March 23, 2012

Self-Censorship Isn’t More Honest Than Pseudonymity


Topsy is an indexing platform primarily developed to enable businesses to understand social trends. As such, their dealings are of primary interest to people in the social marketing space, so when Topsy released their Google+ comment searching tool in October of last year, the reception was limited to people in that niche.

In the past could of days, however, the function has been spreading among regular users of the network, creating something of a frenzy. Usage is simple: all you need is a Google+ user number, which appears in their profile URL. You take that and input it at the end of the Topsy Google+ search URL (, hit enter and voila! All public comments made across the social network appear before you awaiting your perusal.

Topsy's Google+ search

Many have hailed this tool as revolutionary for finding older comments they have made that they can no longer find using Google+’s limited search function. But as someone who posts content that largely deals with issues relating to sex and sexuality, this concerns me. I do not think it is dishonest as some have suggested to want to be able to comment on certain issues without making everything you say accessible to your boss, your family, your congregation, the people in your building, the people who live in the town where you summer, your children’s school administrators, your insurance company, your ex-spouses attorneys, etc.

Most of us lead compartmentalized lives. We go to work, we have great parties, we give our time to causes in the community, we have our sexual proclivities, we attend church (maybe only during holidays), we support certain political causes — and so on. The first rule of courtesy is to understand the place and time. You shouldn’t speak about your delight with new anal beads at work. You shouldn’t regale your family at brunch with endless details about a merger. You shouldn’t speak about your wild parties at church. And you would do well not to divide the room by mentioning religion or politics at a cocktail party. Real life allows us to keep the various facets that make us who we are separate so they do not cause discomfort to ourselves or others. This is for a variety of reasons, some dishonest, many not. It doesn’t make us dishonest to encompass our share of contradictions. It makes us human.

The problem with the web is that it largely began as a world separate from meatspace. Today, most people use their real names, but this wasn’t always the case. When I started going online in the mid-90s, no one even knew my gender. I preferred that, not because I was hiding, but because I feel very strongly that I should be judged by my thoughts, not who people assume I am by seeing I am a woman, by attaching a handful of preconceived notions to what I am saying because they see my photo and think I’m too young or too old or attractive or unattractive.

Being an intangible essence allowed me to be more myself than I’d ever been before. Posting on different niche boards enabled the level of frankness that we experience when we’re in a group of like-minded people with whom we can openly debate or discuss topics. But this is no longer how the web operates and the transition hasn’t been an easy one. In a world where employers can easily find out everything about you, where insurance companies can decide to give or deny coverage because they see some status update as representing a liability, where a judge at family court can take away your children because — God forbid — you had a photo taken at Playboy West some Halloween… It’s not a matter of the web exposing you. It’s a matter of no longer having the ability to segregate different aspects of your life as we were once easily able to do and the concern is entirely valid.

This is why, for example, the page I manage on Google+ for this blog doesn’t list the people who follow it. It is no one else’s business that you care enough about sex to follow a blog about it. I have spent a lot of time debating whether the page should be private to enable people to comment openly and if Google+ allowed pages to circle more people, I wouldn’t hesitate. But closing the doors means I might eventually reach the cap and then I would have to consider opening it to enable more people to join — and having to retrain everyone who is used to the privacy to understand that they can no longer enjoy the conversation they once did. It doesn’t seem right.

I dealt with this adding a Like box for Facebook as well. There is no way on that network to shield who has Liked a page. I wish there was. It’s not surprising that a lot of people follow the blog by subscribing to my personal feed on Facebook instead of Liking the Sex and the 405 page itself.

And I faced the same question when I implemented Disqus as the primary comment system on the blog as a means of dealing with a growing spam problem. Disqus enables people to look at comments users have made all over the web, simply by accessing their profiles. I didn’t like it then and I don’t now, and it doesn’t surprise me that comments disappeared almost entirely when I finally chose to implement it. Most often, people prefer to e-mail me when they have something to say. I understand why this is, but it saddens me because of how completely it limits the exchange of ideas.

To pretend that we can have a complete life by posting only what our mothers and bosses will read, as someone suggested in a conversation about the Topsy tool, is to rob ourselves of experience and to rob the community of valuable engagement. Comments don’t simply break down into valuable and inappropriate. There are many topics that are valuable but not something you’d want on the first page of Google when someone searches for your name. There is nothing wrong with wishing that it were possible to compartmentalize your digital conversations in the same way you do your meatspace exchanges.

Unfortunately for us, this is not the direction the web is going, which is why pseudonymous accounts and the networks who accept them are so very, very important. Those who accuse pseudonymous users of hiding and being dishonest are, in my opinion, the ones who are the most dishonest. People using pseudonyms do so mostly to protect themselves in a world they know has no walls and retains everything they’ve ever said. Are they less honest, really, than people who continuously self-censor and refuse to weigh in on important issues because they’re afraid of the repercussions?

AV Flox

Your humble editrix-in-command.

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