targeted at kids?

So why the age 13 restriction? Why don't these social media sites trust parents to make decisions about what is okay for their children? There is a very simple answer to that question. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in the United States says:

If you run a website designed for kids or have a website geared to a general audience but collect information from someone you know is under 13, you must comply with COPPA’s requirements.

But complying with COPPA's requirements is complicated, so it is easier to just say that the site is not for people under age 13. Interestingly, the intent of COPPA is to "give parents control over what information websites can collect from their kids." Instead of giving parents choice, it is forcing parents to either:

  • Prohibit their children from using any website that collects information; or,
  • Allow their children to lie about their age.

Neither of these is a good option to me. For the most part, I've said no. Not because I think my kids aren't old enough to use these sites, but because I don't like giving them permission to lie about their age. I also don't like giving those sites permission to treat my child like an adult, to collect any information from them, and also show them any content that they would show an adult.

Of course Pinterest is the same as the others: "Any use or access by anyone under the age of 13 is prohibited." But for that one, I quietly set up an account for my eight year old without explicitly telling her that I was lying about her age. She uses it to pin pictures of cute baby animals, to save hairstyles that she likes, and to collect Halloween costume ideas. She's also started using it for school projects, setting up private boards with her friends where they can share their research and collaborate on their projects.

Mom! It says I'm not old enough to get an account. What do I do?

This is my eleven year old, after downloading a game onto his computer that he asked permission to download, that I researched to determine its appropriateness, and that all of his friends play. 


Fine, use my e-mail address and birth date.

I don't like this. I don't like having an arbitrary American law determine what my kids can and cannot do online. I don't like giving my kids permission to lie.

This isn't an issue that is just confined to my home or other families' homes. I've heard of elementary schools using a closed facebook group for the kids at their school to communicate with kids at a partner school in another province or country. None of those kids has reached age 13 and the school knows it, yet the school is encouraging this.

My plea to social media and gaming sites: Create child accounts

Do you know what I would love? I would love to be able to log in to facebook and set up child accounts for my kids. It would be an account that they can use, on their own devices, but that I retain some control over until they reach a certain age (perhaps that magical age 13 in COPPA). Give me, as the parent, control over things like privacy permissions. Give me, as the parent, the option to view things like personal messages. Give me, as the parent, the choice to not have my children exposed to ads.

Yes, I know that facebook's business model is based on ads and selling personal information.  But a child who is under age 13 now will soon be a child that is over age 13. If facebook creates a safe space for them when they are younger, then they'll age into being an already connected, regular user of facebook when they do reach age 13.

Not only does this create a loyal user group for these social media and gaming sites going forward, but it also gives parents an opportunity to teach their children responsible use of social media at an age when they are still responsive to guidance from their parents. I know that I have a lot more influence over an eight year old, than I will over a 13 year old. The eight year old is still happy to have me sit with her as she picks out her profile picture for Pinterest. The eight year old still tells me when strangers follow her or try to talk to her. We can have the conversations now about Internet safety. Teaching our kids social media safety is like teaching them street safety. You don't go from having them strapped into a stroller to suddenly letting them loose on the street.

The dangers of COPPA

COPPA is intended to empower parents and protect kids. Instead, it has encouraged websites to wash their hands of any responsibility by putting a line in their terms of service that says it may not be used by people under age 13. This is not protecting children. It is forcing them to lie, to hide things from their parents, or to use apps that have significantly fewer safety provisions than the major social media sites do.

What will it take to get legislators and social network owners to be more creative and responsible about the way that they handle the growing youth audience?

My peanut gallery comments on Chatelaine's survey of Canadian women at 40ish years old

Am I normal? I think this is a question that a lot of people ask themselves. Women especially. I've never really felt like I was normal, but I am still always curious how I compare to others. So when Chatelaine released a survey of Canadian women aged 35 to 45, I was keen to check out the results. After all, I turned 40 just a few months ago, making me exactly the demographic they were looking at in their "40(ish)" survey.

Before I talk about the results, let's take a closer look at who was surveyed.  Here is the methodology from the fine print at the bottom (emphasis is mine):

The survey, commissioned by Chatelaine and conducted by Abacus Data, was conducted online with 1,000 Canadian women aged 35 to 45 from September 2 to 7, 2015. A random sample of panelists was invited to complete the survey from a large representative panel of over 500,000 Canadians, recruited and managed by Research Now, one of the world’s leading provider of online research samples.
The Marketing Research and Intelligence Association policy limits statements about margins of sampling error for most online surveys. The margin of error for a comparable probability-based random sample of the same size is +/- 3.2%, 19 times out of 20. The data were weighted according to census data to ensure that the sample matched Canada’s population of women aged 35 to 45 according to age, educational attainment, household size, and region. Totals may not add up to 100 due to rounding.

I was glad to see that this was a representative panel of Canadians and not just a panel of Chatelaine readers. I liked the weighing of data according to certain demographic characteristics. On twitter, I asked Chatelaine about race/ethnic background and language. They told me that 19% of respondents identified as a member of a visible minority (this matches the Canadian population overall) and that the survey was conducted in English and French (so it isn't just a sample of English speaking Canadian women). All of those factors give the survey a lot more credibility than your average online poll or reader survey.

So let's look at some of the interesting or surprising results (and questions).

Money and Employment

The survey asked Canadian women about their employment status and how much money they make. The numbers seemed odd, so I asked whether all survey respondents were asked how much money they make or if only the employed respondents were asked the second question.  Chatelaine said all survey respondents were asked that question.

Take a look at the answers to the two questions.

The first thing that jumped out at me was the fact that more than 30% don't really have paid employment (16% are not working right now, 15% are full-time moms) and others likely have limited earnings (12% are working part-time, 1% are students), yet only 21% are earning less than $30,000 per year.  I don't understand how people who aren't working or aren't working much could be earning so much.  Some of the full-time moms could be on paid maternity leave, but most of them would not be earning more than $30,000 per year.  There are also many women with full-time minimum wage jobs in Canada, which would not add up to more than $30,000 per year (working full time at minimum wage in Canada yields an annual salary of between $20,000 and $23,000). Based on all those factors, I have trouble believing the results for how much money Canadian women make.

Sex and Relationships

Over 80% of Canadian women are very (51%) or fairly (31%) satisfied with their relationship and they stay in that relationship primarily for companionship (60%) or for the kids (21%).  But Canadian women aren't having a lot of sex and seem generally okay with that.

Maybe that has something to do with the fact that these are the six sexiest Canadian men according to the survey (Really, Canada?).

Or maybe it is because we're so exhausted from all of the things on our plate (building our career, taking care of the kids, doing the chores). Not to mention the fact that we don't get to the gym as much as we should (29% feel the most guilty about this), don't feel good about our bodies (73% don't feel good about the way they look naked) and are depressed (61% have experienced depression or anxiety). Not exactly a libido enhancing combination.

The mom judgment isn't getting to us too much

There is a lot of hype about how much moms are judged by other moms, by the media and by society as a whole. That is either more hype than reality or we're doing a pretty good job of ignoring that judgment most of the time. When asked how good they are at various things, women were more likely to say they are good at taking care of the kids (30% gave themselves a score of 10/10 as a mom and 46% said they are doing pretty well) than building their careers (8% say 10/10, 39% say pretty well) or being an amazing friend (13% say 10/10 and 49% say pretty well).

Do we lie about our drinking?

On social media, there is a lot of "mommy needs a cocktail" and "wine-o-clock". But is that just a saying or are women actually drinking a lot to help get through their day-to-day challenges? Here is what the survey said about how much we drink.

I can understand that there are a lot of women who don't drink at all. This probably includes recovering alcoholics, people who don't drink for religious reasons, pregnant women, and people who just don't like alcohol. I was surprised, however, at the distribution among women who do drink. To me it seems normal to have a glass of wine at dinner and another one once the kids are in bed and then perhaps another one or two on a weekend. I know that is slightly above the maximum recommendations for women (10 drinks per week, no more than 2 per day), but it doesn't strike me as excessive or something people would be embarrassed to admit. 

Ann Dowsett Johnston, an expert quoted in the Chatelaine survey said that women experience a lot of shame and blame when it comes to alcohol and that there's "no public acceptance of a women who's slurring, so no one's going to admit drinking too much." However, for most women, there is a long way between two drinks spaced out over an evening and slurring and falling over.

I wonder whether women were simply hesitant to put a check in the 11+ category because it was the highest category. If the categories had been 0, 1-3, 4-10, 11-20, and 20+, I wonder if the numbers would have been higher in the 11-20 category than they were in the 11+ category.

We're depressed and anxious

Sixty-one percent of survey respondents said they had experienced depression and anxiety. The survey then asks "have you taken anything for it" (56% said yes) and "have you ever been in therapy" (35% said yes).

But then I asked Chatelaine whether everyone was asked the questions about medication and therapy or just those who indicated they had experienced depression or anxiety and their answer surprised me. They said only those women who had experienced depression or anxiety were asked whether they had taken anything for it, but all respondents were asked whether they have ever been in therapy.

At face value, it looks like a lot more women are taking medication than using therapy, but with that explanation of the approach that was used, it is clear that the numbers are actually similar (35% therapy, 34% medication).

What about the men?

This survey tells us a lot about Canadian women at around 40, but what about the men? I see a lot of couples breaking up at around this age and wonder how big the chasm is between how women see themselves in the world and how men see themselves in it. 

If a survey of this sort was going to go out to men, I would also want to see questions on things like childcare and household chores. Do they feel like they are pulling their weight? How much of the burden are they taking on. Does that include both the physical burden (being there with the kids, doing household chores) and the mental burden (knowing when the kids need a vaccine, knowing the names and e-mail addresses of the kids' friends' parents, knowing when the kids have tests at school and when their assignments are due, knowing what shoe size the kids wear)?

I think we would see a big difference between the burden women carry at this age and the burden that men carry.

But despite that, more than 2/3 of Canadian women at this age don't consider themselves feminists. I don't really know what to say about that, but my friend Natasha does. Go read her blog post feminist: especially on the hard days.

Your turn

What did you think when you read the Chatelaine survey? Did you feel like it was an accurate representation of you and your peers or were you surprised by the results?