The Real Name Fallacy


I almost didn’t post here because of the overhead of signing up as a member of the Coral community. And as a new user my last two comments went straight to moderation, which chafes.

That’s good feedback, thanks. We’ve had virtually no trolling so far, so I’ll alter the settings. (I’ll change them back if that changes.)

Fun research area: Do people who get moderated/banned in system A (subreddit?) very frequently get moderated/banned in system B? Or are people often civil on topic A but uncivil on topic B?

Interesting question. I don’t know about the first question; the second one: anecdotally, yes, all the time according to moderators we’ve talked to. One major site’s head of community told me that one of their best commenters in Science was one of the worst in Politics. We’ve heard versions of that story in more than one org.


BTW, I get the irony that my displayed-name in not my real name, here. :slight_smile:

To do what you are trying to do, I think you need to tie into public identities. Many sites now allow you to authenticate using your Google or Facebook identities to submit comments. If you can tie into other moderated sites and see approved postings, you can build a measure of trust.


At The WELL in the 1980s our policy was you had to use your real name. We only allowed a couple of exceptions. But that society was when online conversation was new and trolling as a sport hadn’t happened yet. Plus the atmosphere of the WELL was heavily influenced by a certain “Whole Earth” ethos that helped the initial tone of the place get set in a pretty civilized direction.

Later when it got bigger and things got more socially complicated, we did allow some people to mask their real name online but we still had to know who they really were so that we could bill them (there was a monthly and an hourly fee back in the modem days) and so we could make good on our “you own your own words” rule that was less about copyright and more about the poster taking responsibility for whatever they said. They system overall worked pretty well, and at that time I was in the camp of mandating the use of real names for just about everyone.

Then in the mid 90s when I started a conference-like system for SF Gate, at first I made everyone use their real name. That went ok for awhile, but then one weird guy started to stalk offline a young woman who was one of the most prominent users of the system.

That caused me to change it so you could mask your real name but we did mandate that you had to have a persistent user name so whoever you called yourself developed an identity around that name. This is the “stable pseudonyms” that jamescookmd is talking about above.

If I were designing a system now, I would still opt for the stable pseudonym model.

One of the great things about the online world today is that there is such a huge number of offerings with every kind of style imaginable, that whatever model one chooses, someone can easily go someplace else to have their say. There is no one way to do it that solves every problem.


This is the most important thing we have seen anecdotally and via research . Communities vary and the needs and limits of them vary too.Real names and modes of behavior work in face to face interactions because of established norms.

Online for many is a way of escaping those norms , and for some with good reason. That doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to hold people accountable , especially when it comes to valuing their connections.


Wouldn’t it be refreshing if one’s Terms of Service also said, “don’t be an asshole. Yes you do know what that means.”

When we set up our first public comments/conversation spaces in 1995, I worked with the Hearst legal department and we came up with the very simple be a good citizen, don’t harass and don’t break copyright laws. It was all done in plain English.

Later the best one was the classic Flickr TOS that said, "“Don’t be creepy. You know the guy. Don’t be that guy.” Heather Champ - she really nailed it perfectly.


Heather’s work is fantastic. I recently had a long conversation with a lawyer about why plain English isn’t really possible for privacy policies, but comment guidelines seems more straightforward.

The year after you created those guidelines, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in 1996 made a lot of things simpler for U.S.-based organizations, from a legal perspective. More on that here:


I remember that well. Now it seems some of those liability issues may be coming back into question. Certainly a more authoritarian government will want to find ways to employ managers of community and other public comment sites to offer up people they want to investigate.


A good piece in response to this here: