Saturday, November 03, 2007

Pseudonym-Americans Fight Back

When Facebook deleted my account and I decided to fight back, I had no idea what I started. I was pleasantly surprised by the groundswell of support I got from the blogosphere, even from people who use their real names. The response was so overwhelming that Facebook reversed its decision within hours and restored my account. Unwittingly, I seem to have tapped into feelings that have been bubbling under the surface for a long time. For too long Pseudonym-Americans like myself, and all the pseudonymous people of the world, have lived in the shadows. For too long we have been relegated to the back of the serial bus. Well, those days are over. I am somebody, just not exactly who I say I am, and I say it loud: I'm a Pseudonym-American and I'm proud.

Pseudonym-Americans are not asking for special rights. We are just asking for the freedom to be who we are not. We are people just like you. Some of us use pseudonyms because we have real jobs. Some of us use pseudonyms because there are arrest warrants against us or we are fleeing creditors. Some of us are pseudonymous for no reason at all. We come from all walks of life. We are your brothers and sisters, your parents and children, your friends and colleagues. That person sitting in the cubicle next to you could be a Pseudonym-American and you wouldn't even know it. All we are saying is that what we do on the computer in the privacy of our own basements or offices is nobody's business but our own and Homeland Security's.

Sure, there are times when I wish that Internet marketers had all my demographic data attached to my real name so that they could target ads at me more effectively. We all want that at one time or another. I would love to help Facebook gather a file on all the music I download and the movies I watch and the books I say I read (but really don't) and the candidates I support and the things I buy. I know that Facebook just has my best interests at heart. And I know that Google, which knows everything I search for (and please let me explain some of those searches in case they are misconstrued), is only out to do good in the world. Isn't their motto "Be excellent to each other," or something like that?

But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. Today, Facebook may want to know your real name and your real age, but next they are going to want to know your real weight or your real height. Then they are going to want to see pictures of you that aren't 20 years old or haven't been touched up in Photoshop. Where will it all end? And even though Facebook may be a trustworthy and morally unassailable corporation, that doesn't mean that every one one of its employees is a saint, as some have discovered. Pseudonym-Americans are not just fighting for our own rights. We are fighting for your rights, too.

Not everybody understands. "People who disguise their identity in e-mail or public forums lack integrity, maturity and courage," writes Scott McKeen in The Edmonton Journal. There was a time when I would not have confronted such blatent bigotry and unprovoked vitriol against the pseudonymous. But now it makes me mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore.

Did Publius lack "integrity, maturity and courage," Mr. McKeen? Publius was the pseudonym Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay used when they wrote The Federalist Papers. What about Senex, who many people believe was Patrick Henry? Or Phocion, better know as Alexander Hamilton? Without these great Pseudonym-Americans the United States would not exist or, even worse, might be part of Canada today. Indeed, many great men and women in history used pseudonyms at one time or another. I don't think François-Marie Arouet (better known as Voltaire) was a coward. And Marion Morrison, despite his very effeminate sounding name, was more of a man than Scott McKeen will ever be. At least when he called himself John Wayne. Perhaps we Pseudonym-Americans would feel better about ourselves if we knew how many great people in history, and how many accomplished people today, are just like us. Unfortunately, they don't usually teach this in schools.

For many Pseudonym-Americans, the only place we feel completely comfortable is on the Internet. Pseudonym-Americans don't have support groups or even bars we can go to to meet each other. Many of us have never met in person, as far as we know. But in the blogosphere, on social networks, in online games and virtual reality worlds and other places on the Internet we have found a home.

Now some tech "visionaries" want to take even that away from us. They have given it a fancy name: "Transparency," which is tech talk for "kiss your privacy good-bye." What "transparency" really is is a direct assault on our way of life. Feel free to Twitter to the world what you ate for breakfast or blog about the cute thing your soon-to-be embarrassed and resentful child did the other day, but those of us who don't have boring lives or non-controversial opinions value our privacy, and we would prefer that you leave us alone.

This week I learned a lot. I learned that I have some wonderful friends in the blogosphere even if I don't know all their real names. I learned that it's a lot easier to get a company that is really afraid of bad publicity to change its mind than it is to be a monk fighting against a well-armed dictatorship in a country nobody cares about. And I learned that being a Pseudonym-American is nothing to be ashamed of.

I think it's time for Pseudonym-Americans and pseudonymous people of all the nations in the world to stand up and not be counted. Pseudonymous people of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your names. And those aren't even real.

Illustration borrowed from "Anonymity and Privacy in the Electronic World" by Mari Korkea-aho.

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8 comments:

Saskboy said...

I'm a pseudonym-Canadian and darn proud of it. My name reflects both my sex, and my home province.

a said...

And mine reflects the fact that I just signed up on Blogger to make comments and didn't feel like thinking up something more intelligent!

Grace Nearing said...

Today, Facebook may want to know your real name and your real age, but next they are going to want to know your real weight or your real height.

Not just Facebook, either. Now the New Jersey Division of Motor Vehicles wants to know this stuff too. Bastards. I told them: Darlings, age yes, weight no. Expected additions to the NJDMV list for next year: sperm count and menstrual status.

Or else bin Laden wins.

Herbert B. Patrotage said...

“I may disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.”

--Francois-Marie Arouet, under the pseudonym Voltaire

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

--Eric Arthur Blair, under the pseudonym George Orwell

Writing under a pen name is, by no stretch of the imagination, some kind of recently invented nefarious practice. Fictitious names have been adopted by writers from the earliest historic times in nearly all countries, whether of a political or literary character. Eminent Albertan Emily Murphy, the first female magistrate in the Commonwealth and leader of the Famous 5 in the historic Persons Case, often wrote under pseudonyms including Emily Chetwood, Earl York, and Janey Canuck. Newspaper columnists (and twin sisters) Esther Lederer and Pauline Phillips long doled out advice to readers using the pseudonyms Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren.

In McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission 514 U.S. 334 (1995), the United States Supreme Court upheld anonymous and pseudonymous writing as nothing less than a fundamental right of expression. The United States has a strong tradition of anonymous speech in both literary and political contexts. For example, the Court in McIntyre notes that "American names such as Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) and O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) come readily to mind. Benjamin Franklin employed numerous different pseudonyms." Politically, the Court added, "[t]hat tradition is most famously embodied in the Federalist Papers, authored by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, but signed 'Publius.'"

In a previous case, Talley v. California 362 U.S. 60 (1960), the US Supreme Court noted, "Anonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures and even books have played an important role in the progress of mankind." Commenting on that case in McIntyre, the Court said, "The specific holding in Talley related to advocacy of an economic boycott, but the Court's reasoning embraced a respected tradition of anonymity in the advocacy of political causes."

The Supreme Court in McIntyre added, "Under our Constitution, anonymous pamphleteering is not a pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an honorable tradition of advocacy and of dissent. Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. See generally J. S. Mill, On Liberty, in On Liberty and Considerations on Representative Government 1, 3-4 (R. McCallum ed. 1947)."

Aon said...

Don't forget Andrew MacDonald (William Luther Pierce) who wrote the Turner Diaries.

AndrewGurn said...

You, sir, are a good man.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. Well put. But why the gratuitous and unsupported ad-hominem attack on Scott McKeen? That, together with the unexamined and irrelevant assertions within it about what may or may not be proper naming practices and sex roles, really hurts your credibility.

Anonymous said...

Jon Swift is right! The founder of Facebook some years back; just as it was beginning to take off from behind myspace shadow; mentioned in an interview that it was very much his intention to gather as much detailed data about everyone in the world as humanly possible. This in utopia may be fine and dandy, but as he points out, there are serious problematic privacy concerns. The use of pseudonyms is a time honored tradition born of a base intelligence, oft called commonsense. This is nothing new and really is just commonsense! A commonsense that the 'visionaries' of Facebook have decided you don't need to be concerned with, this is a folly across the board, BEWARE FACEBOOK! You are certainly not safer on Facebook using real names. That very real minimum 2% of the population that are indeed hardened criminals will not mind a whip having a bit of extra information by which to stalk and more and neither will potential non-employers to be...Take it easy with the real names you may find it harder to free your name in the future from strange internet entanglements than you can not even begin to imagine! Or you may just slip by unnoticed and uncontroversial and mr swift points out. Still criminals don't much care if you're uncontroversial. It is best never to disclose too much data about yourself that can be aggregated. Ever notice how google has a penchant for/to aggregate strange data from old sources, any source, even years out-of-date and putting it on local map data. Good work here jim swift. Don't need to agree with your politics to have some commonsense with regard to putting personal detail on social networks. I have about 5 ids on MySpace for different things, adjusting and massaging identity is what helps make great for bands and artists and that launched MySpace and let's not forget MySpace really is the first big time social network and still the best when it comes to freedom and style, and of course all the cool fake name using artist and bands!

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