Tuesday, August 07, 2007

What's In A Name?

(Editor's Note: You should also read Wilson Smith's more visceral reaction to an interview request here.)

I think it's about time we all sit down and talk about names.

Let's start with mine. It's certainly an odd one which has caused consternation and tongue twisting among many. In order to get to the bigger picture, we need to start with my small story.

In 1995, I entered the online world in the same fashion as many other lemmings charging over the cyber-cliff. I joined AOL. Although "handles" had been around forever, the fledgling online service made them not only cool but a requirement. Pressed to come up with something clever on the spur of the moment, I chose grifterdrifter.

The etymology was quite simple. I had been known to run a few cards games, take a few bets and make spending money shooting pool. I also was known as a wanderer who never settled down, hadn't married and viewed apartment leases as one year relationships. Unfortunately for me, AOL limited screen names to ten characters. So I shortened the original down and griftdrift was born.

I tooled around the internets for the next six years under this unique handle and then one day I signed up for a message board focused on a particular television show. For reasons lost to time, I then shortened the name further to griftd.

Fast forward another five years and the creation of this blog. I made two decisions at the very beginning. The handle had become as much of an identifier for me as my real name so it would continue to be my nom de plume. The second decision was more difficult. I would remain semi-anonymous but would make no effort to hide my real name. Despite some unsavory experiences in the past, I had come to realize that trying to cover my tracks would eventually become soul consuming. It also rarely worked. On a more practical level, it's also a hell of a lot easier to google than my rather common real name.

I would not openly publicize my real name but I would make no real effort to hide it. If you ask, I will tell. When Wilson interviews me he certainly uses it. I can confidently say most of the Georgia blogging community not only knows it but also at times uses it to link to me. Never have I made objection nor ever will I. I don't hide it, I just don't advertise it.

So why bring all this up now? There is a certain new blog I mentioned the other day which is causing quite a stir. And most everyone is in a dither because they can't figure out who started it. The creators are completely anonymous and is the case with many attack sites continue to cling to that veil.

Given the above bio, criticism of anonymous authors may seem somewhat hypocritical coming from me. I also allow anonymous commenting on my blog. But I am also a strong believer in context. In this world where subtlety and nuance are at times lost, context truly matters.

So let's take a taxonomic look at one man's opinions of certain internet identifying conventions.

The Real Namers - (Erick Erickson, Jason Pye, Bernita Smith, Rusty Tanton, Amber Rhea, Amy Morton, etal.) The folks who have the bravado to paste their real names to their thoughts. There's not much to explain here but it should be noted the use of a real world name does give these folks a notch up in the credibility department. They are immune to attacks accusing of not standing behind their work. But with great power comes great responsibility. These folks can never sock puppet. If they do that credibility is immediately gone. They are quite simply stuck with public recognition forever.

The Semi-Anonymous - (griftdrift, Jmac, Audacity, Sara, flackattack, etal.) Also known as "The Handles". They vary in their level of anonymity from the completely obfuscating griftdrift and Audacity to those who actually incorporate part of their real name ala Jmac, Sara and flackattack. Most of them are known to their readers but a casual visitor would view them as a stranger.

Their actual identities are generally available from social networks, relationships within the blogging community and at times from open usage of the real name based on circumstance. Unlike the real namers however, their credibility is based primarily on context. The semi-anonymous develops a reputation based not on name but on the content of their work. If the work is credible and consistent, the handle can become almost as legitimate as a real name.

The Truly Anonymous - (trolls, tipsters, sock puppets) The truly hidden. They use the anonymous feature of blog comment sections, masked email and sometimes even entire sites to transmit their message. Sometimes they are harmless. Most times they are not. An individual usually has one of two motives for remaining hidden; fear of retribution or the desire to attack without reprecussion. Tipsters can fall evenly between both categories. Trolls and sock puppets live solely in the latter.

The tipsters can be vaulable sources of information for blogs and are treated differently across the spectrum. Some run their content without regard to accuracy or probative value. Others attempt to confirm before passing the information along. Some ignore them altogether.

Trolls and sock puppets live only for the damage they can cause. They are diametrically opposed to the semi-anonymous. Instead of creating an identity with the goal of establishing a reputation, they create their personalities to hide reputation. The sole purpose of anonymity is to free themselves of the moral restraints society associates with identity. Freed from recognition, they embrace tactics which they probably would not use in real life. For these reasons, the truly anonymous are always greeted with a great deal of skepticism and scorn. Usually they deserve it.

We could continue to branch these trees further and reach finer details of the many characters in the metaverse that is Web 2.0 but I believe these thumbnails give a good start to discussion of anonymity and the internet. At the very least, hopefully it gives you an idea of how to view certain new websites.

The bottom line is context matters. It is important to view the entire big picture (motive, content, style) rather than focusing solely on how it is signed.


Unknown said...

Thank you for this post. I think the whole identity thing is very interesting in the blogging world. By the way, all the front page posters at www.blogfordemocracy.org, while they may use a nickname in the posts, their complete names and email addresses on listed prominently on the front page.

Amber Rhea said...

I think using real names is nice when possible, but not everybody can do it, for a variety of reasons. (And I mean real reasons, not just "eh I think this pushes my comfort zone" kind of stuff.) I think the most important thing is to have a name - whether it be your real name, part of your real name, or a handle - and stick with it. We know who griftdrift is, because you don't go changing that name when you comment on different blogs. Not only is it good for basic identification and addressing (10 "anonymous" commenters can get really confusing really fast) but it builds a kind of paper-trail, for better or for worse. (Which is exactly what you said in your post.)

griftdrift said...

Catherine, I had to pick a name from the hat and Smitty was the lucky one. Besides with her recent adventures I want to help turn her into an internet star. ;-)

Amber Rhea said...

If I had to pick a money quote, I think this is it:

"Trolls and sock puppets live only for the damage they can cause. They are diametrically opposed to the semi-anonymous. Instead of creating an identity with the goal of establishing a reputation, they create their personalities to hide reputation."

Anonymous said...

I think I'm with Amber. I was thinking about splitting my personality into two blogs, buying shelbyhighsmith.com in preparation for a new WP install there. I'd expunge my identity from shelbinator.com as much as possible, but once done with that, not go to great lengths to keep it truly anonymous; I like the brand name, I've put some effort into building it up, I just didn't want the first thing popping up in a potential employer's Google search to be the snarky blog. The snark and satire would remain there (with the half-assed disclaimer, "Everything here is satire, calm down"), and the more academic poli-tech blogging would move over to the eponymous blog.

Then the damn Biden bloggers had to follow a meandering series of clicks and Googles and credit me in the Sumter video with my name and URL. So, that was that. But I still think the quasi-anonymous blogger is totally legit, provided there is (1) some kind of disclaimer regarding any conflict of interest (e.g., "You should know I am a consultant for a major Dem/Repub politician/communications company/etc"), and (2) tools like OpenID evolve and spread to the point that we can be sure a comment by Griftdrift elsewhere is in fact the real Griftdrift.

For the longest damn time I didn't know your real name anyway, even while drinking with you.

Pokerista said...

Shelby, he's been responding to Grift or Grift-Dee while drinking with people for at least 6 years that I know of. You are not alone!

I don't put my full name out there only because I like to lessen, while not eliminating, the likelihood that someone I work with now or in the future will stumble across my blog. If they do, that's fine since I try to be mindful of the possibility that people I work with might find it one day if they haven't already. But that doesn't mean I want to make it easy for them. Still, by having my picture up there and my first name, I'm hardly trying to hide behind anonymity.

There used to be a fourth category of the truly anonymous blogger who does it out of some hope of protecting their real life from intruding with their online life, but most people have realized how stupid that is now. I think the only blog I can think of that's truly anonymous but not for nefarious purpose is I Saw It On Ponce.

griftdrift said...

Shelby you bring up an interesting point. How do you know its the real griftdrift? Back in my BBS/Message board days we used to refer to the specific type of troll who would imitate a well known nic as a Ghostnic.

Unless you are an admin of the site there's really no sure way of knowing if its the real deal. But what we discovered back in the old days is people who have used an identity for a long period of time develop a "voice". When someone speaks and doesn't use the right "voice" its usually apparent.

A recent example is I used a friend's computer to post a comment and forgot to sign out their nic first. So it accidentally went under their handle. My first thought, was Oh God everyone's going to know that's me!

Amber Rhea said...

Heh, yeah, I still call ya Griftdrift more often than not when your name comes up in conversation.

Anyway this made me think of something:

tools like OpenID evolve and spread to the point that we can be sure a comment by Griftdrift elsewhere is in fact the real Griftdrift.

There was an incident a while back on a blog I frequent, where someone who had a beef w/ one of the commenters (who also has his own blog) posted fake comments under this person's handle. It all came out in the wash, of course, but it was pretty nasty while it was happening. Still, I don't think that's a huge danger for most people... even in the case I'm thinking of, it was pretty obvious to people who were regular readers that the comments were not made by this guy, because we had been reading long enough to recognize his writing style and his worldview in general.

griftdrift said...


buzzbrockway said...

I think it depends on the focus of the particular blog. If someone is blogging about their personal life or "adult" things, I don't care if they're anonymous.

However, if you blog about public policy, or you hold yourself up as a "watchdog," I think you should have the guts to use your real name.

My $.02

Anonymous said...

You ever see an "IrisLove" 'round this town, you'd better call the sheriff. Or Vernon Jones, whichever comes first.

Cousin Pat said...

I went ahead and changed my online handle after two years of writing and using my real name.

Strangely, online folks responded better to the new handle (which was based on one of my well known nicknames) than my real name, for whatever reason.

But I know plenty of semi-anonymous bloggers who handle their identity because of who they work for or just to add that little extra layer of security/doubt in between them and and the whole online world knowing.

I do think the tiered breakdown you described absolutely sums up the phenomenon, though.

Anonymous said...

Good post... I found my way over here from Jason Pye's blog, another guy worth drinking with...

I blog under my real name, and I am by far the most google-famous "Warbiany" there is. But there is one drawback that you didn't mention.

I recently found out that spammers are using my name to peddle male enhancement drugs. The worst thing is, I found out from my old boss (who got a few of the bogus emails.

I'm not worried about much when it comes to my name being out there, but this one really bothers me... My last name is rather unique (every Warbiany in the USA is a relative, as our name was butchered on Ellis Island when my ancestors arrived and thus it's only ours), and to see it used in such a way is definitely troubling...

Amber Rhea said...

Yeah but you can more easily speak out against it and let people know it's not you, because of the fact that you use your real name. This goes back to what Susie Bright was saying at BlogHer, about how putting yourself out there can be the best protection you have. It's an offensive and a defensive measure.

Flannery O'Clobber said...

Great post. I remain pretty conflicted about online identity. I have more than once considered going totally anonymous. But, of course, that's nearly impossible since I write about local stuff.

Open+Transparent said...

When you have an employer that frowns on blogging, you might be a bit more sympathetic. Not everyone can post what they think and believe with repurcussions. It shouldn't be that way, but it is.

Amber Rhea said...

When you have an employer that frowns on blogging, you might be a bit more sympathetic. Not everyone can post what they think and believe with repurcussions. It shouldn't be that way, but it is.

That's what the part about having a recognizable, consistent username addresses. Several people (including me) have talked about it on this thread.