As a child of the ’90s, I was growing up in one of the largest transitional periods in human history. The Internet Age was upon us.

I was born and raised in a small community in rural Alabama. The country. The backwoods. To give you an idea of how small the place was, my entire school (grades K-12) had around 800 students. While I was fortunate enough that my family could afford to travel for vacation almost every year, I mostly lived a sheltered life.

I rode bikes down the dirt road and explored neighbors’ hunting lands with my best friend in the summer. We’d get up at dawn, grab some provisions, and cycle out for the day’s adventure. We’d race old lawnmowers, build unstable treehouses, and swim in what were likely snake-infested creeks. We’d camp out under the stars. Our parents never asked where we were. As long as we showed up for supper and took a bath a few times each week to scrub the dirt off, we were generally left up to our own imaginations.

There was another aspect of growing up in the ’90s, and that was video games. At 16, I spent most of the summer in the fields picking watermelons or throwing bales of hay onto a trailer. It was hard work, but it kept me supplied with whatever video games I wanted. When not out in the wild, my best friend and I would be glued to a 19-inch television playing the Nintendo 64 (and later the Sega Dreamcast).

I lived in this somewhat country-bumpkin bubble with no idea of the outside world.

Then came the explosion of the internet. My family never had a computer at home. That left me to access this wonderful new thing during school hours or at a friend’s house.

Like pretty much every teen boy I knew at the time, the best use of the internet was logging into adult chatrooms and hoping to chat with a woman. Yeah, the average teenage boy wasn’t doing anything productive with the internet, even in the ’90s. Big surprise there. This isn’t groundbreaking news, folks. Move along.

There were other uses of chatrooms, such as finding other gamers. That’s where my original love of the internet began. I could talk to people across the world about Nintendo and Sega games. I even started getting pen-pals where we would exchange weekly emails.

At the time, there was this common saying among adults, “You don’t know who you’re talking to on that thing. It could be a fat, 40-year-old man living in his parents’ basement.” Hey, why you throwin’ shade at heavyset men? Just tell me it could be a psycho.

My parents drilled this lesson into my brain. School teachers did the same. Like my peers at the time, I was required to use a pseudonym when going online. The thought of using a real name was almost unheard of. As teens, we’d joke about the basement-dwelling bogeyman who our parents and teachers warned us against. It was all a game to us despite there being legitimate fears, particularly now that I have 20 years of hindsight at my disposal.

That’s where I came up with my username of greenshady, by the way. One day I may even tell what it means. One day. For now, I’ll keep all of you who have asked about it over the years guessing.

I used that username for years because there was always this little voice in the back of my mind telling me to remain anonymous.

Anonymity in the Age of Transparency

I’m not exactly sure at what point attitudes toward anonymity changed. Social networks likely played a huge role transitioning us from silly screen names to using our real-life names on the internet. Otherwise, it’d be harder for our real-life friends to find us on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere.

This prevailing attitude toward anonymity didn’t limit itself to social networks. More and more, people shunned the idea of anonymous posts or comments on blogs and elsewhere.

There’s likely some form of stardom attached to using real names as well. Everyone is just one video, one blog post, or one tweetstorm away from their 15 minutes in the spotlight.

Even within the WordPress community over the years, I’ve witnessed a shift toward automatically disliking anonymous comments. The prevailing idea is that a person’s contribution to a discussion has less worth if it’s hidden behind the veil of anonymity, that one’s opinions are invalid if they cannot be backed up by a real name.

It opens the person to attack not based on their ideas but on how they choose to present themselves online. This is a part of the culture that is unhealthy.

In a time when you can effectively be shut out from the modern-day public square for making one wrong statement, anonymity is more important than ever for some. Often, there’s no recourse for missteps after you’ve been taken down by the angry horde over a lapse in judgment. Once your name has been hauled through the mud and back again, there’s little you can do about it.

That little voice in the back of my mind, the one carefully crafted by my parents and teachers, is a reminder that a simpler period during the Internet Age once existed.

There are other pockets of the internet where the pseudonym has persisted. One area is in gaming. You’d be the oddball if using a real name in an online multiplayer match. I suppose “Brett” or “Molly” doesn’t strike fear in the heart’s of enemies. The entire culture of online gaming is built upon anonymity, which is at odds with much of the internet world today. Frankly, I find it oddly satisfying.

I do wonder whether a real name online is important for civil discourse. Quite often, online personas are much different than their real-life counterparts. I mean, have you seen the numerous alpha-male groups on social networks made up of men who all think they’re the leaders of the pack? Hmmm…maybe there was some truth to that basement-dweller theory, after all. Thanks for the heads up, Mom and Dad.

The point is that an online persona, even attached to a real name, is still a persona. It’s not much different than a fake user handle.

I’d wager that the need to see a person’s real name has more to do with knowing exactly who to shun for controversial ideas rather than attaching some sort of validity to it. Usernames can be altered. You’re pretty much stuck with your real name, and mishaps follow your real name around.

As we were reviewing the Tavern’s comment policy last week, one point I brought up is that I believe we should allow anonymous comments. A large reason for this is that people should feel safe to communicate their thoughts within the community. While I won’t get into the specifics of internal discussions, I do hope that it’s something we officially remove from the policy.

Being in favor of anonymity does not mean being in favor of personal attacks or handing over a license to use a vulgar term as a username. It’s about protecting people’s ability to speak freely without fear of becoming an outcast within the community for an unpopular opinion.

Sometimes anonymity provides people the freedom they need to effectively discuss ideas. More importantly, it allows them to be a part of the community in a way that they choose.

Are We Moving back?

With the European Union, Japan, Australia, and other countries passing stricter privacy laws, there’s a growing movement to protect privacy across the world. While this movement has focused more on large corporations and what they do with personal data, there’s an underlying fear that’s likely been there from the beginning.

People are coming to the realization that we gave up too much.

We handed over our names. And, once we handed over our names, it was a slippery slope to handing over everything else about ourselves. If you dig deep enough you can find the names of all my cats and when they were all born.

I’m not sure how I feel about that. I’m in too deep at this point.

My parents from 20 years ago would not have liked the idea too much. My dad just uses YouTube to watch videos on building stuff for the most part today (it took years to stop him sending me email chains), but my stepmom is right there along with everyone else on social networks.

It’s odd to look back on the past 20 years to see how some of our initial fears surrounding anonymity have transformed. In another 20 years, we’ll all be back to using pseudonyms again. Call me out on it if I’m wrong. I do wonder if we’ll look back at this time and think everyone was crazy for using their real names.

I welcome your anonymous comments on this post. Just don’t use “wanker” for your handle.