With rampant trolling and fake accounts online, pseudonyms help create accountability and continuity.
Over the weekend, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney suddenly gained 100,000 new Twitter followers. The jump immediately spawned rumors on Twitter and political blogs that Romney was desperate to appear more popular online and was buying fake followers.
Canny observers, however, suggested that it was more than likely a hatchet job. Since the spike was so obvious, it is more likely that someone is botting Romney to give rise to those very rumors.
Here’s the thing, though, only 2 percent of Romney’s followers are both real and active, according to Status People, a social media management software company. The president is doing a lot better, but still, only a quarter of Barack Obama’s followers are real and active.
OK, but that’s just two political candidates, and everyone knows you can’t trust them. They’re gaming the system. What about authentic Twitter users?
The story doesn’t get much better. (Prepare to have your faith rocked to its very core; if you are susceptible to wandering in the wilderness, do not read on). Lady Gaga? Justin Bieber? Same as Obama. Only a little more than one quarter of their followers are real and active.
Only the likes of comedian Rob Delaney, apparently, can maintain a superior ratio. More than two-thirds of his followers are real and active. So I guess Lady Gaga and Mitt Romney had better work on their knock-knock jokes… Hey @Mitt, how many anglo-saxons does it take to change a light bulb?
(Answer: Two. One to mix the drinks, one to call an electrician.)
Over on YouTube and Reddit, the fight against trolling continues. It’s an issue at the core of Internet, revolving around what users are real, which are fake, and which are anonymous.
At the beginning of the week, YouTube integrated its users with Google+, which usually requires real names. If you try to leave a comment on YouTube, you’ll be prompted to integrate your comment with your G+ account. Right now, you can opt out, but Google will want to know why.
The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory suggests that a normal person, under the conditions of anonymity and in front of a large audience turns into a total fuckwad. It’s sort of like what happens to Goofy when he gets behind the wheel.
So YouTube’s G+ integration is seen as a further attempt from Google/YouTube to lessen the trolling in its comments.
And Reddit, a wonderful community in many ways but also a troll haven, has closed r/gameoftrolls, its most wretched hive of scum and villainy.
The absence of fixed identity is what makes the Internet what it is in many ways. And the distinctions between fake followers and trolls dissolve quickly. Were Romney’s extra followers a gift of support or an attack—or even simply an act of anarchy?
We got to see this phenomenon in sharp relief in an eight-hour episode on Chick-fil-A’s Facebook page. After that company’s CEO admitted to opposing gay marriage, Chick-fil-A has suddenly become a major target on the interwebs.
A Facebook user named Abby Farle came out vigorously in defense of Chick-fil-A on their Facebook page. Farle stepped up to quash rumors that Chick-fil-A was recalling Muppets toys because the Jim Henson Company had already pulled its support over their CEO’s stance on gay marriage. (In fact, the Muppets broke with the fast food chain a day after the recall). The thing is Abby’s account was just hours old, her avatar was a shutterstock image, and she promptly vanished from the social network.
Here’s the thing though, whether Abby’s real or not, the reality is that Chick-fil-A is going to gain plenty of customers and supporters through its stance. So how fake was Abby?
The link between anonymity and trolling, as encapsulated pithily by the Internet Fuckwad Theory, is inescapable. And yet, without anonymity and trolling the Internet would be unrecognizable.
Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe the Internet needs to be civilized and the vitriol of anonymous trolls needs to excised. But I have to think that the shift that Google is proposing to move to real names is too much. It risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
The fact is that “real people” aren’t very important members of the Internet. Early this year, Disqus, which powers the comments on over 1 million sites, revealed that just 4 percent of comments were made under someone’s real name. Meanwhile, 35 percent of comments are made anonymously.
However, between those two extremes lies, I think, the real answer: pseudonymity. 61 percent of comments were made under pseudonyms. Part of the power and the joy of the Internet is that I can be whoever I want—even if that’s really 5 different people.
A pseudonym is an outwardly anonymous identity linked to the real you by trusted companies like Disqus—and it’s a functionality that Google and Facebook could equally support. Pseudonyms create continuity and reputation, and they can be ultimately traced back to a real identity somewhere, somehow. Those factors act to mitigate the Internet Fuckwad Theory, but it also can be more real than any “real” name.
There’s someone that posts on Gawker as “Sedagive?!” I don’t know anything about this person, but I think anyone who references Young Frankenstein in their handle has got to be a real awesomewad.
Photo via asterix611
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