Steven Heller | Essays

What's In A Name?

In Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare wrote a "rose by any other name would smell as sweet," suggesting the meaning of something is more important than what it is called. By extension, the content of a blog post or comment is more significant than the signature of the poster (or postee), which provides something of a rationale for the surfeit of pseudonymous and anonymous postings on most blogs. Alas, my dear Montague, I beg to differ.

A rose is a rose, and a real name at the end of a blog post is an indication that the person who authored the statement is taking responsibility, indeed ownership of the words — it is a simple act of honesty. For too long bloggers have been given license that is not tolerated in letters-to-the-editor columns of newspapers and magazines (except in extraordinary circumstances). If one is willing to expound, exclaim, or critique it should be done under a real name and with links to a valid email or website address. If transparency on the web is the new black, then there should be no secrets.

Pseudonyms like "miss representation" or "Xman" or "Pesky Illustrator" or "Inaudible Nonsense," or even the passionate, erudite "DesignMaven," are not cute, they are cowardly. This indictment holds true for those who only use their first names as well (the many known only as Nancy or Chris, Dan or Steve). If a blogger or responder does not have the courage to own up to his or her ideas then why should readers accept or respond to them? Having a pseudonym is not about, as some argue, building a brand story or mystique; it is about masking identity, which is inherently deceitful. Unless one has a good reason — like being on a black list or having a life in peril by a repressive government — the practice of anonymity should be considered unacceptable.

Sure there is a long history of pseudonymous authors in literature, as well as commanders in the resistance, actors in theater, painters in art, and even rockers in rock n' roll. Noms de plume, noms de crayon, noms de guerre, and noms de what-have-you have long been accepted, and for good reason. Would Cary Grant have been as sexy with the name Archibald Leech? Would Woody Allen be taken seriously as a comic with the name Stuart Konigsberg? Could Sting, Bono, Ice Cube, or Vanilla Ice survive in the pop music world without the mystique of an alter ego? (Full-partial disclosure: I use my middle name not my first, which I will not disclose here.) But stage names are quite different from blog names, particularly at this advanced stage in the evolution of blogging. While it was necessary in the early AOL and CompuServ days to have multi-letter or semi-numbered screen names (mine was Stefano234), those days are long over.

Still, today, many people prefer to evoke a sexy screen persona to mask their drab, real world identity — or conversely, adopt a bland handle to hide a well-known public reputation. Sometimes screen names are not about hiding behind a digital front, but rather a way of intentionally building mysterious (and possibly profitable) personas. Whatever their rationale, the time has come for the bloggerati and blog-respondents to drop the façade of inscrutability and to be accountable for their words. If the ideas in a posted comment are valuable, why not own up to them as an author? Doesn't a real name next to a comment somehow increase its credibility? Further, signing with real names and addresses will also force more circumspection by lessening the more reckless and harsh posts.

Legitimate comments and criticism, even when shrill or strident in tone, should not be squelched. Yet, it is only fair that those who respond to posts reveal themselves to further the debate (and let the debaters know the history of the writer). More and more sites are encouraging commenters to use their real names: The New York Times, for example, includes this question in their Comments FAQ: "Should I use my real name when making a comment? Yes, definitely. Please fill in the name field with your real name or initials. We have found that people who use their names carry on more engaging, respectful conversations..." Many websites (AIGA Voice is one of them) require that anyone making a comment provide their real email address before their words are posted. This safeguard is necessary and provides a modicum of editorial oversight and moderation.

A great benefit of the blog explosion are off-line correspondences with readers who choose to communicate with authors privately. I actually savor these emails. Recently, I received one from James Puckett, who frequently comments on Design Observer, admonishing me for using one of his quotes in an article I wrote in Eye magazine without attribution. He was correct too. He noted that he does use his real name, and if someone is forthright enough to do so, then the quotation should be attributed. In fact, as a rule I try not to quote anything from an anonymous or pseudonymous source.

In only a few short years, blogs have significantly evolved. And if blogs, and the people who engage with them, are to be respected, then we should all know who everyone is, and everyone — whoever and whatever they have to say — should not hide behind the digital veil. It is time.

Posted in: Technology

Comments [158]

In a world where there's several thousands of people named Anne Ulrich, the majority of which have accomplished more then I, and are more represented in the world, I'm a speck. The internet handle I use, is somewhat unique to myself and a real estate agency in New Mexico. That makes it a better name for myself then anything written on a birth certificate could do.
A rose by a nickname if that nickname is well known in correspondence with that rose can smell as sweet too.

I agree with Steve; I think it's crucial to know the author's identity, if nothing more than to give context to the commentary. I am fortunate that when you google me, the only significant competition is from a UK lingerie model! While I haven't posted under an alias, I find it significantly daunting to post under my real name and I think that stems from fear; if people attack my comments, they're no longer criticizing an online unknown, but, rather, me.
Amy Fidler

ammre makes a good point.
In fact, in the early histories of communications (Bulletin Boards and the like) nicknames are very common because (like email addresses) they need to be unique, but preferably human parseable and the technology wasn't good with Firstname Lastname formats.

I'd make the reverse point.
If you google my real name, every single link there points to me. That's just not true for Steven Heller. Now I'd be happy to post about design under my real name, but I'm not sure how comments in other places about my other hobbies affect my professional identity.

Of course, one difference is that I'm not a designer. I can't get away with an "outrageous persona" and say "it's creative license."

This will change over time, but for now, realistically, unless you want everything you every write on the internet to be easily linked to everything else you ever write and to be highlighted when you go to pitch to a client, you'd be stupid to not use more than one internet nickname.

If you don't value my comments, it's no big loss to me, lots of people don't let anonymous people post on their blogs. It's not a coincidence however, that few of them require full on names. Those that do tend to have very little in the way of discussion...

It comes down to what you are here for, the discussion or as a forum for writing + restrained letters of appreciation...

It begs the question, how do we really know who's out there? Forgery? Theft? Identity by any other name ...? Guess we'll just have to wait for the next big thing. In the meantime, will choose to remain "Joe Moran" by personal choice. And that's what it's really all about -- right?
p.s. If you see any posts by "10-4_Rubber_Duckie" in the next few days, ... Ha!!!!!!

Joe Moran


I must say I agree with you on the majority of this post. Most of the time if a blogger is signing off as "I.P. Freely" (a classic) 99.9% of the time that blogger has nothing to contribute whether it's an off-topic, undeserved dig or a mindless drone-on about who knows what. But the generalization of of a cowardly human behind every pseudonym is something I take issue with.

Unlike "Ammre", my name (Randy Pfeil) is not common and if you were too Google it I surely would be the first hit. But, I choose to sign off on DO—as well as other design blogs—as "Whaleroot" because, as you said, it has to do with branding. I also use it because (thus far) I haven't seen that name anywhere else so it sets me apart from the other Randys out there. More importantly, when I sign off as "Whaleroot" I'm not saying anything Randy Pfeil wouldn't say and if you were to Google "Whaleroot" my real name isn't shrouded by anything you couldn't uncover within a link or two.

Using a pseudonym to me isn't a cowardly act unless the person behind it is actually a coward. So, before it's set in stone that I use my pseudonym to veil my drab self as a designer please know that to me Whaleroot=Randy Pfeil so what's the difference besides the spelling (and maybe the fins)?

Interesting topic, Steve (or, um -- whatever your first name really is). (Sorry!)

I've also noticed some people use a pseudonym in the manner of a brand name. I don't really mind this. However, I only wish they would consistently use that name in other applications, such as when they enter their work in design annuals. I enjoy occasionally matching a name in a design blog with their work in a design publication, or with a person at a design conference.

For those of use who have a relatively common name, however, I'll vouch for the fact that it's a bit strange knowing that your name is shared with others in a perfectly honest way. This isn't necessarily bad, of course. I once met another nice fellow by the name of Daniel Green after he posted an illustration on the Word It section of Speak Up. Still, it's a bit unnerving knowing that your identity can be confused with someone else.

Ultimately, your point on accountability and openness is an important one to consider if the content on a blog is to be taken seriously.
Daniel Green

This is weird. Are you talking about, what is commonly know in geeky internet terms as 'lurkers'? ... oh hang on lurkers are just readers who prefer not to leave comments... anyway, who's anonymous these days?
— It's rarely, the vast community of young creative practitioners such as those over at YCN ycnonline.com — many of whom are part of a growing trend towards using your name as your website address, or something particular to you that others will remember, and using social networking sites to make friends and promote your own work.
— It doesn't seem to be many of the design-orientated bloggers I've been collecting with my Google Reader, who will happily leave comments on one another's blogs to keep the conversation going, at the same time attracting readers to their own blogs and helping promote their various activities.

Does Design Observer get an unusually high amount of anonymous commentators? Because, from my own experience, the web seems to be becoming less and less about hiding behind a wacky virtual persona (Second Life is slowing hammering the nails into that coffin) and more about being, well... more social.
Michael (Boicozine)

I use Inaudible Nonsense as a way to establish an identity within comments and within the web (and for years I used DC1974, but found that other people began using it -- someone used that name and created a dummy MySpace page in order to catch my Google searches).

There are many, many Christopher Edwards out there. There are many Christopher Taylor Edwards out there. And unless I say that I'm Christopher Edwards of Washington, DC -- which would only narrow it down a bit (I know there is another Christopher Edwards of Washington, DC, with the same birthday as me, as every time I go to the doctor I have to establish that I was born in 1974), but I always include my actually email address. And a link to my blog, where my about section gives my bio and links to my LinkedIn profile and includes my email address and twitter information. So I think I'm actually fairly open about who I am.

And frankly, just because you sign things Steven Heller doesn't mean that I know anything more about you. Or trust you anymore. I trust you because of what you say. That's the way the web works.

For all I know, Steven Heller could be a pseudonym. An Anglicization. Or a name you adopted as an adult. (Similarly, most people I grew up with knew me as "Chris" -- I chose "Christopher" when I entered college in order to stake out a new identity for myself.)

The anonymity of the web isn't because of the ability to choose our names -- we always have had that ability -- it's because we can't see each others faces. And even if we could, that only gets us a step closer to really knowing each other.
Inaudible Nonsense

I use my middle name not my first, which I will not disclose here.

Please explain why this should be read as irrelevant, as you seem to think?, rather than as hypocrisy?

I find it curious that while doing anything about this to any real effect, as well as some of the arguments above, are inherently technological concerns[1], there is absolutely no acknowledgement of that fact above.

[1] Details when time allows, though this comment easily serves as one example.
"Steven Heller"

My name is NEO.

Oh, f#cking great, Heller! What a trivial non-issue! And you called me out too! How could I ignore this?

My name is Mark Andresen ( you even - somewhat - know me) and ever since Hurricane Katrina, I've jokingly posted as Pesky Illustrator over on another design site. I was on a borrowed computer at the time, far from submerged New Orleans where my identity papers were. A city known for masking too. The name just popped in my head signing on for the first time, to break away from designer obsequiousness. It wasn't planned as masking who I was. A joke, OK? I've never been secretive or cowardly about my opinions however serious or unserious they were. Anyone who wanted to know who I was could easily find me by checking the address.

Crucial to know the author's identity? Yeah, FEMA said the same thing when they came asking for the money back. And so did the f#cking IRS and the Small Business Administration. So pardon me if I had a momentary lapse in handing out my identity paper.

So Herr Heller, if you have a problem with it, talk to the finger. (Laughing...)

Now that my venting anger is out of the way (that felt great, thankyouverymuch) I still LIKE you, Steven Buttercup Heller...
Mark Andresen

Because of this site - I've had the ability to "speak" to Steve offline to clear up whatever confusion or point needed further inspection at the time regarding a post on the day of the VA Tech Massacre (if anyone remembers that time). And then, because of his generosity and interest in my ideas (which stemmed from his ideas) we were then able to collaborate on some really cool stuff in the real world. And - this all happened at break-neck internet speed. After hitting send a few more times with additional thoughts - I remember thinking to myself that at no other time in the history of the world would I be able to fly off on a handle and send my typo-laden rant to a man with his professional standing and actually expect a sincere response that at this LUCKY LUCKY TIME.

I also go to "know" Jessica Helfand because of something I posted on a blog under my own name a few year back. She is a person who took me seriously, responded to my writing and then we made a friendship in the real world out of it that has benefitted me (and hopefully her) a thousand times over. I owe my name (however generic) a whole lot and I'm really glad I used it here. I agree with Steve on this. A name is a claim. A fake name is a game.

(PS. Steve is speaking in Washington DC Jan. 11 at the Navy Memorial - you can write me offline for details...).
Jessica Gladstone


A personal email or a personal conversation is far from a blogging sign-off. Are you telling me that if I contacted Steven Heller in a personal situation (where I would use my formal name) that he wouldn't take me seriously because of my use of a blogging pseudonym?

I have made many contacts through design blogs using Whaleroot and can't see what difference it would've made if I were Randy in those instances.

I agree with Whaleroot on that. I've gotten very nice personal emails from the authors of Be A Design Group and This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Culture and Anthropology, usually just thanking me for replying to their posts. It was personal, and direct and we used each other's names. Come to think of it, I've never once gotten a thank you for replying at this site. So I don't see why the authors feel that I should reveal myself in anyway other than the identity that I've created for myself online.
Inaudible Nonsense

Btw, Jessica. I very much plan on going to the Steven Heller lecture. I want to see him in person, actually. I think it will illuminate my understanding of his writing.
Inaudible Nonsense

Come to think of it, I've never once gotten a thank you for replying at this site.

I used to send notes to visitors to Design Observer, especially if there was an issue raised that would be better discussed offline. However, I've been discouraged by how many have bounced back because the commenters have signed on with fake email addresses.
Michael Bierut

Hi Whaleroot -

Good point that a personal conversation can happen no matter what your name is - and also - I like your idea of a brand for onesself other than your birth name. For a while I called myself "goodtobeglad" like my website - but then honestly - my ego got in the way. I wanted people to maybe get to know "me" and my ideas/writings and I decided to use my real name. It was a little scary at first.

Anyway - I really do believe that your name, Randy is a signifier in a very different way than Whaleroot. If you were at a design party and you were mingling among people - I just don't see you introducing yourself as "Whaleroot" unless you have some serious self-confidence. That name may be appropriate for your business and your website and may be used on your business card or as a nickname in the Navy - but it's not really your PERSON. Do you see what I mean? With Randy, or Jessica, or Joe or whatever, you are more naked, less clever, more mundane and expressly more human. Randy vs. Whaleroot. They each mean differently.

My dumb birth name really does make a difference when I assign my opinion to something. And Steve is right about the whole "mystery" thing only tagging along with the fake name. Christopher called himself Christopher once he went to college. I called myself "Jess" once I left NYC in search of a new phase of my life - like shedding a layer of excess "ica". These are small changes (such as using a middle name for a first) but Whaleroot, (which I love using as an example by the way) is very funny and stands out for attention in a way that maybe your words don't. Wow - that would be a shame, right?

Well - I like this discussion and still stand by the saying that a name is a claim. Whaleroot is a claim; but Randy is a classic.

Jessica Gladstone

It is up to the administrators of the site to decide on the level of privacy they will afford their visitors. If Design Observer really wanted to they could restrict comments to only hand registered accounts from whom they've received a copy of a birth certificate and a letter of recommendation from a member of Pentagram.
Alas, this would be overkill for a forum about design so I am still allowed to make my point here. Now what if in 5 years some prospective employer Google'd this and decided I was a troublemaker or just didn't share her personal beliefs?
The issue is people don't want to read junk. So as newspapers have editors, so websites have moderators. Editing was always the invisible art until recently, now we're deluged in information overload and want to cut the crap. So you can either 1. give select access to people you know will respond appropriately, 2. open the floodgates to the masses and start deleting, 3. or design user content moderation systems.
Markus Booster

Ok, so who in the heck are "SU," "DESIGNMAVEN," and "NANCY?"

(Of course, will respect your anonymity/secret identity -- the Batsignal is on. Ha!!!!!!)

Joe Moran

Steven, please define the following:

  1. What constitutes a valid e-mail address

  2. What constitutes a valid website address

  3. How you propose they would be validated

  4. How you propose to confirm either belongs to the person claiming them

  5. What constitutes a "real name" given the fact you yourself don't use what may commonly be considered such

  6. Whether someone would be expected to restrict themselves to only one applicable name/e-mail/URL

    1. If not, what the terms would be of allowing them to "switch identities," and in what contexts


i like my birth name, so did a bunch of other parents of the kids in my highschool class. I needed something different but unlike a name like whaleroot, I introduce myself as that in person, and i have a bunch of people who only know me as ammre. Would it sound better if i stuck on my inconsequential last name and capatilized it?
Ammre Ulrich

One more item.

If you decide to respond to my list above, please also specify why you believe I(Su. Or not!) actually wrote that comment, or if you're simply addressing yourself to a conceptual "Person Who Wrote Comment #20" in absence of considering the truth of that person's identity, keeping in mind that what has been occurring to date is much more the latter than the former.

Anonymity is not ownership. Many people who have responded to this post obviously take responsibility. Blog comments should abide by the same rules as letters to the editor (which means all addresses are verifiable; which means if I wanted to contact the respondent I could. As Michael says many are fake. This is NOT fair). Verification is not intented to stifle conversation.

As for my "first" name, it was changed as a teen when I lived abroad for a while. Frankly I prefered my middle name, which I kept and use for EVERYTHING. It is established. I take ownership using that name.

If one prefers to use another name, that's their right. But don't use it as a veil. Again, take ownership.
steve heller

nancy is nancy krabbenhoeft,technically and typographically correct: nancy krabbenhöft google me. I've no fear left for what i've not done right. I'm just somebody's mom. flunked out of graphic design 101 and typography 101 at age 46 for not withdrawing correctly from the course at junior college.


The effect of being ridiculed and be called stupid could also be a reason to anonymity. I'm afraid I'd have to admit of being one those who comments and lurks into other people's blog page just for heck of it.

Freedom of speech comes with a price they say. Also applies to blog.

I think it is pretty sweet how Heller was able to call out you pseudonym users like nancy, whaleroot and inaudible nonsense. Each of you somewhat defending who you "really" are and in the process revealing a real identity over a perceived one. And gosh, nancy really came out of the anonymity closet, flunked GD 101 -- that is hard to say around here. Real honesty, you go girl!

It is interesting too how I now mentally picture Randy differently than Whaleroot, for me I think it just added about 10 years to Randy's age. And I imagined a Whaleroot type of guy listening to Indie music and now a Randy guy is sort of a classic rock, Beatles like. I don't really care if I am right or not about my assessment, but in a world where everything communicates I always prefer the most authentic approach.
jenn stucker


You are spot on.
Too many people hide behind handles.
Writers should stand up and be counted.
(How else will the Gestapo know who to cart off to camp.)


[email protected]
Dave Barnes

Comments should stand on their own, no matter who makes them. Over the last decade, we've seen how the right wing will attack the messenger when they don't have a legitimate argument against the message. Unfortunately, the rest of society has followed that lead. Fortunately, we have anonymous posting on blogs, which makes it difficult to attack the messenger.

If you can argue with what I say, more power to you. Just remember you had better base your argument on facts and reason. You don't know enough about me to call me names without making yourself look like a fool!

A Plea to Design Observer: Index Your Comments and Names
As the Design Observer moves into the 21st Century, and desires to be the "blog-of-Writings on Design and Culture" online, the editors should include a searchable index of the names that comment. Déjà Vu
Steven, if the Design Observer thought the comments were important, its readers would be able to search the Archive of comments by name. Try to search for the Pseudonym DesignMaven. You will find that the DesignMaven name only comes up in this post.
Carl W. Smith


I had a major argument with the professor. I argued for entitlement just the same as the autistic boy in drawing class got entitlements. Only i argued i was gifted on the other end of the scale. I withdrew because i became a behavioural problem, and I believed that my papers would be handled correctly. They weren't. I didn't find out i flunked until a half year later when I found myself still on the system. Also I have signed on the internet in microsoft forums since 1996 or 7 with nancy and the forum moderators and many participants have known my first and last name since that time. Seeing there is(are) only one or two of me in the entire united states, I haven't had any anonymity for over 10 years. Before that on aol, usenet, compuserve, etc I felt a bit more anonymous because i wasn't so oblivious to and naive about my mail program and identfication using the type of computer and program back then.

that was then, this is now Now is where i don't have much integrity, dignity, dam... even love to lose.

I agree with the notion that people should use consistent and real designations, but if someone wants to 'Elton John' themselves and create a distinct impression and identity that seems reasonable.
But masks encourage illicit acts, be it as an anonymous poster or at Mardi Gras.
A clever solution would be a 3rd part commenting company that cross references IP address and written syntax to reveal supposedly anonymous users. At very least it could provide interesting insight like when the wikipedia posters were partially revealed by IP address.
Nathan Clark

Hang in a while Nan. Could be fun. Happy ho ho!!!

Joe Moran

Steven: Your piece concentrates too much on proscribing what and how people may name themselves rather than what you now claim as the focus: their taking responsibility for their words.

In fact, you decided to explicitly call out several people who have established themselves with their pseudonyms. Pesky and Miss R. have always provided a URL so far as I can recall, and more than a few people know who DM is; the rest, should they care, could find out easily with a simple Google search that will turn up Michael Surtees' two-part interview as the first result. I'm unaware of Xman, sorry.

Why not have called out the actual random drive-by commenter, of which there have been plenty?

Very interesting point made in this post of yours, Steve. Some people agree, some disagree... which is to be expected. Might I offer these points to add and counter, if not already made (I didn't read ALL of the comments, mind you):

1) Internet handles, when used properly, can be considered alternate names that can bear just as much meaning as one's given birth name. I operate under "chrisw357" and "esoterik72" because those handles have some personal meaning for me. I kind of consider them as the given names of my digital self (silly, I know!). Also, they offer some form of protection from harassers on the 'net, albeit some ego protection as well. If you're somehow feeling cyber-stalked, change your identity. Again, that may sound silly, but I'm sure a few people had to do just that.

2) I agree with the argument on name popularity. Google my name and fifty hits pop up in the US alone, not one of them being me. Another good reason for internet handles.

3) I would think that one would be more irritated with commenters not willing to fill out the "Email" and "URL" portion of the commenter fields. These REALLY enable the authors to have a way to communicate (Email) and/or "see" the commenter more in-depth (URL). These tools enable others to email me and visit my site, which has quite enough information about me to satisfy all but the most curious visitor.

4) in order for a commenter to be taken seriously, the way one writes should be even more important than the name or handle. I think I've been treated like a fellow human being (and given consideration and even friendship) when I'm writing as I'm doing now, as opposed to someone writing in 133t-speak, LOLZ-style or just plain spell-checker ignorant prose. Not only the style, but also the tone that comments are written with, can dictate whether a comment should be taken seriously or not. Thoughtful words go much further than saying "You suck, dude!"

Well, sorry to have gone off on a rant. I'll be keeping an eye on your blog. Seems to be a nice place!

--Christopher L. Walls

Why not have called out the actual random drive-by commenter, of which there have been plenty?

Interesting, I know I certainly fit the random drive-by commenter, but does that make my comments less credible because I am not blogging all the time? And why do I have to spend the time googling some pseudonym person to find out their real identity? Like I need more things to waste my time. To me, putting your name on your post is a way of honoring your words.

jenn stucker

1. Design Maven once told me his real name...I've since forgotten it. To me, he's Design Maven. Since I don't work with him in the corporate design identity world, I don't really need to know much more than what he writes now. Is he truly anonymous if I consistently know it to be him?

2. I've used my full name for most of my blog comments. Looking back on many of them from not too many years ago, I'm embarassed by just about everything I've had to say. I'm both frightened and glad that some day I'm sure someone will hold me accountable for the dumb things I've said.

3. I've recieved three or four emails regarding my posts over the past few years. Three were very nice, thanked me for my input, and asked me to write more. Another was a rather aggressive and nasty emailer who harassed me for a few days. I got about one email from each nice person...about 5 from the mean one. I can see where anonymity would have its benefits. But everytime I post I continue to put my real email in hopes that the right people might enjoy continuing the conversation if they'd like. The positive emails seem to far outweigh the negative.
Derrick Schultz

I certainly fit the random drive-by commenter, but does that make my comments less credible because I am not blogging all the time?

Well, I was just pointing out that the examples provided may not have been the best.
But quite the opposite: You are (theoretically) using your real name(at least it looks like one), and so are therefore an inherently more responsible person than Pesky up there, despite lack of history.
At least that's my interpretation of the argument. There appears to be some conflation here between names and identity, and accountability versus trackability. But again, my interpretation.

And why do I have to spend the time googling some pseudonym person to find out their real identity?

You don't. Plus the fact you're asking this rather than doing it probably also means you don't care, as implied in my comment. And anyway, would you know any better who Design Maven was if he signed his comments as Frank Briggs? Without the Googling, I mean.

"While much online writing has yet to reach a consistent standard, the blogs—or whatever they'll be called in the future—will have to reach a more sophisticated level to be taken seriously."

To Steven H.

Anonymity is not ownership.

This is true but, does pseudonym equal anonymity? I think when it breaks down a name is just a name but the content is the content.

To Jenn S.

Instead of adding 10 years to my age try subtracting 5 and you might be closer. Also, I like both "Indie" music as well as Classic Rock. Just thought you might be curious.

The notion that opinion quality of commenters is contingent upon their verifiable credentials is ridiculous. I might even suggest this smacks of inability to understand how the web works.

Some people have no problem with putting their real name out there, which is fine. If you have a following on and off the web and execute functions in various capacities where your true identity is required for lending credibility, I say go for it.

But it can and will backfire for some people.

The problem with the internet is that it might never forget. People change, and so do their political ideology, religious understanding, and various other beliefs. I would be embarrassed to have my high school essays published on the web because I was a different person then. Individuals should not be held hostage to something they have uttered 20 years ago.

I'll give you an example. There was a person who used to argue politics on a popular forum and did a good job by articulating his positions. Some internet detectives decided to investigate his past and stumbled upon really old usenet postings in the eternal archive that is Google Groups, way back when he was a freshman in college. Back then his arguments were weak and ridiculous by any modern metric. So this was used as a basis to attack his character and turn his decade-old postings into an issue. This seemed hilarious to me, since I didn't care for any of his political ideas, but couldn't help thinking how awful it was for him to confront this.

Unlike on the net, you cannot change your real name and your community right away and start anew (hopefully learning from your mistakes). Google search has become a permanent life record of every small thing that you said or did on some random blog or forum. Worse, it is usually presented out of context. There is no narration to show intent - it's just text for others to pick up and form bunch of opinions without knowing the person.

To this end, using one's real name on the web is an awful idea if you care about your life that doesn't involve people from internet. "Googling someone" is not a fad that is going to disappear. People love gossip and they really love playing gotcha games.

I submit that by not exposing yourself on the internet is a preemptive countermeasure against cowards who like to form opinions about you by quickly checking your information on the internet and viewing your identity through a prism of malformed information.

With so many people opposed to privacy intrusions, there are sure a lot of individuals who are jumping onto this "expose yourself or you don't count" bandwagon.

As a blogger, you have a choice and it is the most common sense approach to finding this balance that you crave so much:

- Don't allow anonymous postings
- Allow postings from pseudo-anonymous posters by approving their registration before they can post or voice their opinions.

Those who wish to protect their real world identity for the reasons I've outlined above are not falling over themselves to be anonymous just so they can be dicks on the internet. There are ways of stopping them.

Moreover, knowing my identity is of zero value to you or anyone. If you wish to send correspondence to people who use strange "non-real-name" handles on the internet, just require them to verify an email. If they're interested in the conversation, they'll probably stick around and continue the discussion. Whatever happened to just asking?

And for the record, I have a really unique name that yields very specific information about me including a phone number, address and a way for someone to contact my employer and harass them. Tell me again why I would want to put this information out there? The internet is a rough terrain and you have way too much faith in people, it seems.
John Q. Public

You're wrong. Here's why.
Patrick Berry

Does the name really matter on the internet? At all? I think not. See, I have no idea who Steve Heller is. The only thing I know about him is that he wrote this blog post. This is a very well thought-out post, and I enjoyed reading it. But that would have been the same if the post had read stefano234 or something completely odd.

If I agree or disagree with someone, it's because of their arguments, not of their names, and for me, that's all that matters.
Torsten Kammer

Although I suppose I can agree with you on using a real name, there's no way I want to give a valuable email address to the spammers of the world. For that, you are nutz.
Bill Graefe Jr

Doesn't a real name next to a comment somehow increase its credibility?

No it doesn't. Not even a little. What a strange idea this is.

I believe the logical fallacy you are pursuing is the "appeal to authority".
Harvard Irving

To ask that users of this website act in a civic manner of their own free will goes against what blogs are about and betrays an ignorance of interactive/experience design. If this is a design site, and Steven Heller is a design critic/commentator, Design Observer should know well enough that the web (and interactivity in general) is about setting up non-negotiable parameters within which users do as they wish.

If you run a blog and want to verify participants' identities, you have a number of tools available to you, from email verification to credit card number submission to charging a subscription rate. There are also a number of ranking tools deployed by numerous sites that allow the community to decide the validity and relevance of user comments (ebay, amazon, and amihotornot all use these tools). And of course, more Draconian tactics, such as deleting irrelevant posts, blocking specfic IPs, and closing comment functionality altogether are also available.

In fact, Steven Heller's rant rings decidedly old-school and pre-digital (can somebody say "Designersaur"?). The older examples of "Letters to the Editors" he brings up are laughable comparisons. User-interactivity and user generated content completely change the game.

I'm with Shakespeare on this one.
yours not-so-truly, Steven Heller

It is very often about branding.
Would make no difference trying to insist on real names apart from the comments section being empty.
Unless you want to go back in time, it is entirely appropriate for people to take on different brands or personas for different forums.
The judgement that somehow a screen persona results in a lower standard of comment is flawed. It does not hold up from just from what I have seen from this blog alone. There are plenty of verification tools, let alone moderation already available to restrain inappropriate commenters. Blog administrators have been dealing with this successfully for years.
Email correspondence outside the blog forum is different, and it is appropriate to use your own name there. It's not the same thing as a public comment.
Using your own name can be dangerous and means nothing anyway.
You seem to be trying to cure a problem that doesn't exist. Are you not happy with the standard of comment here?
Cowardly? Pah.
Andrew The Worst of Perth McDonald
The Worst of Perth

While I'm sure Anonymous posts annoy both the liberal left and the liberal right (learn the language before you whine), the simple truth is that anonymity the right of the writer, not the province of the reader. You have no idea WHY the writer chooses to be anonymous. You only have anecdotal evidence that anonymous posts are of lower quality, and even that is likely colored by your dislike for them.
Nobody likes being told a hard truth without a chance to retaliate and anonymous posts prevent retaliation. That's a good thing.

Radical Liberalism must be destroyed.
John Corbin

the advent of the "search" function online is the internet equivalent of dropping the H-Bomb, the conciousness of google is the impact on ground zero, but the .cn people cannot be cowed by the Atom Bomb.

writing from the land of.cn . the world's biggest corporate sector of web survelliance. Where anonymity grants me access to sites banned and allows me to continue my art and journalistic research inside a country which favors a giant C C T ~V.

Marx had it wrong, communism is capitalism, he hasn't been to .cn recently. Civilized anonymity and open source are the workers chance to loose their chains.

"Anonymity is not ownership." Therefore anonymity equals freedom?

The essence of your argument has been condensed down to your problem with offline communication, and THAT is what should be banned. There is nothing worse, anonymous posts included, than a public discussion where a few individuals start whispering. To me it is like being at a panel discussion where the panel and a few in the audience start to whisper among each other as soon as the conversation gets going. Then they abruptly, and silently, decide to leave the room to carry on their own private discussion. It happens and tends to be the death of the blog because the overall audience dwindles down to the handful privy to the private room. I would rather everyone wear masks and all conversation — good, bad, ugly, pretty, otherwise — be worked through from every possible angle.
Peter Benjamin Parker

It's quite easy to dismiss this argument as bunk. There's hardly anyone else out on the internet with the same name as me, and so any comment I make, such as this one, will be findable in Google searches for years to come. They will be easily viewable by possible future employers (hello there!) and I'll be expected to justify my opinions in job interviews (this has happened in the past, and - hi again! - it'll happen again). Not that I'm ashamed of my opinions, but I think that anonymity on the internet should be a basic human right. I don't know you, you're a persona on the internet. I can be civil, as I'd suggest I'm being, but that's the most you should expect of me. You're the person who made their blog comment section public.

On the other hand, what if my name was John Smith, and I signed off as that? That would be even more meaningless than me signing off as my real name. Would you require that I give my date of birth, social security number, etc etc? If my country introduced an ID card with a unique digital fingerprint, would you require that I embed that within my comment? Don't you see that this issue is far too complex to allow your argument to still stick together?
Douglas Greenshields

Douglas, Good points. However, I believe that while everyone has the right to be anonymous (and the respondent from .cn makes a case for the importance of anonymity as a weapon against repressive regimes, anonymity on a blog like this (a discussion forum about design culture) is intellectually dishonest.

The possibility that a future employer might find comments on Google is a disturbing byproduct of this incredible world wide network, but it is not an excuse for creating false personae.

I'm willing to accept that people may need to use pseudonyms for any number of valid reasons, but I cannot agree that the discussions on this blog are better for it. The veil simply gives license to say things that might be otherwise be held closer to the vest. Okay, that is liberating, but it isn't always best for furthering a discussion.

I've been to plenty of events where people are not afraid to stand up, show their faces, use their names, and argue or debate. Public forums are meant to be public (and transparent). This should be held accountable as a public forum.

Regarding the whispering off-line comment: One value about this and other blogs is stretching the community. Meeting off-line is part of that process. But more important, I've read many online threads where the conversation becomes one on one, where the discourse doesn't take the argument much further for the mass of readers, and often is best done in private.
steve heller

Hmmm...I'm with Mr. Heller on this one. I like when a person provides their given name rather than a pseudonym. On the other hand, some handles are humorous and at times can add character to the comments.

Recently I was posed with the challenge of changing my name after being married. Many women keep their birth names, but I on the other hand decided to change mine. At first I thought, what if people don't know how to find me or don't recognize me? But now I think, if they want to find me, they'll find me or they'll figure out who I am. Being one of the (if not only) few Diane's on design blogs, I consider this an advantage. My last name is all that has changed, nothing else.

I prefer to use my real name at all times.
diane zerr

Will the real Stephen Heller please stand up?

First you called DesignMaven, and others, "cowardly." Now you are saying that DesignMaven is "known as a passionate supporter of design and design history." That's pretty much a 180 about face. The cowardly DesignMaven turns out, in fact, to be a known persona ("passionate supporter..."). That known persona just happens to come entirely from the online presence he/she has created--the "real name" is irrelevant. Anyone (like Mr. Heller) who knows Maven's "real name" might be privy to some additional information. The question is: Does that additional information color how you view DesignMaven's comments? Because we do not know whether DesignMaven (or any other anonymous posters) might happen to be a BIG NAME from New York, or some unknown designer working in Peoria, we are required to view his/her comments entirely at face value. I think that's a good thing--evaluating the comments entirely on their own merit, without one's opinion being colored by name recognition.

It is interesting that this call for the end of anonymity comes from someone who has made a career out of his design writing byline. I wonder: What is the motivation for this plea? A cynical sort might think that the writer wants to have more information about the commentors so that he can further evaluate the validity of their comments.
Rob Henning

The founding fathers, many of whom wrote political pamphlets under pseudonyms, do not seem to have shared your position.

The primacy of the IDEA, which Heller brushes aside in favor of IDENTITY, is actually very important. Heller, who does not even use his entire given name and fails to follow through and attribute sources when they DO use their legal names, is massively hypocritical, and his argument is essentially fascist.

Have you, Heller, even examined the meaning of identity? For the thoughtless, it reduces to the body. What is the importance of a Heller or anyone else being able to locate the body, when it is the idea being discussed? Does the body own the idea? No it does not. The idea transcends the body and can be put into action or otherwise used by any number of bodies.

The fascist aspect comes in where Heller wishes to make commerce, to own ideas, and to control their dissemination for profit.

But to go into it further, neither the body nor the idea nor the name is the real identity. So Heller puts forth the essentially stupid idea (which he does not own and which is not original to his own bodily identity) that you ought to be bound to his unexamined notion of who you are, so that he can go on comfortably making money out of his racket.

God forbid such rank notions ever rule the internet.
Not Buying It

(and the respondent from .cn makes a case for the importance of anonymity as a weapon against repressive regimes, anonymity on a blog like this (a discussion forum about design culture) is intellectually dishonest.

i think it's pretty silly to say that a design blog, filled with people whose job it is to communicate messages visually, effectively, and uniquely, which also believes that graphic design can cause or encourage social and political change would not be kept under intense surveillance and supervision, if not outright censorship. In other words, if I was at the hands of an repressive regime, this might be one of the last places i'd put my name.
ed mckim

Alas, my dear Steven, I beg to differ.

1. I have used "Beerzie Boy" since my first blog on the internet. This was during the early days of blogging, and I had (reasonable) fears that my employer discovering my blog would be disastrous. I have used this nom 'd web for at least eight years, and have many Internet friends and acquaintances who know me by this name. When I do communicate with people directly, I always use my real name. At this point -- for better or worse -- it is my "brand".

2. My real name, Richard Alfaro, is fairly common. However, my pseudonym is based on my original name, Richard Beers, and my wife started calling me Beerzie Boy when we first met. It's hardly a secret, and anyone who wanted to track down the real owner of my moniker could do so easily.

3. "The possibility that a future employer might find comments on Google is a disturbing byproduct of this incredible world wide network, but it is not an excuse for creating false personae." It is rather glib for a man who is as successful as yourself to dismiss the need for people to use a pseudonym. Not everyone is in the position to allow potential clients or employers to read every one of their opinions, and having to keep these people in mind can have a chilling effect on one's ability to be candid. Self-censorship does not advance dialog or a search for truth.

4. Names are largely irrelevant in the context of the web. Without serious investigation, there is no way of knowing that the identity of a person is real.

5. I'm not sure -- unless someone is offering insider information, evidence, or claiming expertise -- how knowing who a person "really" is adds much value to a person's writings or opinion. Either someone's comment/post has value or it doesn't.
Beerzie Boy

I happed to use my real first name for all commenting anywhere.. it doesn't matter to me really.. considering I also run a few websites, I'm already known, so what's the difference!

It is very fortunate for Mr. Heller that the people who disagree with him in this particular thread don't judge people by the nature of their arguments, otherwise they might argue that Mr. Heller is just an elitist, oligarchic person. But don't worry, Mr. Heller, even reasonable people make bad judgement calls occasionally; I'll keep reading and enjoying your texts.

Following Mr. Heller's reasoning maybe we should discourage, even ban, anonymous vote altogether, for the sake of a more responsible democracy, where everybody could claim ownership of their political opinions, with all the risks and advantages that entails. In other words: people should think twice before voicing their opinion. Well, maybe we shouldn't this (politics are a serious matter, after all), but maybe we should limit participation on areas where free public opinion apparently doesn't matter anyway, like design forums.

Prior to this post, I actually believed that anonymity should be avoided on blogs, now I've changed my mind.

In this occasion, I choose to remain Anonymous not by fear but merely by conviction.

You sound scared Steven. Complaining about names with a whole blog post is not only a waste of time and space but also like a meek attempt to make darkness disappear by screaming 'light' inside a coal mine.

Are you scared that someone will prove you wrong with an intelligent but anonymous comment and you won't know whom to yell at?

Loosen up and write a post worth reading.
Hrishi Mittal

> Alas, my dear Montague, I beg to differ.

And to be mistaken. The line was Juliet's.
Scott F

Prior to this debate, I've shared Mr. Heller's opinion, though JohnQ and many of the other commentors are convincing me otherwise. In spirit though I feel taking credit and responsibility for what is said is good and ethical, though hardly enforceable.

One other argument for anonymity I've heard from some friends who have worked around mirrors Beerzie Boy's comment: Many large/public companies and consultancies have strict policies about posting online. Should a designer wish to be a part of a larger general design debate while respecting the confidentiality of their business, network and clients, I would feel it is an appropriate use of anonymity. (Though too bad, a missed opportunity on the agency's part to harness someone's insight and enthusiasm!)
Mike Williams

In my previous comment, I forgot one point that I think is very important. Another reason people prefer anonymity is due to the phenomenon of Internet pile-ons. I have seen numerous occasions where someone's words have been controversial or offended someone (often Internet notables or "a-list" bloggers), and the next thing you know, the "offender" is attacked from every corner of the Internet. Sometimes this is deserved, but when it is not, the derision will live forever. Furthermore, clarifications (or even apologies) to the offending and attacking threads may not be connected, leaving a person with a trashed reputation from which it is difficult to recover.
Beerzie Boy/Richard Alfaro

Once blogs become more transparent (as they should), I would suggest these lurking, prying employers follow suit. I would love to know what large agencies bill "our" clients for illustration.

Slowly but surely, honesty will become policy, Frank Briggs will come out of hiding, send me some of those coveted identity standards manuals and the children of the world will hold hands and sing the sweet song of love, joy and compassion.

ps- feluxe is dead. long live the crapping reader
felix sockwell

Shorter Steven Heller: It's bad enough that blogs defy print standards by not having editors. Let's not make things worse by permitting comments that would never be allowed into a magazine's Letters page.
Joe Clark

Once blogs become more transparent (as they should), I would suggest these lurking, prying employers follow suit.

I agree that employers should be more transparent, but comparing the anonymity of individuals with the anonymity of employers/corporations is like saying that since politicians are publicly accountable so should be the individual voters.

Due to evident power differences, freedom of speech at the individual level should be different from freedom of speech at the institutional/corporate level.

In areas such as design, architecture or art the line between corporate and individual is often kept blurry (after all, in this businesses, an individual, original image/brand is valued), but the line is, nevertheless, there.

Sem Nome

I would like to contribute my 2¢ worth, namely:

It seems to me the quality of comments are not appreciably related to the name they're posted under, but that using a real name causes some people to think a bit more before posting. There are many people that are capable of posting intelligently without the prod that it can come back to haunt them.

Which is my second point. The internet is globally available and persistent, office parties are not. I'm pretty sure people would be reticent to use their real names if every office party was globally televised. There are times I would like to take part in some light online interaction without it being readily available to any potential employer, government employee, or lawyer for the rest of my life.

Googling my psuedonym (everlasting phelps) gives you 36,000 (mostly relevant) hits on me -- they identify me. Googling my government name gives you 76 hits, mostly about a British football player. The easiest way for me to hide my identity online would be to use my government name.

(I've addressed this before.)

Steve, thanks for responding. I definitely appreciate when people who write blogs respond reasonably to commenters. I suppose this demonstrates, though, one of the problems at the root of this issue, which is the rather schizophrenic nature of blog comments - they never quite qualify as discussions! They're postulations after the event, sometimes providing fact-checks or updates, but only on rare occasions adding all that much real value. It's rare that a real argument has the chance to play out, in my experience. Blog comments sections very often want badly to behave like threads on a forum - and *should* do, I think, in their perfect form - but this detracts from their ability to be a fresh response from the original blog post. They pootle along, never quite wave, never quite particle, never coming to a satisfactory conclusion.

Jeremy Keith has experimented with allowing a period of a week's blind commenting on posts, where comments are published all in one go a week after the event, and - I'd say surprisingly - it seems to have worked for him, to a degree. But hell, ultimately it should be up to you to decide what is acceptable behaviour on your own blog. You're inviting people into your own house, and you should expect to be able to ask people to leave, or force them to, if they aren't civil, don't add anything to the discussion, etc etc. But if a blog is a house, it's a house in a Philip K. Dick landscape, where people's faces can, for whatever reason, shape-shift from time to time, and you need to work out for yourself the practical steps you're going to take to deal with that. The recent thought stemming from Tim O'Reilly's call for a Blogging Code of Conduct is about allowing owners of blogs the ability to choose what goes in their house, and signal this appropriately. Indeed, the first item of that draft code is "We take responsibility for our own words and for the comments we allow on our blog". Do you take responsibility for people leaving comments on your blog not identifying themselves in a manner you find acceptable? What practical steps do you propose to take to do something about this?

My last point is picking up on "Beerzie Boy"'s comment about you being in a privileged position because it is your job to take a view of this sort of thing, so you'll never suffer any bad fallout from putting your name with a comment. You made a response to me:

Douglas, Good points. However, I believe that while everyone has the right to be anonymous (and the respondent from .cn makes a case for the importance of anonymity as a weapon against repressive regimes, anonymity on a blog like this (a discussion forum about design culture) is intellectually dishonest.

Come on, can you really draw such a distinct line between a person such as myself, living in a nominally free Western liberal democracy, and someone in China? Google can collect more information on me than the Chinese secret police ever could, which is why, although I do tend to make comments on the internet using a variation of my name, I rarely use my official full name, and I'm only really doing it in this instance to make a point. If, as you admit, anonymity is a right, why are you questioning it and calling it intellectually dishonest in the same sentence? You may not want it on your blog - and that's perfectly fair - but it doesn't make sense to hold it up as a maxim that everyone has to be held to.

I made the point that I'd been made to discuss something I'd previously said online in a job interview. I happened not to get that job - what if the reason was that my opinion, while entirely valid and mainstream, did not chime ideologically with that of the company interviewing (a major American bank)? If my job is to project oft-irreverent opinions online, and I never have to justify myself to third parties who wield major power over my future life, then I wouldn't have any reason not to go under my "real" name. If I could myself among the other 99.99% of the population I'd probably be crazy to.
Douglas Greenshields

I disagree completely.
It is about the content of the post, not about who is the author. If I read a text and I agree with it, then I agree. If I disagree with something just because of who the author is, it is not logical, is a personal thing.

Let people express their thoughts freely, if what they say is right then it should be right said by anyone. so it really doesnt matter.

This thing about knwing who says what, who does what and when, I call it "gossip", and I hate it.

One has the right to release ideas and preserve his self privacy, sometimes even safety.

So take it easy when demanding real names, who cares anyway, if you are smart enough to analyze posts logically and agree or not with it.. then you dont need to know the author's real name so you can link the real physical person.

Afterall, at the internet, people get to be what they really are, what theyre personality really makes them be... and not what your parents decided one day and how government has filed your records.

Nicknames are more often revealling than real names.
humpty dumpty

What's my "real" name? I don't use my first name either, but it's the legal name I'm forced to use on financial records. Friends don't even know me by my banking name. Is it more real?

Or is my "real" name the one my friends know me by? The exact same name shared by a congressman, an NFL football player, and a murderer on the FBI most wanted list. And a few million other people

In fact all three of my names are in the top five most common English names. Any combination is shared by tens of millions. Do all of us share the same "real" identity?

Or is my "real" name the semi-unique handle that I use to comment on blogs? This name is attached to a unique domain where I also blog, attached to every online service I use, attached to my photos, my bookmarks, my profiles with my personal details...

(ps: I just checked Stevenheller.com -- is that a picture of the "real" you?)

call me "John Smith"

I was recently divorced and asked to remove the family name from my string of words that identify me as an entity in the legal world.

Since then i usually just go by my given names, or family position title. Presently, I am considering that anymore anything legal is actually just a dna nda.

dna colored design blocks are covered under some privacy act as much as my multicolored chakra vibrations are, correct?

genetic signature vs electronic inscription

Seems to me it's the same old desire to have the person's name lend context and/or credibility to their opinions in order to help others form their own decide how they feel about the comments. If "nobody we know" says something valid and adds to the discussion, I don't give a crap if their name isn't Steven Heller.

Has it not occurred to anyone that a "real" name is nothing more than a name that appears to be real? After all, if it were not for Google (and ok, IMDB), how many here would know that I am a wealthy businessman who happened to have a fake heart attack in the Bellagio while scheming to steal $160mm?

Seriously though, a call for real names is high and mighty but without a trust mechanism to prove the "realness" of those names, how are you to trust that I am not really named Lymon Zerga? But perhaps that's for another discussion.

More relevant, here's another vote for the "I don't wanna be googled by future employers" concern. Steve, you say "it is not an excuse for creating false personae." Why not? Is protecting my future employment and/or personal relationships not reason enough to remove associations with possibly controversial opinions? For many people with unique names, Google is the modern-day equivalent of the proverbial "permanent record" that teachers and principals threatened us with as students. Except it is very much real and very much permanent.

My name is pretty unique and googling it shows posts on Usenet back to 1991 while at CMU. That's over half of my lifetime! documented on Google, without any active participation on my part, and no way to correct it. It's only by luck that those posts don't include things that would have had repercussions. Today though, those google results are finely tuned and I'm careful to separate my off the cuff remarks from those that enter my "permanent record." In fact, my previous boss told me when he left that he chose me over another equally-qualified candidate solely based on the content of some comments that showed up on google.

And a final note for personal safety may get laughed at on a design site like this where the most controversial comment is probably whether Tufte or Jakob is full of it or not (ok, I admit I'm not a regular reader.) but on some other sites, I wouldn't be surprised to see flame wars and personal vendettas turn into real life confrontations if real names were available.

What exactly does using your real name achieve anyway? If it's simply a way to elicit self-censorship, I guess it's just too much to ask people to be civil these days.
Lymon Zerga

And now I'd like to defend Steven. OK, call me a cowardly lion, I don't care. But I can appreciate the fact that he sticks his neck out and declares his opinions. He takes the heat for his ideas. Even when they loop back 180 degrees. This is all just observations & opinions, not etched in stone. This IS a conversation, not REAL firebombs, isn't it?

His unfortunate choice of DesignMaven, Su and me was, perhaps a hasty choice. We post on another site, we have known identites. This cyberworld is big enough for more than one design site isn't it? I didn't know not using my birth name would cause consternation for some here. Little did Heller know he was talking about me when he already KNOWS me. A touch of irony.

I'm for anonymity whoever wants it. The reassurance of non-traceable identity in a world were real privacy issues are eroding seems like a subject worth studying. As Hakim Bey, author of "The Temporary Autonomous Zone" writes, in the future being anonymous will be a priviledge.
Has anyone considered that maybe some people are just shy - not sly - writing among you heavy hitters and design superstars. (Yes, Felix, you ARE a superstar.) Who wants to be humiliated by a big bad wolf? Does it really bother anybody? Yes, I suppose, when it's vicious and harassing. Relax everyone. This isn't Google China...yet.

I'm sorry I called you Buttercup, Buttercup. We'll keep it our secret....

Little did Heller know he was talking about me when he already KNOWS me. A touch of irony.

That's not ironic, it just proves his point.
Doug Bartow

Give it a rest, Doug....

80 comments and not a single comment about design itself, except for the fact that the blog is for/about/by designers.

So, I can't help but wonder how Banksy, the British stencil graffiti artist, feels...? While he's well known, he's rather anon. I have a hard time comprehending how he does it. To have so many people acclaim you, and yet never being able to reveal yourself, I'm a little too vain for that. Sure I have my pseudonym but in the end I make sure people know it's me, if they happen to know me, or even visit my website. Most of the people here who have used a pseudonym have not gone to great lengths to hide themselves. After all, most of the worthwhile comments are from designers and hey, we want people to look, that's our job. I don't think anon comments of value are what you're worried about... In the lower culture areas of the blog world there's a saying, "Don't feed the trolls."

Alias, fals name or real name – please sign them off in capitalized letterform, it look so much better, names are not to be written i lower case.
Tor Løvskogen

Why do you assume there is a person behind my posts? There is nothing but these posts, they are all that constitute the entity denoted by my handle.

a real name at the end of a blog post is an indication that the person who authored the statement is taking responsibility, indeed ownership of the words — it is a simple act of honesty

No, demanding that I use a 'real' name at the end of a blog post is a way for others to control me (justified through appeals to ostensibly noble ideals like 'accountability' and 'responsibility'). The demand that I name myself is a demand that I subordinate myself to particular rules of discourse, to 'confess,' to allow myself to be tracked, identified, constrained, and judged.

Whether because of cowardice or for more sophisticated reasons, I don't feel like giving up the power anonymity affords me. I will retain this power despite your protests. You are the one who will decide how to deal with this; I have no obligation to change.

Very good, Ralphy. I like that declaration of independence....

So if someone is a nobody, is it as easy to deny anonymity in person when ever the twains shall meet?

How do you maintain this in person? a joke? Or in all seriousness, you might want to refrain from totally disappointing another human being whom you may actually want to become a somebody to.


Mr. Heller

Agree: Yes, clearly established authorship is good design (Tufte). I practice this in my work and enforce it on others I work with.

Disagree: "Yet, it is only fair that those who respond to posts reveal themselves to further the debate (and let the debaters know the history of the writer)."


Information is valuable. People don't give out names and email addresses for the same reason they don't want to receive telemarketing calls: my personal data is worth more than being excused from your calling me a coward.

Forget the newspaper analogy - today handing someone your real digital identity is tantamount to handing out a business card with all your school transcipts, idle chatter, hobbies, medical records stapled behind it...AND ACCESS TO FUTURE UNKNOWNS!

I control my identity, not you. You want to know who I am? Give me something. The ability to publish to the front page, perhaps. Then I will hand over necessary info to you in trust. In fact, some forums do that for comments. It works because *everyone* is required to be vetted, and the vetting is held in trust among the vetted.

And here's a question - you say "it is only fair that those who respond to posts reveal themselves."

Precisely how much info is required to "reveal oneself"?

John Jones

Well done Steven. More comments than any other post this month. You sure know how to drive traffic to this site!

Happy New Year.
Hrishi Mittal

hmm, my comment was a bit pointed, Steven (as was yours?) - I didn't mean to sound overly harsh. You've prompted good discussion, but I am wary of the way information can be disseminated, rapidly accessed, and acted on, thanks to recent rapid telecommunications changes. There are times when one should stand up and identify themselves as this or that (a name, a face, a citizen, a representative); there are times when anonymity productively disrupts standard hierarchies of communication and forces us to reconsider the conditions and relations of discourse.

Perhaps you and I err on different sides of the line of digital-identity-management, or perhaps it is due to our different commitments as 'poster' vs. 'commenter.'

...I signed off as John Jones to belabor my point.

"John Jones" is hardly revealing. You'd need more.

It would be much easier to suss out stuff about me if I signed off as...

Using your real name is pretty ballsy; in general it lends an air of honesty and integrity to Internet discourse.

But wait up, Batman. How do we know that's really your real name? How is posting under "Earl Jenkins" any different from "MissBehavinz"? MissBehavinz can make herself a new hotmail address for [email protected] and post as good ol' Earl in less than five minutes. Where in lies the purported accountability?

Grow a skin and welcome to the Internet. You will never, ever really know.

And in general the sass level, such as in the above example, doesn't indicate as much hostility as it would seem to. I'd venture about half the B.S. crammed into a single post is more for the sake of amusing other readers rather than really "sticking it" to the original author.

It's as much response as it is demonstration, sort of like an angry display of feathers or other manner of meaningless, vain strutting. Like mom always said, "They're more scared of you than you are of them."

I also not named Earl Jenkins. I would like to be, though.

So what is it that I have learned from this conversation? That using false names will protect us from oppression but that anyone can easily find out who is using the false name anyway. That pseudonyms are brands to be protected and in no way deter civil discourse and if people knew our real names they'd hunt us down for the nasty things we say and the fights we pick on line. That our medical files, school transcripts, income tax forms, and porn viewing records are all easily found on line but our opinions about graphic design are going to cause future potential employers to reject our otherwise stellar applications. That Steve lives in fear that someone will say something smart and he won't be able to personally insult the culprit because he has a pathological need to spew venom at anyone who is right but wouldn't dare stand up to the power of a funny sobriquet. That there are people whose opinions on graphic design we should trust that aren't sure who Steve Heller is (and who may doubt his existence.) That the best way to respect confidentiality is by violating it under a false name. That anyone who thinks being straightforward is good just doesn't understand media theory. That we have things to say about graphic design that so threaten shadowy governmental operatives that comparing ourselves with Chinese dissidents isn't just plain obscene. And, of course, that calling someone a fascist is an example of the civil discourse that is improved by anonymity.
Gunnar Swanson

Gunnar Swanson can you reduce that to a golden rule.

Am I correct hat you are saying something like:

Staying behind brand X keeps you healthy and wealthy longer than asking brand --with a spelled out-- why ?

Nancy, who learned little tall women should never question healthy and wealthy giants like walmart or microsoft PR with a big name like mine.

If it's obscene to compare Design Observer to serious, life-or-death political situations (e.g.: Chinese dissidents), then why should anyone be forced to reveal their real identities here? Is Design Observer a serious situation or not?

Apparently, according to Steven, if one uses serious, wholesome, plausible names in a discussion that discussion becomes more serious, wholesome and plausible. But, ultimately, arguments should be more important than the people who say them (If a war criminal, mass murderer says that snow is white, should we say it's black, just to disagree? If the guy who discovered DNA is a racist, should we discart genetics altogether?)

(Anyway, even if the comments are as silly as Gunnar suggests, they are a notch or two above the smugness of the original post.)
Frank A. Lacy

Although I suppose I can agree with you on using a real name, there's no way I want to give a valuable email address to the spammers of the world. For that, you are nutz.
Bill Graefe Jr

People of DO-dom should ask themselves why they came to stay, and bother to read these comments in the first place.

I think DO has done a great job by providing news of what is happening "in design". Discussions and debates should not be left to ivory tower elitists or giving the impression of one. After all, isn't character or identity of someone else merely an observation of a series of action/design?

DO attracts a readership that's responsible regardless of whether they reveal their "true" identity. Look at these post's comments, almost the longest ever, heated? sure. Responsible? yes

By placing the value of negative connotations of anonymity above positive ones, is the original post designed by Steve an intended provocation?

and really.. I AM in .cn , half the time I HAVE to be anonymous in order to visit your links. Imagine chinese designers or artist whose lives are under the scrutiny of a castle.

I'm with the team that believes blogs focus on the primacy of the idea, the argument, and the voice. I get to know the identity of blog writers by these attributes, and accept a blog name as I would a real one as long as it presents a consistent, knowable entity. Good readers can always hear seriousness of intent, which is certainly not guaranteed by writing under a birth certificate name.

I also think Mr. Heller is discounting the potential for sheer creativity that is part of the blog form. If I can create and sustain an interesting blog persona, I think it adds to, and does not detract from, my voice and arguments.
M.A. Peel

regarding my above comments - I meant to say the G F W content filtering machine can arbitrarily block off entire networks (e.g. wikipedia, *.blogspot.com , *.wordpress.com several *.orgs. Like an internet bomb disposal unit, sectioning off entire server systems known to contain "sensitive" data.

road blocks are really the spam of the worst kind.


Way to rock the smug superiority without actually saying anything or engaging the discussion, Gunnar. You could have saved yourself a lot of time by simply typing, "All of us is dumber than any of us," Not a single person here, pro or con, is going to suggest that every one of the arguments raised(some rather specious) mashed together like that will add up to anything coherent.

also look to how the DO site is designed.

The comment links designed into two options

- 1. a euphemism to read all the details boring or otherwise.
- 2. >>jump to most recent comment. (the scandalous would love to just jump right into the scene, but for the astute reader it is an efficient system of getting up to speed)

and how could we ignore the plea to be civil (despite its legalistic way of protection), given the text is in grey not black?

I think it is the conciousness of heightened airport security speaking. As long as other blogs operate under DO's topographical wireframe. The suffocating feeling that the parts of our identity we want to be left anonymous but we are unable but to move on in the queue waiting for our bags to be inspected to hold no more than 100mm of liquids, our condoms, pictures of our love ones, perfume, Bombs, Knifes, Guns, Teddy bear for a child seen as possible smuggle point.

Governmental logic of control is a catch 22 insanity. - In order to protect safe and anonymous lives of our citizens against the anonymous terrorist threat of others, we must expose total known identity of each and everyone of you.

These days everyone is treated like a terrorist, we must be fully exposed and accountible not only for our current actions but our entire history.

Screen names and nick names that mask the true persona never bug me for the reasons stated in the article. What bugs me more is when I meet the actual persona in person and I don't remember their real world name and find myself wanting to refer to them as "HellBunny7."

What concerns me the most about blogs in general is the posts tend to be delivered unabridged. If posters would heed another quote by William Shakespeare it would make the visitors to their blog actually want to read the posts.

"Brevity is the soul of wit." - William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Von Glitschka

Well done Steven. More comments than any other post this month. You sure know how to drive traffic to this site!

For what it's worth, in my experience there is surprisingly little direct correlation between a high number of comments and high overall traffic figures.
Michael Bierut

Identification is not an either/or proposition. It runs the gamut, from a once-off garbage handle, to one's birth name and contact information. They are points on a spectrum of identifying one's self. Even Steven is not fully candid (e.g. the middle name), and perhaps rightfully so.

The identity one takes along that spectrum has its own dynamics and pros and cons. If I post as 'Ralphy' then I have some freedom to speak, my persona is restricted to Design Observer and is only meaningful here, and no reputation precedes me; but with the consequence that no one can contact me to follow up or pursue things in another format. Furthermore, if I say something consequential, it is hard to take ownership of it, since I am nothing but a simple name.

Thus, the question is not whether one is (A) public or (B) anonymous, it is a broader ethical task of moderating and managing identity. For example, D.O. writers could establish a registration for comments, enforcing a kind of responsibility for what one says, but at the same time that will transform who speaks and how they do so. There is no end to this, it is a continuing negotiation amongst us all.

Steven, do you think I am causing trouble, being dishonest, or posting nonsense because of my name here?

I have used my real name online since BBS days. In a few communities I just go my initials, but disclose my full name on a profile page.

It doesn't happen today, but for some time I would meet people in real life who had assumed the name I went by on the internet was an alias. It's not that it is an unbelievable name - hardly - but that using a real name was uncommon.

I'm glad it is more common now.

However, when the design allows it, like on DO, I pay more attention to how people write and what they say before I notice their names.
Kevin Steele

Am I correct hat you are saying something like:


even if the comments are as silly as Gunnar suggests, they are a notch or two above the smugness of the original post

A notch or two above in smugness? Maybe. Yeah. Sure.

Su--Had so many responses not been inane and some not been so repugnant, I might have quibbled with much of what he had to say on the subject. Steve will tell you that I usually find something to quibble with in his writing. But our online, telephone, letter, and in-person conversations are a continuum and our online and print writings are coherent parts of a larger conversation. (I'm not saying that our writing is always coherent, just that it all is part of the same fabric.) I believe that the larger conversation (which takes several forms) is worthwhile and some people's use of pseudonyms not only fails to further that conversation but erodes it.

I am not referring to you or Maven or Pesky, personae who have established a clear history and made many thoughtful contributions to the conversation, when I note that a disproportionate number of absurd, silly, nasty, and seemingly delusional posts end in funny names.

I suspect that, had he chosen to talk to a few people about their use of pseudonyms, he would have found that the charge of cowardice did not fit well with some of the specific examples he used. I also suspect that your oddly legalistic response to his post was intentional farce born of frustration with his sometimes ham handed dealing with the subject. That belief is reinforced by your third post where you start to deal with specific flaws in Steve's and your fourth where some of the interesting questions start.

I know Pesky and Maven by those names and their "real" ones. I've discussed pseudonymery with each of them. I don't really understand their choices but I am sure that dismissing them as cowards is not an accurate portrayal. I don't know your motives but have always assumed that you and pk were moniker minimalists rather than shy.

BTW, has anyone figured out who Jessica Simpleton was?

Gunnar Swanson


that's that then.
Nancy (Marie)


Sorry. Upon rereading I realize that my answer should have been "I'm not sure because I don't know what you are saying."
Gunnar Swanson

I'm alright with that. I'm usually more than a little understood.
Nancy (Marie)

Had so many responses not been inane and some not been so repugnant

I'm not sure if you were referring to me there, but you did suggest that comparing oneself to a Chinese dissident was obscene. Well, sorry for being obscene. I understand that I'm not likely to be arrested and held in jail as a political prisoner for opinions spouted on a design forum. But I may be misconstrued in a manner that may seriously harm my life chances. It's just a question of degree - that's the point.

What's needed is an understanding of identity of the sort that Ralphy grasps at a few posts back. To borrow a concept from programming languages, online identity should be understood to have scope, i.e. an identity in one context should not be able to permeate across into another if the owner of that identity does not wish it. We're a long way from systems that enforce it, but I think this is where we're going to (have to) end up, though it's going to take a while.
Douglas Greenshields

I understand that I'm not likely to be arrested and held in jail as a political prisoner for opinions spouted on a design forum. But I may be misconstrued in a manner that may seriously harm my life chances.

No. It isn't "a question of degree." Risking putting a small dent in one's middle class future and risking one's life are pretty much unrelated. To pretend otherwise is pathetic. Grow up.

Gunnar Swanson

slight redirect:
I agree with an earlier post that postulated that the original framing of the issue is perhaps not the right framing of the problem at hand. This conversation began with the unsaid premise that revealing one's identity is natural, and therefore, the act of not naming becomes a deliberate act of concealment—the unnatural.

A deeper (more insightful, inciting?) exploration of the issue of identity and participation in a community (What's in a Name?) might have been to suggest that writing one's name—of marking the tree, so to speak—is, for example, an act of self-promotion; that writing to impress, and leaving a 'real' name in the hopes of being 'found,' might be seen as an egocentric attempt at social climbing; a sycophant's playground (even disagreement, in many forms, can be an act of intellectual posturing).

If the issue really is about taking responsibility for statements made in a community, why shouldn't the plea instead be for honest and reasoned debate?

I'm not in agreement that the exclamation of the identity, as the officially proclaimed natural state, should take primacy over the exclamation of the idea. I do agree, however, that as a community, we should expect some 'ownership' for intentionally bombastic statements, if not in name then at least in the willingness to be contacted.

When I was young, I seemed to be popular, and it confounded me because I was shy and quiet—not much of a conversation maker. Our culture treats those who have some physical height and a degree of 'good' looks as if they are somehow better than those who do not, out of pure genetic chance, possess those qualities. I guessed then that my relative popularity must have had something to do with certain details of my physicality—absurd! This 'identity' was false in that it was determined by others through a faulty set of criteria-like a name, for instance, that can be tracked on Google. For this reason, I started to write and send out short stories—they would be judged on the merit of their ideas, not on some misperception of the writer's identity. So, my motivation for not naming myself fully--my identity is beside the point.

Likewise, a proclamation of identity on a blog potentially brings in other elements that may shade a reader's opinions, not of what was said, as much as who did the saying—the value of thought is then adulterated by the perceived value of the individual saying it. When I read posts, the identity of the writer is really of no interest to me. Goof ideas are considered, BS is dismissed.

(1) one is unable to determine ahead of time which revelations of identity will be consequential and which ones won't, and the extent of those consequences
(2) the person who could be affected by the consequences of identification should be the one making the decision of acceptable risk, not a third party who tells others to 'grow up,' regardless of how big or small we may think the issue is

the one making the decision of acceptable risk, not a third party who tells others to 'grow up,'

Since I am the only person in this conversation who has used the phrase "grow up," I suppose I should be the one to point out that it was not used in reference to revelations of identity. It was used in reference to comparing the fairly unlikely prospect of not getting a particular job to the well too likely prospect of being imprisoned, tortured, or killed.

One does not have to dismiss the concerns of a middle class life to believe that comparing the possibility that your boss won't like you quite as much or that someone you meet at an AIGA meeting might be predisposed to think that you're a jerk to life and death struggles over basic human rights is a sign of immaturity at best. "Grow up" is advice based on the kindest interpretation I could infer.

Gunnar Swanson

the kindest interpretation I could infer

Or is that the kindest inference I could interpret? Apologies for the inelegant phrasing.

Gunnar Swanson

Just 'cause you say it, don't make it so. You gloss over the fact that the idea remains pure by denying association, and that is the essential idea of a blog; not some hidden agenda or alternative universe...of all people, yikes.


Gunnar likes to dig himself a hole and jump in head first. I know you get impatient waiting for the Age of Reason, Gunnar, but frankly, it's come and gone. This is the Age of TYPING.

It's clear by now that I don't approve of applying the general proposition "the powerful knowing that you said something they don't like could result in their doing you harm" to wrap oneself in the mantle of a potential gulag prisoner. The notion that something relatively trivial could happen because of statements about a relatively non-controversial subject seems to be of a different class just as pushing a prisoner and torturing him are both violence but hardly the same. Claiming otherwise reduces the truly horrible. Godwin's Law analogies can also be valid parallels but when they seem to trivialize death camps, they go beyond silliness.

It may be a question of my quaint notions of honor or just one of general sensibilities so I will leave it at this: Yes. There is a parallel. You passed geometry class. Note, however, that the lines are very far apart.

On the other hand, asking someone to own up to his own words equaling treating him like a terrorist seems oblique at best. As an old fashioned boy who doesn't understand "the way the web works," I wonder if someone could help me out with an explanation.

Speaking of which, a couple of other assertions I'm trying to figure out:

the way the web works

Does that imply "the way the web should work, the way it inevitably must work, or does it just mean "Nyeah, nyeah"?

Anonymity on the internet should be a basic human right.

Only on the internet? Anywhere else? Everywhere? Why? A basic human right? Which human rights are less important than this basic one?

Specifically for "Longtooth":
How and when did the "fact that the idea remains pure by denying association" become a fact? How and when did it become "the essential idea of a blog"? Is it the essential idea of all blogs or just some platonic perfect way bloggy blog?

And what does "of all people" mean?

I think there are interesting questions that are all jammed together in this discussion. Might there be very different answers to each of the following:

1) Would the purpose of advancing and elevating the overall conversation about graphic design be promoted if everyone posting to Design Observer chose to use recognizable and identifiable names?

2) Would that purpose be promoted if the site enforced such a practice?

3) Would our general civil discourse be promoted if such a policy were common on sites and instances where there is no apparent reason for anonymity (such as a direct and reasonable belief in a semi-specific threat)?

4) Do the owners of Design Observer have the right to attempt such a policy?

5) Would that be an ethical decision?

6) Would that be a wise decision?

I tend toward yes on 1-5 and have serious doubts about 6.

I am certain that 4 is a yes but wouldn't be comfortable saying yes to 5 without hearing some discussion. Since no enforcement is implied in 1 and that would allow people to define recognizable and identifiable for themselves, I suppose I would say yes to it. I'd say yes to 3 (it works as a principle) but am less certain when it becomes specific, leaving me somewhat doubtful about 2.

Sorry, Mark. It's my damned Age of Reason dreams kicking in again. I'll try to sleep them off.

Gunnar Swanson

Just saw this article from NY Times. Intersting, no? Not the same as getting imprisoned, or assasinated, but there are apparent consequenses even here in the States to full disclosure.

Joe Moran

Interesting perspective. Now, here's a question: Is the blog's raison d'être accountability or accessibility? On my spectrum of sins against accountability, avatars register far from many other offenders (corporations and governments, I'm looking at you.) In fact, online personas and pseudonyms have allowed for the development of safe and comforting communities for anonymous individuals who previously languished in isolation and fear. It's important to remember that those with lives "in peril by a repressive government" include more than one might assume, including many who perceive such a threat. A design blog is probably perceived a more neutral environment than, say, an online community devoted to closeted African-American men. But what is lost from allowing blogs to serve as bastions of completely accessible participation?
Erika Tarte

The thing that remains open for me is that I'm still not entirely sure this was ever quite about names, real or not.

Would the purpose of advancing and elevating the overall conversation about graphic design be promoted if everyone posting to Design Observer chose to use recognizable and identifiable names?

Inherently? No. Does it help, as a general rule? Probably to yes, so overall I agree with your line of thinking down the questions, though I think the reverse observation could also be made that the consistent people are providing better conversation in the first place.
But what's more important about this question isn't its response but the fact that it's been happening the entire time, anyway. When putting together systems for clients, I generally identify three classes of commenters(definitions adjusted for this specific discussion):

  1. The overwhelming majority of comments here(and pretty much any other site) are made by people who do use consistent and identifiable(ignoring the question of "real") names. This doesn't stop them from flinging the occasional ad hominem if the right fight comes up.

  2. Next, let's omit trolls from the discussion wholesale. These people are out specifically to cause problems, and asking them for any information, even verifiable, will not deter them and will likely just amuse them because they're only going to lie precisely enough to circumvent the roadblocks. Trolls cannot be stopped; this is an age-old fact of Interweb life; in fact, the most effective way to deal with them is to ignore them[1]. Not their existence, mind, just not to respond.

  3. Next, we have the one-off commenter, and those who wander in via Digg or somesuch, who may or may not upgrade themselves to group 1[2]. Digg users are the seagulls of the web, and the general uselessness of Digg traffic has been exhaustively documented, with graphs, even. Also, the one-off commenter will not be coming back, so who cares what they call themselves?

...because this is about accountability(by way of identity[which is a different thing from a name]).
Something our first group of users already has, and doesn't even apply to the other two.
The application of this involves accounts in some form, rather than what is essentially the honor system as now. I have the growing suspicion that what's actually being requested here is some at least rudimentary authentication. If this site simply allowed people to authenticate, either with Typekey, OpenID[3] or whatever, I think most concerns above could be taken care of. There will still be holes, of course[4], but fewer of them. From there, unauthenticated comments or those missing particular bits of identifying information could be held for review while fully-authenticated or trusted users would pass straight through. Or the various classes of users could even receive different formatting/coloring to indicate their general status for easy scanning. Authentication would ideally be optional, but there's always the possibility of requiring it, which locks things down some more, though never absolutely. But the implementation details are arbitrary; the underlying problem which needs addressing is that beyond readers' memories of monikers, the comments here make no functional or even perceptual distinction between say, the original post author, me logged in with a verifiable identify provider, and some random troll who crashes the party.

[1] "Don't feed the troll."
[2] If they do decide to stick around, then they will likely settle into a name and provide you with contact information. Trust goes both ways.
[3] You all probably already have several OpenID options, even if you don't know it.
[4] Beware Edwards' Law: You cannot apply a technological solution to a sociological problem.

To my way of thinking, the apprehensive man or woman that hides behind a nom de guerre may have something important or interesting to tell us. Some people simply don't speak up because common sense is too often ignored or even mistreated in (by) our line-towing media.

It's very common these days to accuse or ridicule a person who does not exercise self-censorship about some social dogma or criticizes the wrong group of lobbyists. Desire for anonymity, regrettably, is a demon nourished by our uncaring, increasingly uneducated and vicious masses.

While you're watching ball games and drinking beer, you're also told what your opinion should be so you can fit the mold better. Well, instead of so much repetition, I want to hear other voices and outlandish views, even if they're anonymous. I expect to benefit by learning something since there's so much hidden from me.

I don't believe that everyone who attended the Boston tea party gave his or her name.


Well, I think "Jack" (post just before this) begins to touch on something important, that those who use anonymity might just have something important to say. And to be specific, if anyone is still reading this: the problem with design criticism, per se,is how conflicted most of the people who write it are. It's as if only artists wrote art criticism, with no historians or newspaper critics or people next door to voice their opinions. Let's face it, we can count the good voices about design who aren't designers on two hands. And so that means that professional relationships are always getting in the way of honest opinion, assessment, criticism, etc., etc including Stven Heller, whose work has always been flawed by being too close or too involved with so many of his subjects, regardless if he is now Mr. Academia. It isn't anonymity that is holding back quality on DO (or Speak Up, or any other forum, digital or print) it's the issue that the design world is just too small - still - to really build an independent critical world. Steven Heller's idea that we have to keep the riff-raff out is pretty funny: I say, let's keep out the fake claims to authority (and numbers of books "written" doesn't count!). The world of graphic design writing as we know it is so shoddy (witness the recent drubbing of "The New History of Graphic Design" in this very blog, a textbook that can't be bothered with footnotes) one wonders if it matters at all if writers identify themselves anyway? The chances of their words actually ever being cited are so small that they hardly can be blamed for holding up scholarship in favor of being able to voice opinions with some degree of freedom from the inevitable conflicts of interest that plague design writing overall.

Ideas, once cast, live independently of their source, however generated. Ideas distinguish our species. Consider a type of forum founded upon the simple fostering and nurturing of ideas; ideas "becoming", independently of their originators, being debated, adjusted, refined and tested. Once cast into the ether, attachments of origin become extraneous, even burdensome to their essence. Ideas are the precious proof of our being.
One such idea is anonymity, time honored and tested. Given such a wide and sturdy historical base, one is left to speculate as to the motives of any challenge to that concept, particularly one cloaked in the smarmy, offensive, and thug-like insinuation of cowardice.
I engage a number of sites which encourage the swapping of solutions or ideas pertaining to a variety of problems and issues arising in my field of architecture, and I have enjoyed numerous examples of such generous sharing; I would be hard pressed to cite the names of any of the contributors, and I use my own pseudonym since the spirit of the sites is sharing ideas. ( Mr. Swanson: Do you mean to infer that an idea becomes somehow less pure, or qualitatively less of what it is, or in any other way diminished, simply because its author is unknown...really? Or that a blog is NOT about the exchange of ideas? Do we really have to start that far down the chain? Is your mock incredulity supposed to convince me of something?...turn the tide?...illuminate the discussion?)
In my judgment, it is in the nature of a Blog to be anonymous, as so many contributors have so well articulated. It borders on folly to believe that a name lends credibility to a thought, even if one could rely upon the accuracy of the former. But beyond that, the blog format offers an opportunity for the least encumbered expression of one's ideas, albeit some better left unexpressed. It offers, for those who would otherwise feel intimidated or threatened or unworthy, an equal opportunity on a level playing field to become a hero or a fool. But more, it offers a voice to those for whom anonymity is critical or desirable, for reasons outside my jurisdiction to judge...and yours Mr. Heller. But yet, still more. The blog format offers the natural habitat for ideas, pure, simple statements...almost sterile in the sense of freedom from prejudice, bias, and undue influence that would otherwise alter any idea cast into it; all in an environment of immediacy such as one might find in a classroom or soapbox. It seems up to us to realize and protect such a phenomenon.
It occurs to me that one might argue that our ability to create ideas is wasted on such an egotistical and vindictive species as ours. It seems the height of naiveté to suggest that no repercussions exist in this society for those who would express their thoughts freely, and no less so to expect this post's readers to accept the premise that the issue of bravery and not some other agenda is at work here regarding the argument of anonymity. Ideas rightfully belong to the celebration of one's humanity, even if they are bad ideas such as Heller expresses in this post. (This must be the internet's "Sweep's Week")
Whatever the truth behind the motivation of this post, I would like to spend my two cents towards the protection and furtherance of anonymity.

i think it fascinating that a DO post about personal identity yields the highest number of posts i've ever seen on DO.

"enough about you, let's talk about me."

Just to put another angle on this whole topic, I would like to point out that old-school media, like newspapers and magazines, seem to put quite a lot of trust and faith in "undisclosed" sources for providing important information. And does The Economist have less credibility because they don't refer to their authors? I think not.

I also wonder if Steven Heller's desire for using real names comes from the academic standard of footnotes and bibliography. And yes, this does smack of a certain amount of elitism. Does a person's name give value to a comment/observation? Or does the actual content, with insightful observation or indepth knowledge, deserve our respect? My vote is for the latter. A posting that has deep meaning--with perhaps a few links for further exploration--is exponentially more valuable to me than whether or not people are using their actual names.

Ironically, this very blog thread is proof that a reasonably articulate dialog can indeed be had without having all participants use their real names. And it seems pretty darn obvious by this passionate discourse that everyone involved here would ardently stand by their comments. So the outcome disproves the proposition.

And finally, yes, I am using the name Steven as my nom de blog because that's what I have historically used in the past (on SpeakUp). Besides, Steven is my real first name. If someone else was already using that name, I would probably use some other variation.

Someone who defends that 'small' injustices like being fired or harassed by your boss over opinion expressed on the net or on the press are entirely different from the threat of death in distant countries is an idiot. Such a reasoning, only serves to ignore the politics and injustices of your surroundings in favour of distant, easily recognizable, romanticized injustices.

My own country endured a fifty year long dictatorship where very few people were actually killed or even arrested, but my country was (and is) in many ways a broken one. We learned that oppression rarely anounces itself with appropriate signs like jackboots, or convenient easily recognizable swastika-like logos. Our dictator was an humble economist that never got rich. Oddly enough, he was not into dictatorship for personal gain. Absurd, but true. Oppression was a day-to-day routine thing. Someone denounces you and you are fired. You are blacklisted. Even your friends and family are affraid to help you. Sometimes you can get a shitty, scantily paid job under an alias, but unemployment is a rule. If you write or talk to loudly about labour conditions you are arrested, sometimes tortures, deported or killed.

Sometimes I read in English or American textbooks that my country's dictatorship was easy going and incompetent, and it is an insult. Have we had concentration camps, gulags, stormtroopers, would we be taken more seriously? Would Steven Spielberg make a movie about us? Even now, in a democracy, years after it ended, people over here tend to be careful about speaking their minds about anything. We know oppression comes in small doses. At the bus stop it is frequent to hear old people complaining that in the 'old days' (in the dictatorship days) there was more 'respect', that young people were more 'polite'. It just chills me.

An injustice is an injustice is an injustice. If someone - and designers often do that - care more about 'interesting', distant injustices over run-of-the-mill, quotidiane injustices, they are just plain stupid.

It's this kind of prejudice that allows design to be an apolitical, superficial, neutral job (Designers are always well paid, have safe jobs, can voice their opinions freely, are not harassed by their bosses, co-workers or government.) People tend to think a factory worker is a better simbol for precarious, unfair labour but designers are often little more than underpaid, overworked office clerks.

Pardon my rant, please continue to finely distinguish between real intolerable injustice and middle class injustice, week day injustice, sunday injustice, machine gun injustice, paperclip injustice. Or grow up.
Sem Nome

I run a large community of women fighting against breast cancer (see it at www.essentielles.net.

In 99% of the cases, it is crucial for our members to only exist under a pseudonym. Here are a few reasons why :

- most of the time they want to keep their name secret so their employer (or even family) can't discover they have cancer (some have been fired for this)

- some are discussing about family issues induced by cancer : libido, self-esteem problems, problems inside their couple, problems with the kids who react badly, etc.

- most of them chose a nickname that really conveys something important to them at this moment : either a state of mind ("hope", "crab fighter", etc), or a symbol (like the gingko tree who is the only one who survived the nuclear radiation at hiroshima).

I must say that we also have regular physical meetings all around France, and though people during this gatherings get to know each other's real names, they continue in the real life to use their nicknames :)
Karine Sabatier

Mr. Heller:

You deserve credit for touching a nerve more than anything else. I've seen comments by longtooth, Sem Nome and others here that rival —that are better in fact— than the editorial pages of many newspapers in our country by virtue of coming from the gut.

I am not a designer but an admirer of creativity. May I suggest that, every now and then, you find inspiration in the works of Michelangelo? And when you bring a dream of God out of a piece of marble—in your case to a computer screen—please do not remain anonymous.

Mr. Nome:

I do not and have not defended small injustices. I have stated that I find some hyperbolic comparisons repugnant. Metaphors work both ways. Analogies are, to some extent, commutative.


Su's analysis is clear and convincing. (Thanks, Su.) It also tends to refute the notion of free-floating ideas without social context.

Ideas, once cast, live independently of their source, however generated

Yes. But they do not live independently of human beings and their speakers.

Why is anonymity a free-floating idea where challenging its use is ad hominem nonsense but speculation "as to the motives of any challenge to that concept" is legitimate?

I have passing familiarity with a variety of media studies approaches and declarations about "the nature of a Blog" without any explanation is problematic, to say the least.

As to the "an equal opportunity on a level playing field to become a hero or a fool," I also have some familiarity with heroism and foolishness. It seems hyperbolic (or foolish) to seek the former on Design Observer. To the extent that "hero" is legitimate for anything that goes on here, it seems that anonymity might erode the opportunity. I suppose that anonymity doesn't reduce the chance for foolishness but I wonder what it does to becoming a fool.

Steve's charges of cowardice are interesting. As I've indicated before, I think they were misplaced. I am interested in your notion of being a "hero" without even the mild social risk of appearing to be a fool. How does that work?

Plakaboy's point about the incestuous world of graphic design and graphic design criticism is well taken. I imagine that there might be circumstances where anonymity might add an illusion of distance but I wonder how it really improves the situation much.

I would note that the illusion of social distance at least seems to promote snide characterizations ("Mr. Academia"), silly dismissals ("just an elitist, oligarchic person"), and irresponsible charges ("fascist") but perhaps that's just an illusion based on my predisposition. After all, Dave Barnes used his own name for a hyperbolic reference to the Gestapo.

Do you mean to infer that an idea becomes somehow less pure, or qualitatively less of what it is, or in any other way diminished, simply because its author is unknown...really?

I've made no claims about purity of ideas nor do I have inclination to do so. I suspect that there are some forums for ideas in the manner that you have implied. I also suspect that Design Observer is not one of them. As much as it attempts a high level of thought, it seems to me to be grounded in the practicalities of graphic design. When a statement is made about, say, graphic design criticism, isn't it reasonable to infer something from it's having been made by someone with specific expertise or, as Plakaboy points out, a dog in the fight?

Or that a blog is NOT about the exchange of ideas?

Sorry for being a dumb pragmatist, but I think that different blogs have different intended purposes. The very definition of a blog (semi-public diary, collection current of links, conversation based on short comments, responses to essays. . .) has been fluid enough that I cannot accept essentialist declarations about the nature of "the blog."

So, "a" blog (with the indefinite article)? Huh? Design Observer is about the exchange of ideas on a particular range of subjects.

Is your mock incredulity supposed to convince me of something?

I have enough actual incredulity to go around.

I still wonder what does "of all people" mean?



Gunnar Swanson

Again, nobody who posts here is 'anonymous,' we all have to sign a name. The anonymous/identifiable binary is a false dichotomy.

It is not an either/or proposition; it is about how much the audience can learn from the form of identification the speaker takes. Can you find out my qualifications? My institutional and corporate affiliations? My other blog(s)? My other handles? My friends, my address, my ethnicity, gender, class? All these may shape your interpretation of my words - how much of myself do you have a claim to? Why and when is it your choice and not mine?

When a statement is made about, say, graphic design criticism, isn't it reasonable to infer something from it's having been made by someone with specific expertise or, as Plakaboy points out, a dog in the fight?

Well, it is reasonable to think that people will infer something, rightly or wrongly. As I said before, there are benefits and risks to each revelation of the parts of one's identity.

D.O. allows submitters to decide for themselves how much they wish to reveal; how much they will rely on their credentials; how they employ their reputation and extra-discursive roles. I say it is precisely because of this, not in spite of it, that this blog is a dynamic and open space for discussion. That dynamism of discourse carries risks and dangers, maybe large or small, but I think D.O. has handled them nobly and is worthwhile for it.

The claim that things on this blog would be better if we were collared with a 'real-world' identity remains unproven, despite its continual assertion. Petitio principii.

Steven's comments are worth reposting:
Ironically, this very blog thread is proof that a reasonably articulate dialog can indeed be had without having all participants use their real names. And it seems pretty darn obvious by this passionate discourse that everyone involved here would ardently stand by their comments. So the outcome disproves the proposition.

Mr Swanson:

Without wishing to make this ad hominem, I nevertheless feel I need to refute your suggestion that I am belittling the plight of a putative Chinese political prisoner by saying I can't draw so distinct a line between myself and that person. Sem Nome illustrates my original point perfectly a few posts back. New ubiquitous technology, the world of "everyware", throws up very real philosophical issues regarding where our private and public worlds meet and should be assumed to meet, ones which I'd argue are already more pertinent than we commonly think and are only likely to grow in importance. The future is very much unwritten, and we do better to try and understand emerging dangers and form realistic perspectives on them rather than to try and imagine we some in some kind of utopia because we don't live in a surveillance state in the 20th century mould. Don't suggest I belittle the suffering of Chinese dissidents, and please don't patronise by trying to write off my concerns as "middle-class" and asking me to grow up. Bringing up any specific situation was just a way of illustrating a wider point, that we should be allowed control over how widely our identities permeate, for very varied reasons.

As for the assertion that anonymity should be a "basic human right" - I wasn't speaking in a strictly legalistic context! I'd say it was certainly a worthwhile principle. It's notable that a number of rulings in the US have suggested that the chance of anonymity is a vital component of First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. It's also notable that most would consider it a terrible incursion if voting in general elections was made non-anonymous. Why do you suppose this should be? Would you suggest that voters should be made accountable for so vital a civic action?
Douglas Greenshields

I suspect there exists a deeper issue, haunting the rhetoric of this post. There is a vague sense of freedom abridged; a bit like signing a loyalty oath.

On one side, arguments support required full disclosure i.e. a comment may only be made by a verifiable (traceable) identity. On the other, arguments defend the status quo of comments made under elective anonymity. Clearly both sides have articulate supporters making legitimate points. Finally, one asks "what is the cost to those who may or may not agree with an anonymous comment?", ...particularly in light of Karine Sabatier's comment.

I'm left with an unsettling feeling that there is more here than meets the eye, all the more so when the legitimacy of such feeling and its attendant speculation are inferred to be illogical.

Until Heller et al can demonstrate equal potential for real damage due to anonymity, all the fine thoughts and high-mindedness can "go fish".

Back at ya,

While you're at it, could you make the site prettier? Isn't that what you do?
David Smith

To David "While you're at it, could you make the site prettier? Isn't that what you do?" Smith.

You're way off the subject, and by the way We Don't Do Pretty. Serious designers like Bierut, Drenttel and Helfand are in the business of solving problems and design is their chosen outlet to do this. The Design Observer site is a tool, a connector and forum for commentary, discussion and promotion. Try observing the site as a whole: communication, system, aesthetics. Making it "pretty" would counteract the overall solution.
Don't block the blessing, this site works!

Design is so simple, it's complex. -- Paul Rand
Darlene Watkins

internet - to me - is an impulse medium.

do i want to have all my every blablabla at everybody's google fingertip disposal? - clearly not!

i do though have a practice of letting the author or editor of a site i am commenting on know my real identity and full name.

have a splendid 2008! - and keep your google record clean guys! - otherwise you might be in need of a permanent second identity for online and off-line interaction much sooner than you might wish for!

after reading some of the comments:

i think everybody in the design world knows how vulnerable one can be when work (writing, scribbles, sketches etc.) are taken out of context.

a good part of my job as design manager is to protect the work (and personality) of the designers i work with against client misinterpretation and short cut judgements in the design process.

now: who protects me if year old statements i make on the net are taken out off context... - out off a context that cannot be reconstructed even by a good-natured reader because time and culture changes fast and the micro-historical information about the very day i posted this may not be available any more?

do we really think everything we do is so good that it can stand all tests of time in full integrity defying all interpretation or misinterpretation?

watch it, i say! - there is nobody out there to protect you. - you have to do this yourself.

Apparently - this argument has made the rounds on various internet blogs for a long time. A techie friend of mine suggests that if the objective of requiring a full name to represent the identity of a poster is to promote a sense of ownership and responsibility for the posts - that this is never going to happen and is really off-topic from the desired result.

This isn't or should be an identity issue - but rather - a quality issue.

So - a simple peer evaluation will work to eradicate the morons from diluting the topic and mucking with things. Craigslist is the best example of how this works. Anyone can post at any time under any name. If people are dishonest (publishing ads or whacko stuff) then other people flag the offender and it is eliminated. This way - no one has to moderate and no one has to fear Big Brother. Wiki's are all the same way too. Once a post has been flagged by a certain number of people it's gone. We can (and possibly should) do this here. Also - settings can be implemented for sorting comments like on Slashdot. You can put in your favorite handles and have all of their comments filter through as well as people using "full names" if you so desire. Individuals can then dictate their own rules for better enjoyment.

I think my friend was right when he identified the identity issue and the quality issue as separate.

In the name of the father is now name your own adventure (wink).
Jessica Gladstone

i think it fascinating that a DO post about personal identity yields the highest number of posts i've ever seen on DO.

I do too, and I think it's because authorship is such a crutch in design discourse; so many designers/critics can easily look like complete asses if they don't know whose opinions or work they are looking at. Which is one of the reasons designers can be such pompous bags of wind.

Steven: I've already addressed this ( http://www.architectmagazine.com/industry-news-print.asp?sectionID=1006&articleID=566882) issue, and I spoke about it at Postopolis ( http://www.storefrontnews.org/exhib_dete.php?exID=5). I always include my email address, and URL as your form requests, and, to my knowledge people do not appropriate my handle (though comment spoofing could happen as easily using a 'real' name) on other sites. I don't see how a consistent critical position could be considered cowardly and the use of cute, is well, just trashy journalism.

You were free to contact me at any time when writing this to ask if there was a considered reason for my "branding". Instead, you take the cowardly approach of standing tall over this discussion and force me to stuff a riposte at the bottom, where likely few are to see it.

If you are interested in a more lengthy response in the form of an post, I'd be happy to do so. There are several issues at hand: the role of anonymity and/or appropriated identities (a rich and storied element of the creation of art since the time of Cain and Abel), the fact that even in this advanced age of 'connectedness', it is difficult to create a consistent repository of one's thinking (I do not sign posts on my blog, and the name itself barely registers on the site visually -- when I comment on DO, I can link back to my site, but lacking a cue in text, I want to aid readers who might be familiar with my writing), and the fact that there is ample precedent for my stance, since some of the best journalism in the world is printed without attribution (in The Economist).
miss representation

This campfire talk has taught me 3 things:

1: Tenure was invented to avoid "putting a small dent in one's middle class future."

2: One should take Sumner Stone's advice and say little.

3: One should create a fresh nom de blog with every posting.
Peyote Pal

Miss Representation, thanks for your response. And thanks for the links.

I noticed that you did NOT link back to your site when you left your comment on my earlier post about the travails of Criticism (http://www.designobserver.com/archives/030721.html#44), nor on a few others that I tried, so in fact, I couldn't contact you.

My point is that a real Name (and by extension a credential) does help the reader understand (and appreciate) a post or comment. Which isn't to say that these should be restricted to people with credentials (anyone is free to post or comment or throw bombs, just own up to the fact in a way that is forthright).

I've made the point already, whether you agree or not, so its redundant to repeat what i've said. But I will emphasize while there are various kinds of faux "personalities" created on the web, I believe there should be total disclosure when relevant to the commentaries at hand. In other words, a pseudonym, even by those who have very visible presences on the web, is still a pseudonym - with emphasis on the pseudo.

This does not mean that the rigor of the comment or post is bad or good, for that matter, it just means that it is more honest to be up front, especially when the posts or comments are engaging in criticism. And if "Miss Representation offers some of the web's most biting architectural commentary" then take REAL ownership. This could be anyone: "the blogger studied architecture at the Savannah College of Art and Design and worked as a junior architect at a Savannah firm" (at least in Savannah).

BTW, most of the best journalism in the world is indeed attributed. The trashy journalism (i.e. the gossip columnists) use faux names. With very few exceptions (and yes there are exceptions) it is important in a free society for the members of the press to be open to the scrutiny of the public. How can anyone uphold a public trust if they are not accountable to that trust.
steven heller


Haha, when I started reading the comments, the first thought I had was "I wonder if anyone figured out who Jessica Simpleton was?"

Andy Malhan

So, someone's "real" name is more of a credential than his/her title/handle/screen name/blog name?

After reading all of these comments, and re-reading the original post, all I can think of is "who cares?" Who in the world is accountable for anything anymore? Does their real name have anything to do with it? Even a person whose every breath is recorded, such as, say, the leader of a country, can just blatantly deny recorded fact, and most seem to just run with it.

If someone wants to comment on something you've written, positive or negative, pointed or pointless, you should be happy that you've written something that evokes any response, instead of trying to figure out just WHO it was*.

*Answer: Rumplestiltskin

The design observers that make a difference and gain our trust are not the ones with the most credentials, the most awards or those that put their name on the line. The people that make a difference in our lives are those that write about ideas and help us see the world in a new way. They are our teachers.
Carl W. Smith

One observation I'd like to make is that Design Observer has eleven editors and contributing writers, none of whom choose to use a pseudonym. We've had close to 30 guest observers, all who have published under their real names. We have never confronted a writer who wanted to use a pseudonym, but as one voice in this site's mix, I would vote against it. I'm not against Miss Representation (or many other examples of thoughtful participants) posting our on site because I know something of them through their writings. I read their comments as coming from a person, and I don't mind not knowing where they live, or their gender, or their political affiliation. But, if I'm honest, I also do not lend the same credibility to their writings that I attach to Tom Vanderbilt or Lorraine Wild, or other named commenters, precisely because the latter are willing to put a name to their writings and comments. This doesn't negate the validity or intelligence of contributions of people who write under pseudonyms, but it does raise issues of credibility and responsibility, or at least degrees of these.

In this precise context, I have a direct question for Miss Representation. In my post about Rem Koolhaas last April, you mounted a spirited attack on me as being will-suited to criticize Koolhaas given my own environmental record. You questioned my days in Italy launching Pampers in about 1980 and questioned the R-value of Winterhouse; because I publish under my own name, my resume is public, and my home has been published. As stated in that post, I did not think these things relevant to a legitimate critical response to a piece of architecture in 2007. Your critique, and my response, are now a part of the public record here on Design Observer.

Here's my question: How do you feel about raising such personal issues about another writer, based on their name being public, when you yourself do not make your life accessible beyond your writings? Isn't this a double standard?
William Drenttel

[Apologies in advance for length -- and the rambling — for better for worse, it's my style]

The issue of personal information is crucial, certainly. For anyone who watched the last episode of Extras (and I encourage you all to do so), the culpability we all face when trying to promote ourselves becomes more vexing when so much information is readily available to tear us down (justified of not). I recognize that creating effective visuals to educate people about the environment is not the same as trying to get on Big Brother, but we are compelled (if we find humanism has a moral requirement to try and change others) to try inject our beliefs into a larger system that operates with differing set of values (I'm trying real hard not to say 'dominant paradigm' here).

The challenges this creates predates the Internet, so there will always be incidental blowback, and we will often ape the worst elements arising in the majority media, intentional or not [The best example of this in our little world was Lockhart Steele's (of Curbed) decision to launch The Gutter, an unoriginal idea (The Architect's Newspaper had an architecture gossip column for months before) pitched proactively by someone considered to be one of the better architecture journalists in this city. I don't know if it helps or hinders my argument that s/he was always anonymous, but it certainly shows how quickly we can debase our ideals for page views].

I could take the stance that in given our highly individuated economy, and the unfortunate tendency of internet activists to wear a poor constructed hair shirt of libertarianism, I am doing a better job of gaming the system — I understood early on that managing personal information in the face of a relentless data monster was going to be serious issue, and planned accordingly. That is now part of my current consideration, but the genesis of anonymity is a more complex issue borne out of a lot of varying academic interests in post-modernism and the politics and economy of fame.

I would consider it a fair and honest use of my writings (at Miss Representation) if someone took them and repeated them whole cloth in a venue where change might be effected (a zoning review, for instance). If the argument has value, it stands without the imprimatur of my name. But if my argument gets greater hearing because it is attributed to Steven Heller (or Rem Koolhass, etc.), then I have an issue with that. Pragmatically I know this to be true, but it's a theoretical position I continue to rail against (we all need our windmills). Thus I continue to toil in obscurity — a problematic stance because as I become better known under this identity, I run the risk of becoming what I current decry. Hopefully it's a problem I can deal with in a manner consistent with my critical stance.

The inclusion of personal information in the specific instance above felt appropriate because Winterhouse is publicized as both a designed item, and part of a business promotion, with parallels to how architects promote their work and that of their commercial clients (inherent in monograph creation — the Prada store, in Rem's case). As a former designer, watching compromises be made for various reasons (comfort, budget, expediency), there certainly isn't a scale correlation between Winterhouse and CCTV, but since much of Bill Drenttel's work includes an implied moral stance about conservation/environmental economy (which I ardently support), I wanted to know how he dealt with those compromises first hand. It's much harder when it is your neck (or checkbook) is on the block, and felt it was nominally germane.

And it was also a cheap shot. Comments do that to you (see 'the worst elements' above). I get a little sour when I feel like I'm being preached to by an older generation that often times seems to be coasting a bit, while I watch all my ideals get eroded at a faster pace and greater cost, with little apparent sympathy or opportunity for a younger generation that perhaps held those selfsame ideals from the get go. I've never met Bill Drenttel, so my comment was intellectually weak because there is a component of judgment based on flat out trust, which I did not have, and therefore I assumed the worst with no rationale. But even as I was aware that it was a bit of a cheap shot, it was all nominally public information. I've never exposed a confidence online of personal information, even at times where I thought it was morally defensible.

I do think you should be held accountable for your words and present honest information when it is relevant (I've posted my personal income information in comment threads before). I am intentionally careful about connecting the dots. We raced by the theoretical and practical challenges presented by Google. I don't know that the bruising exchanges that occur in comments threads should be so widely indexed. We are working out ideas and issues, and none of us need to have every word we've spoken or written thrown back at us when there's no justification (which Bill accuses me of above, and it's a reasonable point). I don't offer ads, nor glean income from the Internet, so I don't think that I've chosen badly to trade information for ad revenue. Instead, I've managed it best I can, and will answer direct questions about my background or current situation as it pertains to the critical positions I take (for instance, I admit openly on my blog that I own a car in Manhattan, even though I've said often I think private cars should be banned, and congestion pricing instituted). If you see me being intellectually dishonest, please challenge me. But if you see me smoking a joint, mind your own beeswax.
miss representation

Miss Representation. Thank you for a thoughtful and expansive answer to my question. We will all continue to struggle with private versus public identities, and accountability versus privacy issues. With over 40 writers writing under their real names, with real email addresses and URLs, I'm not sure I'm persuaded that "post-modernism and the politics and economy of fame" are a basis for operating under a pseudonym. But this post and the many comments here have exposed the complexity of this issue. In any event, I appreciate a direct and forthright answer to my question.
William Drenttel

let's make a law that bans you from using screen names ... in cooperation with google that brings up every single word you write on the internet

As the discussion continues, I see a mantra of 'honesty, accountability, responsibility, ownership' with very little substance as to (1) what it entails and (2) why some people feel it is so necessary. When pressed, those defending it repeat that you need to take responsibility because in the context of critique it is the moral thing to do (which is simply a tautology; that the responsible thing to do is to be responsible).

No one has told me how much of my personal life/information they need to know to satisfy their demands for 'honesty.' When will you know that I've taken 'REAL ownership?' This is not a rhetorical question, I am genuinely curious.

Miss Representation's recent post was certainly worthwhile, but from other voices, I still have no idea why the burden of proof is on those who use pseudonyms. I believe the burden of proof is on those who demand of others to fess up and reveal a mess of personal information for vague reasons (sorry, I should say 'own up and take responsibility').

Maybe if I used a 'real name' someone would take these questions seriously.
Still Ralphy

I'm having doubts about this being a "intellectually honest" discussion in the first place. If Steven et al. only accept signed comments as the truth, everybody who disagrees with them would have to sign their comments to be taken seriously, thus contradicting himself or herself. Is this just a "rhetorical" discussion?

In the end, this all amounts to putting something valuable (your life) on the line for the sake of having an opinion (a bit like a membership fee).

But didn't someone say opinion should be free?

In the comments above, there is some confusion between statements about verifiable data or research ("Public transportation pollutes less than an individual vehicle") and opinions, beliefs or expectations about the future ("I think everybody should use public transportation"). If our expectations were to be compared in equal terms with our present condition everyone would be a liar. ("You should never accuse anyone who is trying to improve of incoherence.")

Also, the reason why attacking a person instead of his or hers arguments is a fallacy has to do with pertinent data. On one hand, is someone's private life, bank account, criminal record or past statements pertinent to the discussion? Or is it just dispersion? On the other hand, even statements we belief are true about our own personal life would be considered scientifically or logically biased ("Every designer I know votes democrat; therefore all the designers are democrats").

European Intern

Still Ralphy - I find it hard to believe the concept of taking responsibility for things one writes, says, or does is so confounding. While I have learned that the web is a twilight zone of sorts for all kinds of parallel worlds and deeds, it is also the FUTURE of discourse and conversation - even scholarship and journalism.

If I am exchanging views, I want to know with whom I am exchanging them. YES, the intelligence of a view is not dependent on a name, but knowing the context (indeed knowing the source is). And its not about elitism as some suggest. Its about knowing who the conversation or debate is with.

Someone implied that my rationale is based on the scholarly notion of footnotes. Brilliant! I hadn't thought of that, but, in fact, footnotes allow a reader (or scholar) to trace a statement of fact (or fiction). Our collective knowledge is based on building blocks of understanding (and insight), knowing from where an original idea derived is integral to the development of knowledge.

Now, someone else said that there are posts and there are comments: There are articles/essays and responses (that presumably are more impulsive). I agree that much of the dialogue (and too often monologue) is impulsive and presumably not worth of "indexing," but in a forum that is transcribed, as this is, then every word should be accounted for. Someone said or wrote them, its only fair that everyone knows who that person is.

Obviously for many here doing this under a pseudonym is not an issue. Graffiti artists do it, so why not bloggers? And honestly I'm not advocating for laws, but I am suggesting consensus.

As Bill Drenttel mentioned, not one DO editor or contributor or guest observer has ever asked (or demanded) to write under a pseudonym (and yes, everyone uses their real names). Even Nick Currie, who uses the stage name MOMUS, writes under his real name. This was not even a choice, it was natural to do so. Maybe its because almost all the contributors have come out of print, or maybe its the sense that if they are going to say something good, bad, or stupid they should "be responsible" to the audience and themselves.

I am not calling for everyone to bare their life's secrets. How much information is too much? That depends. But at the very least, follow the model of most magazines, newspapers, TV shows, and even quite a few websites with contributors bios. At the very least don't hide behind a mask, unless you really think you're Zorro or the Lone Ranger.

Hey, even in a confessional the confessee knows, more or less, who is on the other side of the screen.
steven heller

There is also some confusion between professional journalism and blogging. In the first case people sign their names because if they are indeed more accountable for what they write, they also have more protection, legal and institutional. In the second case, bloggers are mostly on their own.
European Intern

Hi Steven, a very prompt response on your part!

I find it hard to believe the concept of taking responsibility for things one writes, says, or does is so confounding.

I know you do, as do many other people - which is why I've been trying to challenge the taken-for-grantedness/common-sense of it. Isn't that a worthwhile and common endeavour for designers?

If I am exchanging views, I want to know with whom I am exchanging them. YES, the intelligence of a view is not dependent on a name, but knowing the context (indeed knowing the source is).

But that returns to my question - when you say you want to know who they are, what exactly do you want to know? How does me knowing who you are help when I read D.O.? In what ways? Would it be the same if you were an elaborate, pseudonymous, internet persona, but consistent across blogs and events? (these are sort of rhetorical questions) At the end of one's life, if one revealed that the name they carried and acted under had always been a pseudonym, what would that change?

I concede the importance of context and the ability to trace ideas through footnotes, but I don't think D.O. is lacking in the citation of ideas, nor that the signing of post with a 'real name' is going to help that. But we've probably reached a stalemate at this point.

Re: the D.O. contributors not asking to write under a pseudonym:

This was not even a choice, it was natural to do so.

See! This 'naturalness' is what I want to question. Authorship as we conceive it is historically specific and a function of technology and social arrangements, not an eternal good. Authorship is a function of the technology and culture in which it occurs. Look at the rise of printed books, the notion of the oeuvre, the development of written ephemera, and more. Authorship is only possible and meaningful in a particular historical and social context.

Now, given the new technology and social arrangements manifested by blogs, it is a reasonable occassion to reflect on authorship and how we think it should work (as you have prompted), and perhaps old forms of authorship (from magazines, books, radio?) are not fully translatable into new media (blogs, e-mails, websites).

Maybe its because almost all the contributors have come out of print, or maybe its the sense that if they are going to say something good, bad, or stupid they should "be responsible" to the audience and themselves.

And I submit that you are right - it is a habit from other media - but thus not necessarily germane to new ones. This habit results in the idea that it is 'responsible,' but how so? Well, it allows others to take personal, perhaps legal*, action against you if you write something poorly or reward you if you do something well; it allows others to use your bio for or against you: are these a strong enough foundation for an ethic of authorship, and is such an ethic desirable? Can we have such an ethic without revealing 'true' identities, whatever they are? We come down on opposite sides of these questions, it seems.

[*thanks, European Intern]

Steven, I realize one thing that may be diminished through pseudonyms is an honest compliment. Nonetheless, sincerely, thank you for your patience and participation with this discussion, and your regular DO contributions.

Perhaps because I am not a designer I don't see the need for using a "real" name? And perhaps, because I, like several others, have a unique name, I realize that I am likely to be confronted in the future by whatever bears my "real" name?

If one is trying to tie their name to their work, the use of a real name may make perfect sense. However, there are some of us who do more from the sidelines, and from there a certain degree of protecting one's "official" name is just common sense.

Furthermore, I simply don't want the personal attention that comes with "taking responsibility," as defined here. I wish to contribute my thoughts, but I don't need or want credit for them. I value being able to speak without having an old acquaintance or a co-worker "look me up" or come across my name on a blog.

I keep a sharp divide between my professional and private life. I have many views and causes I believe in that I would never share with co-workers. This is not because I am ashamed of my views, but because I have encountered negative reactions in the past, I don't trust that people wouldn't confront me with something I wrote and they disliked or even misinterpreted, and I don't want discussions of my personal views to interfere with work.

As for taking responsibility for one's words/thoughts, I'm not sure that writing an incoherent and nasty diatribe signed with a "real" name is better than writing a well-reasoned and respectful passage signed by a "fake" name. The problem is not the "signature," the problem is the attitude that one can write/create whatever one wants with no regard as to how it will affect others, and squirm out of accountability with a smilie face, a "j/k," etc.

Although, perhaps by labeling myself a non-designer from the start, I have given you too much information, and you'll ignore me anyway. Such is the price of revealing too much too soon.

In addition to the Observed link Bill referenced in today's Times about this conversation, there is an interesting article in the Style section regarding online "image management."

debbie millman

The title of the post about this thread in the New York Times - "Transparency: The New Black?" - reminds us again that raising an issue as a designer is still a sure way of turning it into a shallow, superficial thing.

(Remember when, in the "Regrets Only" thread, someone wondered about who wanted to hear a designer talk about politics?)

Once again, an opinion should be valued independently of identities.
European Intern

I find it interesting that you have written this blog post, for I had the same idea of writing something similar yesterday (but I haven't yet because I was lazy).

I think that your claim is valid to an extent. Some folks prefer the use of a handle because their name is overly generic.

I am quite possibly one of the few people who use seeminglee as my handle in all my social networks (reference: SML Network).

The funny thing is, even though I use my real name as my handles on various networks and I use my real name when I comment on blog post, most who have met me only in the virtual space thinks that it's a handle because my name sounds like a very clever pseudonym.

Well it's real. I even have a blog post devoted to it: SML Pro Blog: See-ming 思明/ 2007 / SML Dictionary and it has a very poetic meaning in Chinese.

Funny thing is, now if you Google my first name: See-ming, you will find that I am as important as English word definition. This is something I'm proud of.

See-ming Lee

"Sometimes screen names are not about hiding behind a digital front, but rather a way of intentionally building mysterious (and possibly profitable) personas."

Quite possibly.

David Waterson
Drake Whalterson

late to the conversation but...

Accountability has nothing to do with a pseudonym. Is it any different than Samuel Clemens going by Mark Twain?

Anybody can click on my name and easily find out more about the real me. I am not hiding my responsibility. Quite the opposite actually.

I do it, because I find it professionally beneficial to build my agrayspace "brand" by using it as my pseudonym more so than using my real name. It is my right.

If you choose to ignore my contributions to the discussion because of this fact than I'd say that's your loss.

Great post. I think ______ Steven Heller was spot-on with most of his points. However I think this is a really tough topic as the changing times have given way to nearly infinite means to self-expression - in many cases requiring some sort of signature.

When a single being is presented with thousands of forums for expression, it can be a natural reaction to try and distinguish itself among others. Hence the alias/pseudonym/nickname/handle generation. The advent of internet communication, blogging, and online multiplayer video games, have given way to immensely populated communities....where a lot of Cory Smith's lost their namesake unless they went by FireBallz1980.

There is also a security issue. I know from growing up as a computer gaming nerd that the online alias is not only a way to convey your access to a thesaurus which can give you clever alternatives to words like godly (deific, pious, celestial; PiousHellLord, DeificPrince44), but it's also a way to ensure that some unwanted (and possibly creepy/dangerous) person won't show up at your door one day.

One particular example I want to share is with a game called ARC. I've played this game for about 8 years now, under the 'handle' Rhythm. As odd as it seems, I know almost everyone in the community by their alias'. I have even called out certain players who were 'smurfing' (playing under a fake name, in contrast to using an alias that I would recognize), and calling them cowardly.

In all, I DO think there is importance in a name, but I don't think that the 'name' you choose needs to be the one your parents selected to have printed out for you on a piece of ugly yellow paper when you were too young to understand the quality or pertinance of the thing.

I like the example of Dweezil Zappa, to emphasize the aforementioned point. The Zappas' first child had just popped out and Frank and his wife Gail ('real' name Adelaide) informed the nurse that they wanted it named Dweezil. The nurse pleaded with them to change their minds, and as Frank got fed up with the nurse's badgering while his wife was in immense pain, he spouted off some names to shut the nurse up. The names were Ian, Donald, Calvin, and Euclid. And so the child was born Ian Donald Calvin Euclid Zappa - but always called Dweezil. When Dweezil was 5 his 'real' names were revealed to him, and he demanded they go to court and change his name officially...which they did.

Perhaps one might argue that this judicial amelioration of a name makes it valid...be it Peter Gibbons or Fear Fountain Fire Christ. But personally I think that once you are known for a certain name, whether it's printed out or made-up, that is the ONLY name you need to remain behind in order to avoid the classification of callow.
Rowen Frazer

The simple and fundamental basis for this discussion is prejudice. For the readers that prefer to "put the content in context based on its author," perhaps Design Observer could move the "posted by" information to the top of the comment.

Now don't bother me with conversation. I have a day job.

I *never* post my real full name on any of the websites I frequent because I don't want to open myself up to stalkers, identity theft, etc. etc. Does that mean my comments are any less 'real'? No. I visit DO every once in a great while and don't recall ever posting here before. But there are two other websites (non design-related) where I post regularly and I use a (different) nickname there as well. I will give out my first name online, but specific details about where I live, work, grew up, names of co-workers or friends are off limits. I also Google my name every so often to ensure that there isn't much info about me online.
Purple Banana

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