December 25, 2010
Commenting And Real Names

It is a continuing source of amazement to me just how few people use their full names when commenting on blog posts and on articles on news sites. I've asked people why on various sites and some claim to fear what would happen if their views became known (and not just about obviously taboo subjects like race). I've been insulted for telling people this hiding of identity is rarely necessary. I've insulted back by telling one guy he was a coward.

The trend appears to be away from anonymity mostly because of where people are doing more of their chatting. Note that on the soaring social networking site Facebook everyone uses their real names (unless they've gone out of their way to use a fake name - but few appear to do this). Yet they reveal their views about a large assortment of topics to not only their direct friends but to the friends of their friends. Well, speaking as someone who has a lot of Facebook friends due to my blogging I do not know most of them in real life. So Facebook isn't keeping discussions in secret closed discussion circles. Yet real names are used.

Just now I decided to register on the Wall Street Journal site and I noticed before registering that everyone in comment threads was using real names. So when I signed up the WSJ web page said (bold emphasis mine):

Commenting on articles requires a Community Profile and members agree to use their real name when participating in Journal Community. Why?

The Journal Community encourages thoughtful dialogue and meaningful connections between real people. We require the use of your full name to authenticate your identity. The quality of conversations can deteriorate when real identities are not provided.

Sounds right to me. I find the discussions there more civil than on many other sites. Anonymous posting seems like a recipe for easy degeneration into insult-fests.

In my own site I ask people to at least use unique pseudonyms (hence the message "No anon or anonymous"). Threads where anonymous is insulting anonymous who is being defended by anonymous are just too confusing. I will delete messages that do not use unique pseudonyms.

Update: To be clear: Some people have to post with pseudonyms. We live in a society where taboos are enforced by pretty strident segments of the political Left who make quite a few views taboo. But really, the vast majority of comments people make here and on most other blogs do not get near the really taboo topics. For most of what you say you are not at risk of being accused of secular blasphemy and stripped of career advancement opportunities. So my take is that the paranoia out there is excessive.

I can see that you might want to say anything controversial on blogs which are considered as sometimes posting content that violates taboos. But the use of pseudonyms and only first names has reached ridiculous portions. Like, I'm one of a small minority of people who use their whole names when posting a comment on the NY Times site. What's with that? You aren't marching into battle with real bullets whistling by when you post on the web. Don't be chicken.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 December 25 02:13 PM  Comm Tech Society

Simfish InquilineKea said at December 25, 2010 4:06 PM:

I don't use my real name because it's so incredibly common that no one will find me if they search for my real name. So I've just made a consistent online name.

bbartlog said at December 25, 2010 5:13 PM:

Some opinions I might express (on race, for example) are sufficiently unpopular that I could imagine a potential employer disqualifying me after googling my name. It's a minor issue (and it's not like I'm *really* radical), but since I see no advantage to using my real name it still decides the issue. I do use this same handle everywhere I comment and I expect anyone who cared could, from that, figure out who I am with a little effort; but the problem I have is not with the lookup from comment-to-identity (i.e. someone who already reads my comments wants to know who I am), it's the lookup from identity-to-comment (someone googles my name and gets all the stuff I might have posted to the net in the past ten years).

Melissa McEwen said at December 25, 2010 6:08 PM:

I was anon for a very long time. If I hadn't stopped being anon I wouldn't have met many people I am close friends with IRL and I wouldn't have been in the New York Times. But I've also had to come to terms with people I don't really know very well knowing some of my controversial opinions on things.

Walenty Lisek said at December 25, 2010 6:31 PM:

I actually have a very specific reason I don't use my real name. A few years ago I was posting on a forum that focused on "game". It was the kind of place that was similar in tone to Roissy in DC. Long story short, the people I know in real life found out I posted there and were horrified. Some of the fallout is that one friend still won't talk to me.

So I hide my real identity because of actual past social reprisal I have faced.

Doug said at December 25, 2010 6:56 PM:

Randall, yours is a really fine, thought provoking and informative blog. I like it a lot. You do a fine job at gathering and surfacing interesting new thinking and developments in research. But.

We live in days when current and prospective employers among others do look online for what they can find out about candidates for promotions and new hires. I recently read about a strongly competent university faculty member who was denied tenure (astronomy) because of he was deemed by one person involved in the selection process to be "potentially evangelical". This was in an email produced in an ensuing pretrial discovery process. You can be gay. You can be strongly leftist. You will find much tolerance. But you had better not be politically conservative, much less one of those pesky throwback evangelicals. You might not get hired, or promoted. We must be diverse! Going to work for a big corporation? Dare to open your mouth and perhaps say the wrong thing during your probationary employment period or in sexual harassment sensitivity training? Carefully!

I've used a pseudonym on your blog and do not insult anyone. I have expressed skepticism about ideas. I think I'll keep doing so, relatively anonymously. Thanks for the ability to do so.

I've seen commenters foully polluting otherwise really interesting comment discussions. The best solution IMHO and one I've seen on other blogs is to delete and ban offensive comments/commenters. Enforce your preferences regarding civility in your blog. It's your blog. You have the right. That's all it takes.

Randall Parker said at December 25, 2010 8:10 PM:


Universities are known hot beds for intolerance. So your story does not surprise me. But for most people that's not a problem. Look at truck drivers. Who cares what they write on the internet? I can cite many other occupations where your political views do not matter.

Look, I'm not saying that everyone can safely use their real name. But I am saying the fraction not using their real name is ridiculously high. There's a level of paranoia here that seems unjustified. I even see this on left-liberal blogs. Who are they afraid of? They are the ones doing the thought police enforcement and the ones that always speak only within acceptable left-liberal discourse.

Also, one could switch between one's real name and a pseudonym on different comments. Or use your real name only on blogs where less sensitive matters are discussed.

Comment deletion: I used to do it less often than I do now. I have always deleted spammers and kids who are just playing. But I've become more willing to delete idiots who insult each other. But I tend to leave in the people who insult me for predictions. I want to say "See, this idiot was wrong" 5 or 10 years from now.

Randall Parker said at December 25, 2010 8:16 PM:


I too know people and have been places and met people which would not have happened if I'd not used my real name. I am amazed who knows me now. It is pretty cool.

cancer_man said at December 25, 2010 9:47 PM:

Randall: "I want to say "See, this idiot was wrong" 5 or 10 years from now."

Like your ever sliding prediction of Peak Oil ya fuckin' moron? (just on Peak Oil of course...)

Oh, and Happy New Year!

Brett Bellmore said at December 26, 2010 4:31 AM:

I've used my real name from the start. And in some places, I have trouble convincing other people it IS my real name... But I don't think it's *entirely* paranoid. Postings on the internet are close to eternal. And there are people out there who'd ruin your life for disagreeing with them, who'd even set up concentration camps if they got the chance. I know, I've argued with them. And the thing is, you don't even know what they'll be raging at five years from now. Might be something nobody else would blink at today.

They're not in power *now*. But they could end up in power, and I'd be in real trouble. That's a risk I've decided to take, but I can't fault anyone else for being reluctant to take it.

But I don't think it's really fear driving it for most people, who might very well not have thought through the potential consequences down the road. I think it's just a common social convention adapting to the internet.

You meet somebody on a park bench, or maybe a bar, and strike up a conversation with them, you'll probably only give them your first name, or even not have the matter of names come up. You're certainly not going to hand them a copy of your biography and bibliography.

Which is what giving somebody your full name, unless it's very common, amounts to today... The only way to NOT share way too much information with somebody today, is to not give them your real, full name.

Jack William Bell said at December 26, 2010 8:15 AM:

I started using my full name (including middle name) back in the waning days of Usenet (BG - before blogs). I made that choice when I realized I couldn't remember every pseudonym I had used and I wanted to search for a particular post. Using a single pseudo was about as useless as using a real name (for anonymity) and it would have to be a pseudo no one else used for search purposes.

So I went the other way, partially because I am the only Jack William Bell on the Internet. It also caused me to adopt a posting strategy that boils down to "Never post anything (comment, blog post, whatever) that you don't want your mom, wife, or boss to read." In recent times the wisdom of this is clear: there is no longer any true anonymity on the Internet.

Plus, as you say, it improves the conversation.

TheBigHenry said at December 26, 2010 8:46 AM:

@cancer_man said at December 25, 2010 9:47 PM: "your ever sliding prediction of Peak Oil"

It's a slippery slope.

Nanonymous said at December 26, 2010 10:55 AM:

Anonymity can limit civility. Having everything you say on archived and available to everyone at any time for posterity can limit what is being said. E.g., think of the self-censorship you subject yourself to because you are using your real name. It's a trade-off obviously.

Randall Parker said at December 26, 2010 12:33 PM:


You can always switch between using your real name and a pseudonym depending on what you are talking about.

I agree that self-censorship happens when posting with one's real name.

Brett, Jack,

You are to be commended. We need real names because we need reputations and a willingness to stand up and say what are for.

As for the people who are afraid to use their real names: Soldiers walked off of troop carriers on Omaha beach and other locations in WWII under enemy fire. They risks their lives to defend a free society. If we are afraid to use our real names we are saying we aren't willing to risk much for the cause of free speech.

Hong said at December 26, 2010 1:00 PM:

We should be allowed to protect our privacy. It hardly endangers our first amendment to use pseudonyms. I don't think the veterans of our wars (past, present, future) would begrudge us that. Some of them might even approve of sounding off without worrying about hate mail from trolls. Of course, it's not an excuse to be a jackass but one shouldn't have to deal with online harassment from irate commentators who dislike your posts. Already, I've had one unsolicited email from a nasty commenter on this blog and I only use my last name. So lets keep this all in perspective.

Chris T said at December 26, 2010 4:07 PM:

People take a surprising number of things personally and even the most seemingly innocuous comment at the time can get you in trouble down the road (what's considered taboo does change). Of course anyone sufficiently motivated could figure out who you are any way, but no sense making it easy for them. There are topics I'm sufficiently paranoid about that I simply do not comment on them, even with a pseudonym.

Parker Bohn said at December 26, 2010 6:42 PM:

Your blog is impressive. Somehow you've managed to alienate two majorities of blog commentors (simultaneously!), and still come across as a reasonable person. You've directly attacked those posting under pseudonyms, and you've made a swipe at those dirty liberals.

Liberals make up a majority of blog readers in general (young, educated, city dwelling), and I would suspect that for a science based blog, the majority is even higher.

This is because (in the US at least) the left is seen as far more pro-science than the right.
48 Nobel prize winners blasting a Democratic president for being anti-science (like they did with Bush) seems farfetched.

I agree with you about the names, though.

Randall Parker said at December 26, 2010 7:09 PM:

Parker Bohn,

The Left enforces taboos in the mainstream media. I think I'm stating the obvious. The people who are posting under pseudonyms are mostly in fear of the Left. I'm suggesting they need to show a little courage.

The Left is more pro-science on some subjects. But they are pretty anti-science in evolution's impact on human nature. Take the recent decision by the American Anthropological Association to strip "science" from its long term plan statement. Read Razib Khan's commentary on this move to see what it is about. Another manifestation of Blank Slate faith if you ask me.

There are plenty of people across the political spectrum who reject science when it is convenient. Certainly this happens with evolution on both the Left and Right. But it happens in other situations too. But the use of a pose to assert scientific authority when it is unjustified is more common on the Left because more people in academia are on the left. In other words, the Left has more people who are in a position to strike unjustified poses. So, for example, left-wing economists will assert some policy is correct because they as economists know it is correct. Too often these assertions are made about issues (e.g. the efficacy of fiscal stimulus versus tax cuts) where the evidence either is conflicting or against their position.

But I'm digressing. My main point here is that we'd be better off if more people showed the courage of writing under their real name.

bmack500 said at December 27, 2010 5:41 AM:

Inevitably, every aspect of your online identity will be parsed, cataloged, and put into a database somewhere for easy referall by current & potential future employers.
They believe they have the right to know EVERYTHING about you and well, if they don't agree, no job.

I say stay as anonymous as possible..

Lono said at December 27, 2010 10:13 AM:


I see no good reason to provide any random web troller with a rich history of my personal beliefs and historical online and offline actions.

Heck the main benefit of NOT being famous is that I don't have to have tolerate some ignorant punk being up in my grill about something I said or did or did not do in the past or present.

I also have a common name that is virtually anonymous in itself - so branding myself carefully for specific communities works well to distinguish myself - and to allow me to effectively use Google to track and reference my past actions/interactions online when useful to me.

Mensa, however, does not allow anonymous posting in their online American and International communities - but - in general - their membership is respectful and mature enough as to not cause me any real concerns.

If they did give the option I would likely still choose to use a pseudonym there as well - and this is hardly because I am a "coward" - but rather because I prefer to be master of my own information - to the greatest extent possible.

And since the web is in practice a huge honeypot anyways - no reason to voluntarily make it any easier for the powers that be (tm) than it already is to track me.

I am a very inquisitive person and I think it would probably shock some of the regulars around here just how much I have already found out about your own respective online footprints - the web has a very, very, long memory indeed!

Anonymous.78 said at December 27, 2010 6:23 PM:

[FuturePundit says: I added the bottom byte of your IP address to make your pseudonym unique. Next time you use Anonymous I'll just delete it. Use a unique pseudonym]

Some people say that power corrupts, but that is not true. Power makes you not having to care about what others think of you, so you can take off your social mask and show others who you really are. So if a powerful people is now evil, it's because he was always evil, but now he doesn't have to put up a good guy show anymore.
So most people think: So people who wear masks (such as anon or anonymous) are all bad guys, otherwise they'd have no reason to wear them.
Go ahead and pick up a comic book. I'd prefer if you read the Graphic Novel "Watchman". Taking off the mask of a superhero in a world with bad guys will get you killed or will make the superheroes quit.
I'm an altruistic mensan. I intend to go into politics. I don't follow up on what people answer to my posts, because when I write something, I'm just trying to share something so that people may learn from it (not because I feel superior, and that they need to learn from me; but because I want to help people).
Therefore there is no reason for me to not be anonymous. And I know it's very easy to ban an IP address, so if my posts are ever troll-like, ban me at will.

Randall Parker said at December 27, 2010 10:18 PM:

I deleted another "Anonymous" commenter. Really, I insist at least on unique pseudonyms.

Randall Parker said at December 27, 2010 10:27 PM:


The powers that be can already track you. Just your IP address can be compared by the ad-serving engines.

Ever been to Anyone running a web site can figure out where visitors are from.

BioBob said at December 28, 2010 4:13 AM:

Sorry, Randall, but I have to disagree about the potential for abuse. As someone who is a data mining /processing professional, I can conclusively say from both personal and professional experience that any available electronic info WILL be abused. There is no real incentive to use ones real name and plenty of incentive for abuse. I can agree about use of anon type nicks, but using your real name is giving those who will abuse it too much power for no return.

Lono said at December 28, 2010 11:30 AM:




I frequently change computers and IP's during the week - in a non-repeating fashion - but I am aware that there is no real unencrypted privacy on the net particularly if you are purposely targeted by a corrupt Govt. or 3 letter agency.

However they will have to work to make the connections between my pseudonyms - instead of just profiling me rather easily amongst the indiscriminately vacuumed masses of public digital data.


An altruistic Mensan you say, eh?

please email me at - I'd be interested in discussing this topic further.

(just FYI - I have created that email address specifically for this purpose - feel free to do likewise I will respect your desire for anonymity)

Anonydouce said at December 28, 2010 9:47 PM:

You clearly didn't learn a goddamned thing from du Toit's experience.

That's just mind-boggling, that anybody could have been anywhere near the libertarian side of the net during that time and come away from it with the opinions expressed above. Moronic. Incredibly so.

You also clearly have not the slightest bit of imagination. I have interacted with people online who would have been perfectly willing to try to sabotage my employment prospects based on their disagreements with me. As it was they had to limit themselves to screwing with me in online environments. That realization - that my expressing certain opinions was enough to get some half-assed stalking going on - did make me change my behavior, and makes the very idea of speaking honestly and openly in a place like Facebook an absolute non-starter - a ridiculously stupid idea. Luckily I had been careful about my real name before then based just on prudence - and anybody with resources who seriously wants to track me down is certainly capable of doing so; I have a few ideas about the trail they would follow - but the best line of defense against this kind of crap (the kind you seem to be asserting doesn't exist, with absolutely no evidence) is to make it more trouble than it's worth to them. Easy anonymity is the best and simplest way to implement that.

I should also add that human beings are simply not set up to have their mistakes follow them everywhere they go, for the rest of their lives. People make mistakes. People have opinions, act on them, and then later change their minds. They need to be able to get away from that. Having something they wrote or said ten years ago always come up whenever anyone does a search on them is simply crippling - ask that girl who talked big on youtube when she should have known better, the one with the "consequences will never be the same" father, or the "Star Wars Kid", or that Duke student who wrote the sex thesis, or, hell, Monica Lewinsky. Ten, twenty years from now, people will still be able to type their names into search engines and say "oh yeah, THAT person". There is no new town they can move to so as to get away from this reaction. Online interaction multiplies the chances to do something that labels you for life. Doing it under your own name guarantees you can't ever say: that was a mistake, I shouldn't have done that.

People have to be able to get away from their mistakes. When everything can be googled, that means switching identities when one becomes a burden. That means anonymity. Being able to reinvent yourself used to be part of what being American was about. What the hell are you?

I believe Blizzard did something similar recently with World of Warcraft, tying all forum posting accounts to real names. As if there haven't already been enough outright murders by people pissed over stuff that happened in "just a game". It's blind and stupid when a big company insists on it, it's blind and stupid when some blogger insists on it. The online environment is not the real world physical environment and your wishful thinking will not make it otherwise.

This is easily one of the stupidest posts ever to show up on this site. If you're lucky, it will never bite you in the ass.

WJ said at December 29, 2010 3:26 PM:

"But for most people that's not a problem. Look at truck drivers."

Joe the Plumber called and wants his privacy back. That chick from Harvard Law, too.

No, in a day where anyone can be plucked from obscurity and made a mockery of globally, privacy is more important than ever.

I am grateful for those people willing to post their views openly and challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. One of these days I may very well be one of those people. I hope to be. But while my career is still rising, and while I still have young mouths to feed, I will keep my political views as anonymous as possible, especially when those views involve race, illegal immigration, and the motives of businesses who support illegal immigration. In person I will publicly mock PC every chance I get, but when I do so online I will refrain from using my real name.

As for the idea that real names improve the thoughtfulness of dialogue, my experience on Facebook discussing issues with friends, and with friends of friends, indicates strongly to the contrary. Even with people using real names, there are an incredible number of a-holes on Facebook.

Lobo Solo said at December 30, 2010 3:33 AM:

I disagree with the WSJ. There are plenty of people who are willing to insult you while using their real name! Not only that, I could choose any name like John Smith.

I've seen discussions become so heated that people have had to change their screen names ... Some have even been threatened! I use a completely different screen name on my hometown newspaper. I don't want those who go off on the deep end to know who I am.

Using a pseudonym has not hinder me from meeting people from online conversations. Those I whom I've come to know and trust thru the net I meet ... It's just that simple.

After all, what's in a name?

Phillep Harding said at December 30, 2010 11:03 AM:

I chose "Phillep Harding" for political discussions, and I chose the spelling after doing a web search of it to make sure it was not common. (One other "Phillep Harding" online at the time, and he was a brit.) I've used it for long enough to have a track record and a reputation (for good or ill). I use a pseudonym for several reasons, such as some people in my past who I have no wish to speak with. I understand they have harassed another person with the same name, thinking he was me, and he was lying to them. Others called a wrong number and thought I was an incestuous pedophile (same last name, real name) trying to pretend to be someone else. They were calling to express their support, they thought I was trying to be cute to protect them from the police who they thought were tapping my phone, and it took months to dump them. Buncha maroons. As well as other reasons related to why I had a CCW before Alaska changed the laws. No drama, just tedious and disgusting people and situations to avoid.

Randall Parker said at December 30, 2010 9:03 PM:

Lobo Solo,

Some people like yourself (Hi Hans!) ought to choose pseudonyms less like their real name.]

But really, with real names people are on average more polite.

My not using a pseudonym means that I've gotten invited to conferences and have met more people than I would have otherwise.

Phillep Harding,

I had wondered whether your name was real. Thoughtful of you to choose a rare one. At least one can tell that one is talking to you and not one of a legion of anonymi.


I understand why the political correctness thought police scare many into using pseudonyms. Yes, you can get yourself in trouble for holding perfectly reasonable views which are well supported by a large body of research. But most people posting with pseudonyms are not talking about anything taboo.

I think the use of pseudonyms is excessive.

WJ said at December 31, 2010 12:42 PM:

Using a pseudonym allows me to segue between the taboo and the mundane, while keeping a single identity tied to everything. Plus, using my real name allows that name to be connected to my IP addresss. All in all, if you're ever going to be discussing the taboo, it's best just to stick with a pseudonym. That's my belief, anyway.

Thanks for all you do, Randall, and Happy New Year.

Yours, anonymously.

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