If you post a comment to this article, you probably won’t give your real name. And that’s probably because you’re concerned with your personal privacy—not because you’re trying to mislead people with untruths or otherwise hide your personal agenda.
So says Disqus, the company that runs a web commenting service on some of the world’s most popular sites, including WIRED. The company recently surveyed 1,000 people who use its service—as well as 1,000 general internet users—about how they identify themselves when posting comments to the web, and it found that pseudonyms are still the norm in the world of online comments—and that most people say they use them, at least in part, so they can freely say what they feel.
According to Disqus VP of marketing and communication Steve Roy, commenters feel more comfortable airing their opinions about controversial topics such as politics and religion when they know their friends, families, and employers aren’t listening in. “It’s not about hiding,” he says. “It’s about privacy and choosing your identity when exercising your free speech.”
Roy’s stance should be taken with a grain of salt. People may say they use pseudonyms for reasons of privacy, but they’re really interested in trolling people without consequences. And they hide behind a pseudonym for both reasons. But the point is that the situation is more complicated than it might seem.
The Disqus study is the latest effort to weigh the benefits and the drawbacks of online pseudonyms, which have fueled more than a little controversy over the years. Facebook helped move much of the internet away from anonymity and pseudonymity by instituting a real-names policy on its social network, arguing that this makes people more accountable for what they do and say online. But recently, many new apps, including Whisper and Yik Yak, have sought to bring anonymity back to the net in a very big way, with varying degrees of success, and this fall, various LGBT groups and others criticized Facebook’s real name policy, pointing out that vulnerable people—such as domestic abuse victims—have very good reasons to avoid using real names online.
Part of the problem is that sites that foster anonymous or pseudonymous commenting, such as 4chan and Reddit, have can be breeding grounds for abuse and bad behavior. And controversies such as “Gamer Gate”—a lengthy harassment campaign targeted largely at women in the video game industry—have shown just how dangerous pseudonyms can be.
But according to Disqus, it’s not just trolls who use pseudonyms. Most blog commenters use them. According to the company, 63 percent of people on its service use some sort of pseudonym when commenting online. Men use pseudonyms more often than women, but 54 percent of women use pseudonyms at least some of the time. And Roy says that many trolls actually use their real names. “If you’re out there looking to troll or deflate people, that happens at similar volumes even if you’re using the same name,” he says.
What’s more, the company’s survey indicates, pseudonymous commenters aren’t necessarily sacrificing their trustworthiness by forgoing their real names. The general internet users polled by Disqus said they trust pseudonymous comments just as much as they trust comments posted by someone using their real name. Plus, readers can “vote up” and “vote down” Disqus comments, and according to Roy, pseudonymous comments fair just as well—if not better—than comments attached to real names. That doesn’t prove those comments are of a higher quality. But it does go to show that pseudonymous comments aren’t all bad.