Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Janous asked me to talk about anonymity. I have talked about that before, but not recently. In the earlier days of the internet, it often seemed to be a place of infinite freedom. These days the internet is more often seen as a source of misinformation and hatred. A very old observation about the internet is that anonymity plus an audience can lead to bad online behavior. But would removing anonymity lead to a better internet?

It might not come as a shock to you that Tobold isn't the name that is printed on my passport. So to some degree, I chose anonymity on the internet. Why? I happened to be at university in the late 80's and early 90's, so I had access to the internet relatively early. And I was already discussing games on Usenet. But I was also studying to become a scientist, and had my first scientific publications. And when I tried to find my scientific "footprint" on the internet, it turned out that by having used my name for both gaming posts and scientific posts, a search would mostly turn up the game stuff, simply because games interest more people than deep science. That was obviously a bad move for a scientific career. So I adopted the name of my first AD&D character, Tobold, as my internet pseudonym. And kept my real name "clean" for anybody who was searching for my patents or scientific publications. Anonymity / pseudonymity has a clear use case for me.

I used to joke that the internet would be a much nicer place if everybody's posts would be automatically forwarded to his mother. Parents and other people in your social environment tend to be the guardians of your polite behavior. On the other hand, knowing your real identity also allows strangers to attack you in the real world, and do more harm to you than they can if they would be just limited to using words online. "Doxxing", finding out and publicizing real world information about people, has become a method of attacking somebody online.

Having said that, the internet as a whole has moved somewhat away from total anonymity. It has been replaced by something which isn't unlike my pseudonym Tobold identity: The influencer identity. Because we have moved away from text towards more video and streaming, hiding your face, which is part of your real identity, has become more difficult. I know a few gaming streamers that never show their face. But showing your face and carefully selected pieces of your life increases your audiences trust in you, which is key if you want to exploit that parasocial relationship for money, personal gain, or political influence. Everybody can publish whatever on social media, the problem today is getting heard over the cacophony, and that requires an audience that trusts you. Even one of the most hateful platforms on the internet, Twitter, frequently has people using their own name; and before they messed it up, your influence on Twitter went up with a verified identity blue checkmark. It turns out that you don't need anonymity to spew hate on the internet, as long as posting a lie or even death threat on Twitter under your real name still hasn't any real-world consequences.

Consequences of online behavior would obviously be the way to improve online behavior. Unfortunately we are in a very bad situation here: Law enforcement isn't doing much about online slander, libel, misinformation, or even threats. On the other side, an army of online vigilantes can go after anybody more prominent and dig up "compromising" information online, like a photo of the target having worn blackface for Halloween or a school play several decades ago. These days your life might get ruined for something which clearly isn't illegal (and was even socially acceptable at the time you did it), while others get away with illegal behavior. It just depends who is after you, and how motivated they are about it.

Consequences for online behavior by law enforcement would mean the state monitoring everybody online, with all the negative consequences that a "social credit" system like the one in China could have. And humanity has some history with governments punishing people for what they think or what they are, and all these histories also involve regular people informing and denouncing others. I could imagine the internet getting much worse, if we raised the stakes and made it easier for people that actually hurt others whose opinions they disagree with.

In summary, I don't think removing anonymity online would still achieve very much in this world. There is less and less connection between bad online behavior and anonymity: Your real name is basically anonymous, because in a global context so few people out of so many actual know the real you. Much disinformation comes from influencers that aren't anonymous, with which you have a parasocial relationship, in which you think you know them, and trust them. And unless you use really sophisticated tools, finding out your real identity from your online profile doesn't pose much of a challenge to anyone motivated enough to want to harm you in real life. Finding out *my* real name is as easy as using the "buy Tobold a coffee" button on my blog, although that also tells me *your* real name, as PayPal is using real names for personal accounts. Please note that finding out my real name with the purpose of getting me fired for the opinions I posted online won't work, as I am already retired. We are still a few decades away from your pension depending on your social score.

You might find it amusing to ask one or two of the popular AIs about your Tobold identity. I was posting something recently about AIs and blogging and I asked the big three to tell me something about several bloggers in my blog roll. The results were fasicatingly varied but all the AIs seemed to think they knew your real name. The trouble was, they all thought you were someone different. So, unless you have multiple quasi-real identites (Which, to be fair, a lot of people do...) then I'm still none the wiser. As far as I could tell, none of them were remotely likely to be right.

Conversely, none of them tried to assign real-world names to any of the other pseudonymous bloggers I asked them about, including myself. Why they picked on "Tobold" as being so clearly the online identity of a named individual is another question.
I appreciate your insight on the topic. When I first started using the Internet in 1995 I thought it was one of the greatest tools ever created. The barriers it broke and the human connectivity it created was awesome to me. As the years rolled on it seems that those positives are still there, however so much negativity has arisen. I hope it's just "growing pains" as we as individuals and societies learn or re-learn how to engage with each other more respectfully and responsibly. I believe that societies go through life stages just like we as individuals do. Hopefully we'll get to the next stage soon and it'll be better because of what we're going through now.

One of the reasons that I read your blog, in addition to our shared enjoyment of online games, is that I can interact with people from different backgrounds in a respectful way. Of course, even you had to start moderating posts due to the types of comments that people would make which were just nonconstructive for any meaningful conversation. I say "even you" since I've always thought that you were respectful and balanced. That doesn't mean that I agree with everything that you say, it means that we can disagree and have a constructive discussion about why without animosity or hate. That's what I wish we all could do, but it's obvious that we can't without changes. I wonder what those changes will have to be.

How did you pronounce your character's name and has it been consistent when others have referred to your blog? I can think of at least 4 different plausible ways.
The origin of "Tobold" as a name is from Lord of the Rings, where the name is in the index. I'd pronounce it like the start of the phrase "To boldly go where no-one has gone before".
It's an interesting topic as I have come across a few question of "what does your name mean?" in the last couple of months. And the people asking were using their real names a nicknames (are they that then even?).

Well, one side is certainly a bit shielding my real life self from association but then the other and probably more important side is freedom from my real life side. My online persona is entirely contained in that user(name). I can't be judged based on looks, skin colour, etc. because those are just not known.
And the world has turned and with social media and non-nerds being part of the Internet there is a shift away from anonymity. Probably because they don't value it as much and because they want to present themselves and not like us who wanted to be separate from real life?

The Internet Fuckwad theory never convinced me. I think it's too simple and just looks from one angle:
People are nice in real life.
People are bad online.
The difference between real life and online is anonymity.
Ergo anonymity turns people bad.

What if people are competitive-dominant as an evolutionary trait but are reigned in towards the in-group by social developments?
So yeah, I think anonymity doesn't turn people bad - but it removes the social constraints and opens up more out-groups.
So Camo-uflage?
"To boldly go". I have been reading your blog for almost two decades and in my head I have always pronounced it Toe-buld.

Even though I almost always use a pseudonym on the internet I still feel connected to and responsible for my online personas. The views and opinions they express are my own. I have used the same pseudonyms for years and they are part of me. f someone criticizes one of my online personas I feel the criticism personally. Despite this I still value the ability to use a pseudonym and remain somewhat anonymous. Like you it allows me to compartmentalise various aspects of my life. Also like you I realise that anyone with a bit of tech savvy could find my real name very quickly but I still feel a little safer from nut cases coming to burn down my house because they don't agree with my online opinion of their favourite game.

I wonder if there is a generational divide? We grew in a time where the physical world was dominant and the internet was an optional extra. It was somewhat embarrassing for a grown man to be writing about "children's video games" so it made sense to use a pseudonym. For generation Z the online world and their presence in it is paramount. Do they still use anonymous pseudonyms or they use the real name more in order to keep adding to their own personal online presence?
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