The First Time I Understood the Value of Anonymity

July 26, 2011

There's a great conversation going on about why social networks, specifically Google+, shouldn't require that all its users register using their "real" names. To catch up, read Skud, Caterina, and Anil. I've got nothing to add to their points, except a quick personal story.

I was 16 years old when I knew for sure that I'd never have a boyfriend or a husband, that I was in love with a girl. At the time, I was a student at an all-girls Catholic high school, wearing a plaid skirt and dodging the nuns in the hallway. It was awful. I spent most days totally stressed someone would find me out. When I arrived at college, I promptly cut my hair, put on freedom rings, and looked up the gay/lesbian/trans student group. There wasn't one. After I spent my freshman year befriending all the gays on campus, I set out to start one.

But there was a problem. My school had a policy about establishing student groups: you had to have a certain number of members, that is, a list of student names and IDs to submit to the administration to establish interest and get a group charter (and thus funding). Of all my queer friends, about three of us were out of the closet and willing to put our names down on that list. (Seriously, conversations about establishing the group went like this: "How will we advertise meetings? We can't put the room and time on flyers, because the football team might show up." It was a dark, pre-Glee era.)

In the end, we "hacked the system" and got sympathetic straight students to sign the list for us, and the GLBT group charter was granted. Without them, that would have never happened.

Hi Gina,

It’s refreshing how open you are about your sexuality. Life would be so much simpler if we all just respected and cared about one another without concerns for things such as sexual orientation, race or personal belief systems.

I wanted a bit of clarification on your statement: “It was awful.” What was awful, the environment in your school towards you, your realization that you would never have a husband or something else altogether?

Jul 26 11 at 3:38 pm

Hi Emmanuelle–to clarify, high school was awful. Coming out wasn’t so bad. :)

Gina Trapani [+195]
Jul 26 11 at 3:59 pm

Thanks for the story.
I’m still not certain, however, that the need for anonymity in some contexts means that Google should change its policy about using real names.
There are aspects of my life that I choose to share with only selected folks. (Being open about my life isn’t my choice alone. What I say about my life inevitably involves family and friends; they shouldn’t have to be drawn into discussions about my life in the public realm.)
That said, my use of my real name in all of my blog posts and comments is just as important. It indicates that I’m standing with my ideas. I appreciate the fact that Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others can provide some level of verification that this is me.
And, as I noted in an earlier blog post,On privacy and community, I’ve learned not to expect real privacy or anonymity except in the movies.

Karl Hakkarainen [+1]
Jul 26 11 at 5:11 pm

First: Big fan.
I’m wondering though, if this story doesn’t actually illustrate the value of community over anonymity. It was a community of people who knew and respected (I assume) the real identities of the LGBT folks that took the risk implied in the story and signed their names, enabling the hack. If they didn’t know the real identities of at least some of the people involved, would they have taken that risk?
I guess I just mean to point out,like a million others, that this is a complicated issue.
The attachment of “real names” comes with problems, but also benefits.
In the end, perhaps the most truly important thing Google Plus will bring to the table is this exact discussion and these exact questions.

Don Wood
Jul 26 11 at 6:34 pm

I’m torn on this issue, because while I’m personally rarely afraid of stating my controversial viwes, I understand that other people may fear for their own or their loved ones’ safety. Then there’s also the value of knowing that other people aren’t ashamed or afraid of singing their name under an article like this one — the more open and casual you are about your sexuality, the more you encourage others to be open as well.

Anonymity allows people to be more open about their views, but that also means they can make anonymous threats. Real names make people more careful about what they write, but they also make the conversation safer and participants more accountable.

All in all, I think it’s a good idea to let people choose, but encourage real names.

Pies [+11]
Jul 27 11 at 12:24 am

I’ve ran into similar issues myself as a trans-woman.

When I first came out I hated people using the male name I had been given, but at the same time I lacked the confidence to use my full female name online.

I’ve never gone out of my way to hide who I am, but just the issue of displaying a female name will rise anger and accusations of “attempting to fool people”. So for a long time the only names I would use in public where ether a nickname or my surname only.

I’m thankfully now at a point that I have the confidence as well as the thick skin to handle the anger I still find directed to me for being trans and daring to use a female name online, but if Google+ had came out last year then I would have ether avoided it, or else ended up as one of many who have had there accounts closed due to not being willing to use a “normal” name.

Zoe Hendrickse
Jul 27 11 at 3:40 am

This is indeed a good topic. At Loyola University in New Orleans I had the opportunity to be the academic adviser to a Pagan group that was forming. They also had to get names of members and a faculty member to sponsor them. It was trickier for me as an adviser since in order to work at Loyola you had to “generally agree with Jesuit ideals”. It it had been Catholic ideals I would have been fired.

Coming from the perspective of one who, for some time, worked in Higher Education trying to make the college experience for students one did not pose barriers like the one you encountered, I can only say that I hope that more (if not most) colleges by now have eliminated policies that would hinder the creation of (what I think we would all agree) is an essential organization.

At the same time, I feel that most colleges these days wouldn’t have a problem finding enough “out” students to form such a group. Even the two Catholic universities I worked for managed to have a large enough population of GLBT students (without the need for Allies to bolster their numbers) to form a solid organization.

Erik Bates [+1]
Jul 27 11 at 7:06 am

Using my real name openly online is a new thing to me and I do so to evident my intentions of being friendly and courteous when posting and commenting. Given that everyone else seemed to know before I did, I am very lucky to have been accepted to a school of preforming arts that was relatively free – for those days, anyway – of homophobia and mysogyny. Women have always been my bosses, authority figures and best pals, too. I still can’t understand why people hate women or try to keep a woman down.

Robert Bigelow [+49]
Jul 27 11 at 12:50 pm

So I’m off Google Plus forever – they suspended my account, wouldn’t accept the appeal, so I just deleted my G+ stuff (which you CAN’T USE DATA LIBERATION ON ONCE SUSPENDED – you don’t need liberation until it is taken capitve). I will never go back.

I don’t want my DETAILED personal information one click away. I thought about it and I wouldn’t mind if someone with an account or otherwise something they couldn’t just create in a second could REQUEST the detailed profile, and after 5-15 minutes get a link via email to obtain it with a limit as to the number per day to stop robobigots and other things like maybe requiring me to approve the request (maybe if it is not from someone in my circles) which would stop 1 on 1 harassment.

Anonymity might be a problem but Pseudonymity is a different thing. I have reputation capital in my persistent pseudonym (which goes back to an account on Fidonet in the 1980′s!) I don’t even have with my given name.

I’m waiting for someone to be harassed or worse from being outed by their Google Plus Profile information. Having a video supportive of teenagers dealing with issues is no substitute to a place where they can be safe to work them out. There is no outrage now before anyone is actually hurt.

tz [+15]
Aug 5 11 at 6:59 am

I completely understand the need to have a pseudonym to openly express opinions online. As an atheist in a deeply religious part of the country, I am not free to express my opinions. Furthermore, I am not ready to tell my religious family who I really am. So I use a pseudonym online to discuss my views without fear of my family or place of employment finding out. However, I have a facebook account with my real name. I don’t express all my opinions there and that is fine. I see no problem of having real names in one place and not in others. I get value out of both.

Aug 6 11 at 5:26 am

Comments are closed. Thanks for reading!