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?

Are we too quick to judge?

Part of the premise for this blog is that I don't have all the answers, but I love looking for them. So I'm just going to talk out loud for a moment. I don't know if I have this right, but I'd like to talk about it.

Yesterday, I saw some exchanges on twitter and facebook that bothered me and I've been thinking about them since. One friend who is a fitness professional observed someone making a less than ideal breakfast choice and tweeted her dismay at their choice.  Other friends responded (directly or indirectly) criticizing her for shaming people for their food choices. 

 Image adapted from  Kooroshication  on flickr.

 Image adapted from Kooroshication on flickr.

Let me start by saying that I could have written either of those tweets.

I have judged people (sometimes silently and sometimes out loud) for their food choices and I'm not proud of it.

I have also judged people (sometimes silently and sometimes out loud) for one judgmental tweet or facebook status that they wrote and I'm not proud of it.

Reflecting on yesterday, I think the ideal response to the original tweet would have been to say: "Sometimes I have breakfast for dinner, sometimes I have dessert for breakfast. One meal isn't what matters, it is balance over time."  Not adding to the judgment, not judging her, just gently educating (which was likely her intent and the intent of those who replied to her, even if it didn't come across that way in either case).  Hindsight is 20/20.

My actual reply, which I'm not proud of, was: "I once saw a guy order 8 chocolate chip cookies at Starbucks at 8am. Thought maybe for a meeting he was hosting. But then he proceeded to sit down and eat them all." Yes, I judged that guy. I didn't judge him out loud (in person or on  social media) in that moment, but I did do so yesterday. Again, I'm not proud of it.

I'm trying to learn to be less judgmental of people based on one action (whether that is something they did or something they said). The article How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco's Life is a good example of where things can go when we judge people based on one status update. Was her tweet wrong? Yes. Was the reaction to it (which I contributed to) out of proportion? Also yes.

Does this mean that I won't judge and that I won't call people or organizations out for bad decisions? No, absolutely not. But I'm going to try to save my outrage and my focus for patterns of wrongdoing, rather than individual instances. I'm going to try to pause before reacting and think about whether my response is a constructive one or just a knee-jerk reaction.

I say I'm going to try because I'm not perfect either and I don't want to make a promise I can't keep. I hope you'll forgive me for that.