On “Nym Wars”


Google Plus recently sparked off another discussion on the use of pseudonyms on the Internet, this round being dubbed “Nym Wars”. Google’s position is that pseudonyms are unwelcome on their new social network system; Facebook, Google’s obvious most direct competitor, has the same official policy, but is not generally very aggressive about enforcing it.

Randi Zuckerburg, erstwhile of Facebook, suggested that the benefit of having a real names policy is that it prevents cyberbullying. I’m not sure that the general peals of Internet laughter were (ironically) related to her abrupt departure from Facebook, although personally I question the consistency between a “months in the making” decision and a GoDaddy placeholder website (as of this writing). Regardless, such a public statement from a public face of the leading social media site really does suggest that they just don’t get it.

Setting aside cynical conjecture about Google’s own motivations for attempting to enforce their policy (to the point, one ill-advised weekend, of mass reaping every account that didn’t satisfy its bot verifier), I think part of the friction is caused by failing to capture and disambiguate why specific people use pseudonyms.

It seems to me that there are three major constellations of reasons why people use pseudonyms online. Two of these were prevalent enough prior to the Internet to warrant their own terms, while the third had no widely-known term; more on that below.

Stage Names

The purpose of a stage name is to separate a marketed product (an artist’s works) from a professional, as well as to improve the perception of the marketed product. For example, among the targeted demographic, “Marilyn Manson” sells better than “Brian Warner”. “Brian Warner” is a fairly lackluster name; “Marilyn Manson” communicates a message, especially in the context of the other early members of the band (Daisy Berkowitz, Olivia Newton Bundy, Gidget Gein, Zsa Zsa Speck, Twiggy Ramirez, Madonna Wayne Gacy, Sara Lee Lucas, and Ginger Fish).

Most people with stage names make little effort to hide their birth or legal names. Some of them even apply different personas to each of their various names; Eminem’s first three major label albums, for instance, are named for his primary stage name, his dark-side persona Slim Shady, and his birth name of Marshall Mathers. Sometimes, as with Prince’s logo period, the stage name (or glyph, in his case) serves as a political statement. It’s been commented numerous times that Stephen Colbert’s lack of a stage name for his conservative parody persona makes it difficult to tell when he’s speaking as Stephen Colbert, liberal comedian, and when he’s speaking as Stephen Colbert, conservative talking head (particularly in light of Poe’s Law).

Stage names can sometimes hide some potentially embarrassing aspect of the artist’s background; this is particularly obvious with Jewish names (such as Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan, and Melvin Kaminsky, aka Mel Brooks). Marion Morrison chose to perform under the far more macho sounding John Wayne. The Estevezes are split; partiarch Ramon and brother Carlos appear as Martin and Charlie Sheen, respectively, while siblings Emilio, Ramon, and Renée perform as Estevezes. Early in his career, Joe Pantoliano frequently appeared as Joey Pants because of his last name is relatively difficult for English speakers.

Pen Names

While stage names are meant primarily for marketing, there can be an aspect of hiding identities. Authors, in contrast, have a longer history of using pen names in order to fully hide their identities.

For instance, writing was once considered a primarily a male field, so women who wanted to enter the field or to write “serious” works (as opposed to light romances) published under a male name; perhaps the most famous example was George Sands. JK Rowling apparently used her initials early on to hide her gender (her works are sold as Joanne K. Rowling in Germany, for instance).

Another reason for hiding one’s identity is concern about repercussions that having a writing career will have on one’s profession; this was the case, for instance, for Reverend Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). George Eliot may also have been concerned about the impact of her writing career on her private life. Ann Rice originally published her D/s fantasy novels under the pen name A. N. Roquelaire.

While novelists usually have to only worry about destroying their private reputations, some pen names have been taken under concerns for violence or even death. Die Weiße Rose was a group of students at the University of Munich from 1942 to 1943 critical of the Nazis; when their identities were eventually revealed, they were put to death.

On the modern Internet, with a far larger portion of the population engaged in publishing (informally), the ability to hide one’s identity when discussing controversial topics such as politics, sexuality, or race relations, or when discussing negative, potentially embarrassing, or violent life experiences and concerns becomes far more emergent.

Also, nearly everything on the Internet needs to have a “handle” of some sort attached to it. It’s more difficult to someone to lay out their soul on the subject of, say, their spouse’s abuse of them completely anonymously.

This leads me to my third category, but first, a short sidebar.

Sidebar: CosPlay

CosPlay, role-playing, re-enactment, and similar activities are rife with pseudonyms taken for specific personas within the context of the activity. People who are particular active in those sorts of events frequently have numerous names, one for each persona. In my opinion, these can quality as either stage names or pen names, depending on their usage.

In less controversial forms of cosplay, such as historical re-enactment, pseudonyms are a necessary part of the entire package, and as such function as stage names. I do some Roman era re-enactment, and as a part of that I have an associated name for the character I assume. Such re-enactment names are often tied to the person’s own name; a man named Mark, for instance, might take the Roman name Marcus. As evidence that these are stage names and not pen names, I offer that it’s not unusual for someone in re-enactment to know not just the persona names but also the “real” names for others in their environment. In more casual settings, people shift between real and persona names, and readily respond to either.

In more controversial forms of cosplay, particularly of a non-mainstream sexual nature, pseudonyms can serve to protect mainstream identities. There is often frequently a stage name aspect; Dominants, for instance, often take “Master” or “Mistress” as part of their name. However, in many if not most cases, the primary purpose is to hide “real world” identities. Depending on the community, it can be anywhere from merely gauche to a faux pas worthy of ejection from the community to use community names in real world contexts (such as, for instance, when seeing Mistress Dominance in the local grocery store, in street clothing and with her family).


Now, back to the subject at hand: Malenyms. That’s a three syllable word, by the way: Mal-e-nym. It’s also of my own coinage, based on the prefix “male-” meaning “bad” (malevolent, malediction) and, obviously, “nym”.

A malenym is a pseudonym that has been taken for the primary purpose of causing trouble or harm. Once upon a time, malenyms weren’t particularly needed, because things didn’t need to have names attached to them. If you wanted to harass your neighbor, you could simply write out a harassing note (or type it, if you had distinctive handwriting) and stuff it in their mailbox. There would be no easy way to trace it back to you.

Sock puppets are a form of malenym, even though they don’t generally involve being mean to others, because their primary purpose is to mutate reality in a selfish way.

As I was formulating this post, I was going to use the backformation “anonym”, but it occurred to me that there is a crucial difference between a malenym and an anonymous post: A fully anonymous statement is stripped of any clear way to tie the statement to the speaker, while a malenymous statement is connected to a golem. Once someone has laid claim to a malenym in a particular community, they continue to use that same golem, and its life and perspective can be tracked. As is witnessed by the vitriol when someone else tries to use the same handle in that community, the association between the malenym and the underlying golem is of focal importance. In short, malenymous comments are not meant to be anonymous at all.

Concluding Remarks

When Google and Facebook make claims that cyberbullying decreases when pseudonyms are disallowed, I reckon they really mean that cyberbullying decreases when malenyms are disallowed. But they can’t say that without a word with limited scope, like “malenym”; they’re left with the ambiguous “pseudonym” (or the misleading “anonymous”).

I agree with the notion that some people with some degree of anonymity from their actual identity (be it through fully anonymous statements or through malenymous identities) create hostilities they wouldn’t create if they were fully accountable for their words. However, it’s wrong-headed to conclude that all pseudonyms are malevolent.

Banning all names which cannot be tied to legal documentation is the easy way to go, but it’s also the wrong way to go. It’s punishing the people who not only aren’t doing anything wrong but are being greatly benefited by the option. The alleged ethical framework of the United States (and other countries following the same philosophy) is that we punish wrongdoers for having done wrong, we don’t punish everyone pre-emptively because some people will do wrong. We don’t always abide well by that philosophy (please see: War on Drugs), but it’s nonetheless an important guide.

Many Internet sites do just that: They let people identify how they please, and then block IP addresses and otherwise pursue retribution against people who abuse the system. That’s entirely how it should be.

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