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The subtle pleasures of anonymity on the internet… October 29, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Internet.


An interesting thread on Politics.ie sees a whole host of contributors revealing their ‘true’ identities. It’s great, no doubt, to do so and I can understand the dynamic. There is something very compelling about the ability to conceal and reveal when writing behind a pseudonym or user name. The natural inclination is to emphasise one aspect of personality over another – generally the more attractive aspects at that. Yet, oddly enough, most of those I’ve met in person who I’ve first encountered on the net aren’t that radically different in terms of personality. But if one indulges in that emphasis the danger is that when those meetings occur there is the sense that at least some degree of deceit has been exercised.

On the other hand there are good valid reasons why people want to remain anonymous. If there is an actual connection with political activity the chances are that the overly forthright expression of honesty (or truth as it’s sometimes termed) is going to be problematic. A party member may take the seeming opportunity of anonymity to laud or critique those who in other circumstances couldn’t be touched. The Respect/SWP conflict is fascinating because it is played out on the net as much, if not more, than on the ground in committee rooms. It assumes a ‘meta’ level of existence which is probably enormously satisfying to all involved if only because it exaggerates the actual size and importance of the formations involved. And note that the interest of the older media is minimal in this issue.

My own reason for remaining concealed is in part political, in part professional. In the real world it might be very slightly tricky for me to to hold a public political opinion or to express too forcibly an opinion on a political individual. Probably not much, but one never knows. Back in the late 1990s I conducted research into Irish political parties and found it quite handy to have moved from the party political. Everybody, or so many suppose, is an ex-member of a party.

I’m still not party political although I have my sympathies as you’ll have noticed, have good relations with people in a broad range of parties and like to think that I stand over my beliefs as best I can when asked about them. You’ll notice that I almost never attack political figures directly. That’s partially courtesy, partially because I can’t see the point and also, being pragmatic, because that sort of approach might be highly counterproductive. So, as regards anonymity, I err on the side of caution. But there is a paradox here, a good bunch of you know precisely who I am, or at least you think you do or at least I suspect you do. In the last week two people have told me they know who I am. And that’s odd as well, because it’s sometimes a bit disappointing to discover someone knows who one is. I’m not sure why that is. It’s a curious dynamic. One feels as if something has been given away. Yet if the other person knows then nothing has been given away. Quite the opposite really.

Perhaps it is also an aspect of the distance between the writer, the written word and the reader. There is an imagined audience out there. To start to put names and faces to it brings it closer. I think that is a good thing. We here at the CLR have always had at least the hope that this could be a platform for many voices. That may or may not occur. But it seems odd – to me at least – to believe in collective efforts and then lock straight into the individual.

Recently, particularly since being on Newstalk, I’ve been toying the with the notion of a slightly more transparent user name. But I kind of like worldbystorm. I took it, as some of you may know, from the lyrics of a Three Johns song, The World By Storm [incidentally listen to Death of the European on their Myspace site for a taste of their aesthetic – “Whom I working for?”… indeed]. The Three Johns, as good Marxists, knew what was what, and while sometimes their enthusiasms missed the target at least they tried:

The World By Storm

I’ll shake my hands across the seven seas

I’ll summon up some strange things to see

And in the airport lounge

Guerilla war is getting down

In the hearts of the passing crowd

Fruits of death are passed around

And in the canyons of N.Y.

F ire power in the jungle

Mine is the gold, Park Avenue!

No one is innocent

In the world by storm

A storm is raging in every placid pool

And the words of poetry they break up every line

And the singer’s voice

Is the grunt of an animal?

In the hearts of the passing crowd

Fruits of death are passed a around

I’d I like to teach the world to sing

But it taught me instead

I wrote this wing one day

On a Jumbo Jet

Screaming electricity

Sing it into my Black Box

In the hearts of the passing crowd

Fruits of death are passed around

I don’t know. “No one is innocent in the world by storm”… sure, they copped it from the Pistols. But they reconfigured it in an explicitly political context. I still believe it. And the other lyrics, overheated as they are perhaps, seem now to me to be prescient about the contemporary world.

Perhaps I’ll keep the user name.


1. ejh - October 29, 2007

This of course implictly raises the question of “outing”, whether it is ethical and so on, as well as the question as to whether or not you can really expect to remain anonymous on the Net.


2. WorldbyStorm - October 29, 2007

Well, the P.ie discussion really just asks people to reveal their ‘true’ identities. Although, how would one judge if the self-professed Jane or Joe Bloggs was indeed Jane or Joe Bloggs? So I guess that isn’t quite ‘outing’. I’m not entirely antagonistic to outing in the context of hypocrisy. But that way leads to subjectivity, doesn’t it?

Regarding your second point that’s struck me before ejh. There is no true anonymity here. But there are layers of anonymity lite. That’s the best one can expect. Interestingly that leads us back to your first point. If one – say – started to make unsubstantiated personal attacks on someone in a context where off-line one knew or dealt with that person in a completely different way, well that would certainly lay one open to a charge of hypocrisy (although differing power relationships might have their part to play).


3. Garibaldy - October 29, 2007

Some thoughts on this issue (including my own) in the midst of this thread on sluggerotoole


Something I think readers here will be interested in.


4. WorldbyStorm - October 29, 2007

That sounds brilliant. Have to say, I’m no saint, but I can’t think of more than two or three things I’ve said online that I wouldn’t say off. In fact I tend to pull my punches if only because I’m always worried that factually I’ll be in error. I’m sure I’m not the only one either… Incidentally, I think that the point about the North someone makes on the thread and anonymity is important, but shouldn’t be overstated. I’ve spoken to friends about issues -actually some of which would relate to the North and been surprised, and dismayed, by the vehemence of their positions. Got to also say the idea of ‘sockpuppets’ is really really annoying…


5. Garibaldy - October 29, 2007

Depends on the company. I’ve said things that I’d say to my mates, but not to colleagues etc. Anonymity can make for worse debate. But also for better. Less defending of the party line for example.


6. soubresauts - October 29, 2007

I agree that there are pros and cons. You annoy some people by using a pseudonym, but so many things are going to annoy them anyway…

WorldbyStorm, thanks for revealing where the name came from. It always reminded me of a different song — “Taking Islands In Africa” by Japan, on their 1980 album Gentlemen Take Polaroids (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A750061):
Outside there’s a world waiting
I’ll take it all by storm

It’s a great song, and a great album, and it was the first of the collaborations between David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto, which produced much fantastic music over the years.

Sylvian (real name Batt) also goes in for pseudonyms. His most recent recordings are under the name Nine Horses (with his brother Steve Jansen and German musician Burnt Friedman); the Snow Borne Sorrow album is wonderful.

While I’m in that territory… I just have to mention something I came across recently:
It’s a superb-quality film of Sakamoto’s band Yellow Magic Orchestra playing live in Los Angeles in 1979 (yes 1979, you’ll scarcely believe it). Just imagine moving all those analog synthesizers and ancient computers halfway around the world… Real world-by-storm stuff!


7. WorldbyStorm - October 30, 2007

Garibaldy, I’ve moved to a position where I admire people who can hold a party line. But I also admire those who can buck it. Perhaps equally. I like Parties. They’re important. But we need dissidents. Just not crazy ones.

soubresauts, I’m really glad you mentioned that. “taking islands in Africa” is my all time favourite Japan song and I never noticed the lyric. I think it’s a beautifully written song and beautifully sung song, so to speak. I’m chuffed you make that connection. Incidentally, I’m also chuffed you’re a Japan fan. Thanks a million for the YMO song. Brilliant. (I’m something of a Neu and Can fan too, and I think all those guys YMO included were doing something amazing – now, and I do this myself, it’s all Logic Audio or Logic Express. Great, and perhaps more democratic, but somehow different).


8. Phil - October 30, 2007

I dislike online pseudonyms; I like to know who I’m talking to, even if the name doesn’t actually mean anything to me. I also believe that having a traceable identity makes you think harder about what you’re posting, which makes it harder (although not impossible) to rant, swear, make unsupported assertions, etc – it certainly has that effect on me. Having said that, you seem to manage to stay civil without owing up to your identity, so maybe that’s just me.


9. Garibaldy - October 30, 2007

Nothing wrong with holding to the party line, assuming it’s the right party of course! We need disagreements, and the ability to argue with each other. Dissidents are perhaps a different thing. If you’re in permanent opposition, I’m not sure you’re in the right organisation to start with.

As for the name thing. Without cover names, the web would be a smaller and much poorer place. Though self-restraint is important I agree.


10. ejh - October 30, 2007

I dislike online pseudonyms; I like to know who I’m talking to, even if the name doesn’t actually mean anything to me

I dislike anonymity, which isn’t the same thing. If someone has a consistent online pseudonym* then to be honest that is their name: they develop an identity and a history and they can’t just say anything they like unrelated to what they’ve said before. They’re also traceable in the event of abuse or unsupported assertions.

But people do have good reasons for having pseudonyms, as all of us who have had disciplinary problems for posting on the internet at work can tell you.

[* = I have two, ejh and Justin, but that’s an accident that derives from unfamiliarity with the system when I started posting on blogs. Hopefully it does not confuse matters overmuch.]


11. WorldbyStorm - October 30, 2007

Phil, that’s quite true much of the time but I think ejh has it right as well. If one has a multitude of usernames then internal coherence and/or credibility becomes an issue. But if one maintains a coherent line across time and can justify it then the user name becomes its own validator (or signifier). I know what I’m getting when I read lenin or whoever, etc, etc…


12. Phil - October 30, 2007

I’ve come close to being sacked for posting on the Internet at work. Pseudonymity wouldn’t have helped, though, as the problem was that I was doing it for about 6 hours a day. My boss gave me a royal bollocking, then gave me a spare modem so that I could get set up at home.

I’ve got a theory that even a single consistent pseudonym lends itself to provocation and general annoyance more than using one’s real name, but I must admit I haven’t got that much actual evidence (most posters on this site are no good for my thesis at all).


13. ejh - October 30, 2007

I’ve got a theory that even a single consistent pseudonym lends itself to provocation and general annoyance more than using one’s real name

You might even be right, but as giving one’s real name is something many people just can’t do (and/or don’t feel they can do) there’s not so much can be done about it. And I do think that people are entitled to anonymity if they really want. They’re not entitled to misuse that anonymity but I really don’t want an outbreak of “outing” between different political camps on the internet.


14. JC Skinner - October 30, 2007

I’m still Salman Rushdie.


15. WorldbyStorm - October 30, 2007



16. Wednesday - October 30, 2007

If I was concerned about anonymity I would have chosen a different username (those of you who don’t know me IRL can ponder that all you like :)). But I’m not entirely sure it would have made a difference. I’ve had a few people tell me they knew it was me because the things I write “sound like something you’d say”. I’m never quite sure how to take that.


17. WorldbyStorm - October 30, 2007

Interesting. I often wonder how ‘thin’ usernames are. Some are fairly opaque. Others not so much.


18. Conor McCabe - October 30, 2007

anonymity. Never understood it myself 🙂

Only joking. I started off with a pseudonym, Ben, but decided to go with my real name because I wanted to be associated with my online opinions, come what may. sometimes, when I get particularly bitchy, I think that maybe I should go back to a pseudonym, but fuckit. anonymity I don’t agree with, but, as ejh said, anonymity does not apply to a consistent pseudonym. By the way, I never copped it that ejh and justin were the same person! and as an administrator on dublin opinion I have access to the IP addresses of commentators! There’s my job with CSI Miami fucked anyway.


19. WorldbyStorm - October 30, 2007

Here’s a thing. I’ve never bothered looking at IP addresses. Don’t know why. Sheer laziness I suspect…


20. Grendel - October 30, 2007

I am Eva Green’s husband. I really wish I were…. 😦


21. sonofstan - October 31, 2007

One weird feature of modern life which has happened to me more than once is when you’re introduced to someone with an explanatory reference to their online ID; as in ‘this is X – you know ‘Y’ on such and such an MB/ Blog’ or someone goes ‘are you sonofstan / whatever?’


22. WorldbyStorm - October 31, 2007

But do you like that? Or I should ask do you try to conceal your IRL identity? Incidentally, do you have a blog?


23. sonofstan - October 31, 2007

Most of the places where I would hang out online, people know who i am IRL – my first name is in my usual tag anyway, and it’s not such a common name anymore. In other contexts – message boards/ blogs with an international readership my real life ID doesn’t come into it – I’m unlikely to meet these people anyway; in such context, my online ID is my identity…… I don’t think I say stuff online that I wouldn’t say otherwise

I don’t have a blog – apart from here and a few other places (mostly philosophy ones), I tend not to read very many on a regular basis, and I can’t really imagine anyone wanting to read mine.


24. a very public sociologist - October 31, 2007

Re: Ejh and outing: though not having outed anyone myself, I think the Tatchell approach to outing is the model to follow. Just has he exposed ecclesiastical hypocrites who spouted homophobia while hiding their own homosexuality, we should give political hypocrites no quarter who hide behind a pseudonym while they themselves out their opponets. Recent outings on Harry’s Place are a case in point.


25. John - October 31, 2007

I once transcribed those lyrics on a postcard to my brother from New York. They only just fitted.

But Marxists? Nah. The Three Johns were always anarchists, I’m happy to say. Anarchists that Marxists could like.


26. ejh - October 31, 2007

we should give political hypocrites no quarter who hide behind a pseudonym while they themselves out their opponets. Recent outings on Harry’s Place are a case in point.

This is exactly what I don’t think. It’s all very well to say they deserve it and maybe they do: but what happens when you find them retaliating and other people, who don’t deserve it, outed as a result?

We’re commentors, not dispensers of vengeance.


27. WorldbyStorm - October 31, 2007

John. Surely they had some Marxist spark in them. Even anarcho-marxist will do. Tell me it’s so… A colleague of mine went to art college with one of them back in the 1980s…seemed to imply further leftism of some stripe…

Outing is very very tricky. sociologist, I like the Tatchell approach. Problem is on the net, as ejh says, it could invite all manner of problem. On the other hand some humans being human vengeance is never far away…


28. Garibaldy - October 31, 2007

It’s very likely Tatchell’s promise to out Jim Kilfedder is what precipitated his fatal heart attack. Now, he was a hypocrite in his votes in Parliament and so there were good reasons for outing him. But still. People are entitled to a private life, and as this case shows, it’s not unproblematic. As for outing on the net, not that many steps to a witchhunt, and to denuciations to employers, as happened to Newton Emerson. I disagree. Though using a nom de plume, I would.


29. Kevin Breathnach - October 31, 2007

Very public sociologist,

I stopped reading Harry’s Place a few months ago, and logging on now, I can’t immediately see what happened. You couldn’t, by any chance, fill me in?

Wonderful thread, guys. I would have gone anonymous, but for, I guess, the hackish tendencies I had – and have? – at the age of 17. No matter the blog’s worth, I think it’s better to have my name on it than otherwise.

I think.


30. WorldbyStorm - October 31, 2007

KB, I was going to ask VPS the same thing for much the same reason.

I still think work and publicly voiced opinions are tricky. Many years ago I worked in London for a while for …. natch… well let’s say a magazine owned by a group owned by a highly highly unpopular global media mogul – the magazine I was with had been bought up by them. The day Thatcher was deposed an almighty cheer rang out around the offices as the news came through. But it took months to discover that three of my closest colleagues already working for magazine group were members – like myself of the British Labour Party. We all read the Guardian or the Independent but tended to keep them out of sight on the corridors away from the middle and higher management. An extreme example? Perhaps. But that sort of deadening effect is in many many workplaces, not all connected with say an overt political stance.

On a side note, the group was sold on to Heseltines outfit Haymarket and a raft of us were made redundant. All things considered it was a most generous payout.


31. John - November 1, 2007


Definitely a Marxist strain to their views – both they and the mekons tip their hat to Marxist theorists from time to time – but I think this is in part because of their anarcho-syndicalist sympathies; they deliberately put some distance between themselves and the pacifist, Crasstafarian version of anarchist punk in order to emphasize their socialism and working-class backgrounds. I know two of the Johns personally, one of whom has always been an anarchist (and indeed features in Chumbawamba’s fine “Portraits of Anarchists”), while the other has always been on the libertarian left without explicitly calling himself anything (as far as I know), although the first time we met he had a Dead Kennedys shirt on and admired my anarcho-syndicalist lapel badge.

The third John went back to college to do a degree in politics. They have a new album coming out sometime soon, I am assured.


32. WorldbyStorm - November 1, 2007

Phew… that’s great news John on so many different levels!


33. ejh - November 4, 2007

The day Thatcher was deposed an almighty cheer rang out around the offices as the news came through.

I was working in a DSS office and took the trouble to announce it over the PA system that served the waiting room. “Just to let you know that Mrs Thatcher has resigned”, I said.

Silence for a while.

“Give us a giro then”, said somebody.


34. WorldbyStorm - November 4, 2007

Hmmm… not sure what to make of that…


35. franklittle - November 5, 2007

Just to briefly add, as one of the CLR contributors, my motivation for taking an annonymous handle was entirely professional. I have normally worked in organisations that are not only dependent to some extent on state funding, but often precariously so. No need to give them ammunition.

And if people think that’s paranoid we should recall the threat to Pavee Point’s funding because they, regardless of whether you agree or not with their decision, backed the Roma on the M50.

Come to think of it, just realised with some shock I have never worked for an organisation that doesn’t receive any public money since I worked in a local newsagents as a teenager. To all of you who pay taxes, thanks!


36. ejh - November 13, 2007

It just occurred to me in the light of this discussion – you know how some far-left organisations (I’m thinking in France in particular) the members adopt pseudonyms for use in their political work and how everybody takes the piss out of them for it?


37. Finally… The Three Johns arrive on YouTube « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - February 17, 2008

[…] Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture. trackback Those of you as have been following the CLR will know that my username is taken directly from The Three Johns exemplary song, World By Storm… […]


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