Pseudonymity and Consequences

For the past few years, whenever anonymity and pseudonymity come up, I’ve thrown a sidelong glance at TodaysMeet.

TodaysMeet is a tool for semi-private, semi-anonymous, ephemeral back channel conversations (in other words, passing digital notes during lecture) and has become particularly popular in secondary education. Most of its users, then, are teenagers.

TodaysMeet with Speaker Colors active.

Until Saturday, TodaysMeet’s model of identity—or at least what was exposed to users—was fundamentally anonymous. Yes, you could put in your real name. You could also put in someone else’s name. Or you could hit refresh and change your name. There was no way to track who really said what.

And, teenagers being, well, themselves, many quickly discovered and took advantage of this.

Under this scheme, users can choose to expose and change their identity at any time, which seems to be the perfect breeding ground for GIFT, or as it’s more politely called, online disinhibition. My most common service request is “can you close this room, people were being mean?”

That is, by the way, one of my favorite Wikipedia articles, just for how its written.

This has always been a trade-off. TodaysMeet, unlike many of its alternatives, doesn’t require (or, for now, even allow) users to create accounts. This means the start-up time is almost nil, but in exchange there is no persistent identity.

The change I made last weekend creates some thread of continuity, of persistence, to a user, even across name changes. This is not a fully persistent identity—that would require requiring accounts—but it’s a big step toward it. Persistent or even semipersistent identity addresses one of the core drivers of online disinhibition, invisibility. And makes it much harder to escape consequences, which begins to address two others (dissociative imagination and different metrics of authority).

I’m fascinated to see how this affects user behavior over time.