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September 14, 2014

Turning and turning
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 11:33 AM * 145 comments

Via the Washington Post, I ran across a study entitled “How Community Feedback Shapes User Behavior” (pdf).

It’s fascinating reading. The authors use four sites that allow up- and downvotes on individual comments to analyze what effect being voted on has on commenters. There’s a lot of neat stuff in there about how they measured comment quality (to account for its role in the feedback that users receive), how they matched commenting populations, and how they determined what metric of voting pattern best captured the impact of different types of votes.

The conclusions are also interesting:

We find that negative feedback leads to significant changes in the author’s behavior, which are much more salient than the effects of positive feedback. These effects are detrimental to the community: authors of negatively evaluated content are encouraged to post more, and their future posts are also of lower quality. Moreover, these punished authors are more likely to later evaluate their fellow users negatively, percolating these undesired effects through the community

This came up in the context of Reddit and the photographs of celebrities, but it resonates with #GamerGate, the crap Anna Sarkeesian’s been getting, and the general stream of MRA nastiness that seems to be all over the internet these days. Because it’s not just relevant to how individual subreddits can turn into wretched hives of violent misogyny (or racism, or other deep wells of loathing for and contempt of one’s fellow humans). It’s also relevant to the internet as a whole.

More than one pundit has talked about how The Era of the Blog is Dead, not just because Twitter and Tumblr are faster and snappier, but because the model of conversation is changing. Comment-and-response cycles happen between blogs as well as within them. In many ways, it’s as useful to regard the entire internet as a set of shifting meta-communities, where the regulars from listservs, blogs and fora take the role that was traditionally occupied by individual commenters on a single site.

In that model, there are places online that are the equivalent of the private thoughts of an individual. More than once, I’ve watched groups of people gather on particular LiveJournals, blogs, and chatrooms to spin up their energy and hone their arguments, then go back to the “main” venues to continue the discussion. These side-channels act as adjuncts to the visible conversation, where people not actively participating can research claims, suggest arguments, and feed support and affirmation to those who are.

This is not, in itself, a good thing or a bad thing; it’s just how conversations work on the internet at the moment. I’ve participated in it, both unconsciously and knowingly, trying to move the “group mind” in the directions that I find best and most ethical.

But when you apply the study conclusions to the internet as a whole, you get exactly what we’re seeing now: communities like Reddit and 4chan are criticized (negative feedback), and begin to see themselves as persecuted. Their worst sides gain strength. The volume of negative output increases, and the gleeful nastiness drives out thoughtful, balanced conversation, even within the communities themselves.

I know of no rough beast whose hour has come at last to solve this. Not feeding the trolls—whether individual or collective—isn’t always practical, and the model that keeps communities like this sane (strong, human moderation) can’t work across multiple sites with no unified owner. Perhaps there is no solution, and all we can do is defend what we have for as long as we can. I do not know.

Comments on Turning and turning:
#1 ::: CN ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2014, 12:27 PM:

Anonymity. No courage required, as there would be in an in-person confrontation.

#2 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2014, 12:30 PM:

I do find myself wondering how much this behaviour is driven by American thinking habits, but then I see what is happening around Scottish independence at the moment. Just how much does the "free speech" meme come into this? You mention moderation, which is partly the idea that there is somebody who can tell you to shut up and make it stick, and how does that sit with free speech?

And Reddit has been described, quite recently, as a virtual failed government.

If the users are taught that freedom of speech is a good thing, how do they classify an attack (the downvote) on their speech? Are they somehow wired to fight back, and what does that do to operant conditioning? We're almost in Battle of Maldon territory here:

Hige sceal þē heardra, heorte þē cēnre,
mōd sceal þē māre, þē ūre mægen lytlað.

It's a misguided "Don't Give Up The Ship!", a sense that is is wrong to give up, and you must fight harder than ever.

It's also anothewr version of "Somebody is wrong on the Internet!"

I think it is plausible to argue that Skinner's operant conditioning is, for we humans, a load of over-simplified bollocks. If it works, why don't Douhet's theories work. Why is it that London did take it, and paid back with ample interest on the cities of Germany. And why didn't that bombing force Germany to collapse. That was a heck of a thumping big downvote.

It's all down to people not being alone. We decide, sometimes foolishly, that some things are worth striving for. It took us, from the roots in England, a long time for elections to start doing something good, but some seem to see "election" as a political abracadabra, a piece of magic that causes good government to spring from the brows of the Gods.

#3 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2014, 12:33 PM:

Anonymity has its own weaknesses, including but not limited to sockpuppetry, impersonation, and being the kind of dick that some people seem to be when they have no reputation to uphold. I've rarely seen good conversation last in truly anonymous contexts.

Pseudonymity is a better answer in some ways; people with consistent nyms/nicks have a reputation and a history, by which they can be evaluated for trustworthiness. It's a good compromise in some circumstances. But people who rely on it are subject to doxxing, and the blackmail that goes along with the possibility of doxxing.

#4 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2014, 01:09 PM:

There are three places I'd call communities where I post online with any regularity, when I'm counting only those where anyone can see and read. (I don't really feel Twitter is a community, because my feed isn't anyone else's, though it has nice little clusters of mutual conversation in places. Ditto for LJ. And invite-only MUSHes and the like aren't really the same.) All of them are characterized, in the broadest sense, by three aspects of feedback:

1) Active moderation. There is someone in charge watching what's going on, even if they're not constantly present, and a way of contacting them if they're not there right now.

2) Positive feedback. In two of these communities, there's a built-in way to say "Yay!" about a post with a click of the button. On the third, it's mostly social feedback, but people can certainly say "Oh, that's neat!" and the like easily.

3) Trolling can be squashed. Moderators can ban users, or delete inappropriate posts, or remove the vowels, but whatever the method, there is a way to make something wildly inappropriate not continue thrashing its way through the conversation.

In none of these is there a coded method for the community at large to say "I don't like this," though a lack of marking things as liked (in the two with that method) can sometimes register as a kind of disapproval. If people disagree with something, they've pretty much got to say so, while agreeing or liking or sympathizing is, in two of them, an easy and low-key option.

I had generally thought this was because it promoted a bit more fellow-feeling, and avoided some of the hurt feelings in making it very easy to hit a "NOPE" button on posts. But now I'm wondering if it's even more important to have that skew in feedback options than I thought.

#5 ::: janra ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2014, 02:43 PM:

I don't think anonymity is a cause, but a red herring: just look at what people post under their real names, on sites that use facebook commenting.

Not being face to face, maybe. There are people who are raging jerks in person; are they significantly fewer than those who are raging jerks online? I ran across a study a while ago that a substantial number of people were more rageful when driving and thus interacting with other cars, not other people. (What I recall: volunteer study subjects had cameras mounted in their cars. Once they'd forgotten to be on their best behaviour for the camera, as they were when the study person was riding with them, the average rage levels went way up.)

#6 ::: Jesse the K ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2014, 04:14 PM:

At the moment, the rough beast is ethics. I look forward to a better system, but past performance is not a reliable indicator.

#7 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2014, 04:25 PM:

Fade Manley @ 4 (and original post): I'm reminded of the phrase "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." There's a certain amount of truth to that, though the vigilance doesn't require firearms -- merely a willingness to say "No, you can't do that here." I wonder if this also ties into the discussion over on the Open Thread about police and their tactics: when we over-arm the police, they turn into more of a problem than a solution, Still mulling.

#8 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2014, 08:32 PM:

We find that negative feedback leads to significant changes in the author’s behavior, which are much more salient than the effects of positive feedback. These effects are detrimental to the community: authors of negatively evaluated content are encouraged to post more, and their future posts are also of lower quality. Moreover, these punished authors are more likely to later evaluate their fellow users negatively, percolating these undesired effects through the community

I had to read that twice or three times before I got it, because it's so counter to my intuition. We assume if someone receives negative feedback, then they will stop doing whatever it is, right? And yet here they don't. "That's interesting," as Dr. Asimov would put it.

I'm a little sad that the study examines general-interest news sites rather than tech news sites, because Hacker News is an interesting case---only upvotes are supported, and the founders are involved and do employ active moderators.

I don't regularly read HN comments, so I don't think I have enough data to back this up, and there are always confounding factors, but, if this is true I should be less unhappy to read HN comments than comments on, say, Slashdot or Reddit, where downvoting is supported.

#9 ::: janra ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2014, 09:25 PM:

Where did my comment go? It's still in my VAB, and it was here earlier, but it's not here now.

#10 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2014, 10:22 PM:

Disqus allows downvotes, but it only reports counts for upvotes.

#11 ::: Henry Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2014, 10:29 PM:

I can't speak for the authors of the research obvs, but when I put the Post piece up, I was thinking of Making Light as the main counter-example of how things can work. Also - though it is much larger and doesn't work nearly as well because of that and other stuff, dKos. I did a research interview with Markos years and years ago, and found it fascinating - a lot of interesting stuff about how to run a site, how he had had to keep on tweaking the ratings systems, moderate food-fights to keep different factions talking to each other etc. He clearly had put a lot of thought and work into it.

#12 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2014, 12:33 AM:

Kevin Riggle @8:

Hacker News certainly does have down votes, you have to have passed some karma threshold to have that ability. It was 500 a few years back, it may have increased since then.

#13 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2014, 01:13 AM:


Pseudonyms seem like they're almost necessary for a community to form, somehow. Completely anonymous messages or posts can be worthwhile (and I think it's important that they continue to be possible, since sometimes, you want to say something that would get you fired or arrested under the wrong circumstances), but it's hard to imagine feeling like a community without recognizing who a given comment is from.

#14 ::: kate ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2014, 01:43 AM:

I don't have an answer for the larger question the post brings up.

On the smaller level, I've been finding systems which only allow positive upvoting (as opposed to downvoting), but can allow you to flag inappropriate stuff, to work fairly well.

#13/Albatross -- There's been a very effective community formed around anonyminity, Fail Fandom Anon, which started as basically an ongoing critique of so-called SJW behavior, and has metastisized into a bunch of people enjoying fandom as a whole. I don't read it because I can't cope with/don't like the lack of trackable identities, but it does seem to work for the folk who use it.

#15 ::: Idumea Arbacoochee, Gardener of Threads ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2014, 01:52 AM:


Your comment got sent to spam during a cleanup, probably by me. I apologize; I'll be more careful to check which boxes I tick in future. (Short sleep, short time, not optimal operating conditions for your standard gnome. We prefer short height, long sleep.)

#16 ::: Josh Berkus ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2014, 02:23 AM:

This certainly makes Facebook's sometimes criticized decision to support only "Likes" and not "dislikes" look astute. And I expect that the researchers focused on Reddit and other unmoderated sites precisely because they provide great analysis fodder, with an unrestrained Darwinistic struggle for dominance of the comments. Another failed model is one of strong moderation, but where the moderators are neither consistent nor trusted. Chowhound is a good example of this.

#17 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2014, 03:02 AM:

janra, #5: I think it's unreliable to assume that someone posting on Facebook is doing so under their real name. Hell, I've got Miles Vorkosigan on my friendslist over there! And a bunch of other people with pretty obviously fake use-names, although I know who the people behind them are. This is at least partly a security measure in many cases -- people who don't want their mom or their boss or their crazy ex to be able to see what they post on FB will establish a use-name account with a different e-mail address than the one those people might recognize. Bluntly, FB's much-vaunted "real names" policy is enforced only if (1) someone actively complains or (2) someone in the hierarchy happens to notice a name that doesn't sound European enough.

This doesn't invalidate your argument, it's just not as good a choice of example as you thought.

#18 ::: janra ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2014, 07:31 AM:

Idumea: thank you for retrieving my comment. I understand that a slip of the mouse happens sometimes.

#17, Lee: I also have a couple of fb friends who use modified or outright false names, but it's maybe 1%? So while there are some, I think the majority of people on fb are actually posting under their real names.

I have also seen people on my friends list who I know in person posting some awful stuff under their real names. I unfollow or unfriend them pretty quickly when I see that. Fortunately that hasn't happened often. Unfortunately some of them are family and the next time I see them in person I have to pretend I still like them.

#19 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2014, 09:12 AM:

The main finding - about negative feedback to low quality comments generating more low quality comments - reminds me irresistibly of parenting young children. Any attention paid to bad behavior generates more bad behavior; therefore, it should be ignored. Of course, one can't take this to the point of ignoring it while little Johnnie or Janie sets the house on fire.

Also, of bullying, of which much of this behavior is an electronic version. While there are known problems with the "just ignore them" advice on handling bullies, it's also true that a reaction proved that they found a sore spot, and so therefore they'll poke it harder next time.

#20 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2014, 09:36 AM:

I use a pseudonym to make it slightly harder for my employer to find out what I'm up to. Besides, 'Broom' is easier to pronounce.

#21 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2014, 10:41 AM:

I'm reminded of a discussion of dog training, which discussed the most effective ways to reinforce an existing behavior. From least to most effective, it was something like:

Consistent punishment
Ignoring it
Consistent reward
Irregular reward
Irregular punishment

So the absolutely most reliable way to lock in a behavior was to punish it...sometimes. (Which is, let me tell you, sort of maddening when trying to figure out how to get the dog to stop doing something that I legitimately can't be there to watch for all the time.) I wonder to what degree negative feedback like downvotes work like that. People won't get the same degree of pushback when they say something terrible ever time, because of what thread they're in or who's reading or how it's phrased, and so it ends up being inconsistent negative reinforcement.

#22 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2014, 10:49 AM:

janra @ 17: A goodly portion of my facebook friends list are people using their SCA names, in whole or in part, which technically is a form of pseudonymity. It's also, in some cases, the only way that I can even figure out just who it is asking to friend me - not so bad with Manitobans because I see them in person more (And am vastly more likely to *know* their legal name), but people from Fargo or Minnesota or Regina or Calgary who try to friend me by real name tend to leave me scratching my head if they don't send a message to ID themselves.

Josh Berkus: Not only that, but the majority of cases on FB that I've seen of people wanting to "not like" a status has had to do with thinking the situation in the post (And the person's life) is terrible, not the post itself. Most of the stuff I see that i don't wanna I just hide, I don't feel like telling the person. Okay, I argue, too, if I think it's worth debating, but that's a hefty if.

I was initially a bit surprised at the finding in the article, because I mostly work through places with positive feedback loops only (barring outright spam or terms of conduct breach), and I LIKE positive feedback.

Then I thought, in political discussions, the single most common response I've ever seen even to extended written negative feedback, never mind the un-nuanced downvote, has been for the person to double down on their opinion, or even push it further. And that I'm just as guilty in many cases - I may have a behavioural line I refuse to cross that trolls tramp past in the first post, but the underlying defensiveness is not exactly an uncommon response to "You're wrong and/or a jerk".

#23 ::: janra ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2014, 11:36 AM:

#22, Lenora Rose: fair enough; my friend circles on facebook don't have as much of a habit of using an alternate name in other in-person contexts. Though I would suggest that an alternate name used to identify them in person, even if it's situational such as at SCA events, is closer to a "real" name than something fake that can't (or isn't intended to) be easily traced back to them.

I don't know how common pseudonyms that look like real names actually are on facebook, considered over the entire population of the site. Based on my friends list (those who use alternate names are mostly pretty obviously fake) and the comments on "sites with fb-powered comments" having names that look like regular names, I thought it was a reasonable conclusion that most of those comments were from people posting under their real names. I suspect each individual's friends list is biased toward either more than average or less than average, depending on whether or not they're in a group that habitually uses alternate names.

#24 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2014, 12:46 PM:

Janra @23

A lot of people using Second Life had Facebook accounts, and it was used by Linden Labs for promotional competitions. Then Facebook clamped down on false names.

Linden Labs still makes special provision for Facebook in things like competitions, and quite respectable people choose to avoid Facebook. While there are Second Life forums running, which you access by logging in to a Linden Labs controlled web site, using the same ID and password as for logging into Second Life, they still sometimes expect you to enter a competion via Facebook.

I suspect there's a lot of inertia.

I have a quite old Second Life account, and the name has a good reputation, I use it elsewhere, and I know some of you have noticed it. I can't change that. The die is cast. And Brutus is an honourable man.

#26 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2014, 02:33 PM:

I use my real name on FB. That's why I limit my FB account to four friends (my husband and children) and two groups (which use FB for meeting announcements and so on).

#27 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2014, 03:27 PM:

OtterB @19: Any attention paid to bad behavior generates more bad behavior

Thinking back to What Shamu Taught Me, the core take-home from wild-animal training is that any response consititutes reinforcement, so you want to focus on reinforcing desired behaviors. The exception is when you need to interrupt dangerous behaviors—cf., preventing household immolation.

The whole business of "ignoring bullies": I'd always interpreted that is "refusing to react" to their provocations. Which is not the same thing as ignoring them. "Ignoring them", too many times, ISTM, is interpreted to mean "pretending they're not abusing you." Different thing altogether.

Even then, it must be noted, "refusing to react" obviously has its limits.

#28 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2014, 03:55 PM:

Somewhere, and I've lost it, there was an interesting article on anonymity and how that has shaped 4chan. As I recall, they noted that it allows you to (for example) say you love some band or other and if everyone thinks you're an idot, you can come back later and discuss, perhaps, politics without anyone bringing up your poor taste in music. Your lack of history means that the only thing they have to argue with is your current set of words. (The writer downplayed the obvious downsides, although one of the words they used was "depraved" - one can say anything one wants because the only comeback is someone disagreeing with your words).

What they noted was that to someone who spends a lot of time there, when they see people saying things linked to a persistent identity, they find themselves asking themselves if that person is playing to the audience or looking to benefit from it. In the seething cauldron of 4chan, this quickly becomes a conspiracy theory and also is why they like to look for hypocrisy to the point of hacking and posting private details; ironically their anonymity has lead them reveal other people's personal information.

This seemed a weirdly consistent explanation of the style of the craziness that emerges from those parts of the internet.

#29 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2014, 04:38 PM:

Let me see if I understand that -- they're so used to anonymity that giving a name (in other forums) strikes them as a suspicious bid for attention, and hence probably an indicator of a hypocritical personality which must be torn down?

#30 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2014, 06:10 PM:

Found it. Link here.

As I read it, it's more like "Sure they say that. But what's their angle?" Which leads them to look for the angle and any perceived inconsistencies found prove that everywhere except anonymous places are full of conformists and hypocrites.

#31 ::: Josh Berkus ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2014, 06:33 PM:

Also, regarding anonymity and pseudonyms: many people are not in the relatively privileged position of being able to post whatever they want online without fear of consequences. Online harassment of outspoken women is endemic; folks who live in oppressed countries or communities can't use their real names; even US public school students need to be afraid of reprisals by school authorities for stuff they post. In general, "real name" policies are formulated by privileged individuals who don't understand why prohibiting pseduonyms could lock out an entire class of people.

Also, I read a news blog which is currently having a problem with comment quality going from "interesting" to "abusive". In the course of a meta-discussion among the moderators, a real names policy was debated as a way to deal with this ... until someone pointed out that the single most problem-causing individual was using his real name.

#32 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2014, 06:48 PM:

#33 ::: CN ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2014, 08:12 PM:

I sometimes have a real name that I post under. But it's not MY real name. Put it down to congenital paranoia. I just am not able to be that trusting.

But I don't troll. I don't see anything to be gained from it. What are those who habitually troll gaining by it?

#34 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2014, 09:56 PM:

CN @ 33: The usually received answer is "attention". Trolls get attention. It doesn't matter what kind. Any attention is experienced as positive reinforcement.

But that's not all. They have also demonstrated power, and that's another related, but distinct, positive reinforcer.

Me, I use my own name on blogs. It might be a way of saying, "These really are my opinions." Or not. I don't know, really. It just seems right, to me.

#35 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2014, 12:25 AM:

"These effects are detrimental to the community: authors of negatively evaluated content are encouraged to post more, and their future posts are also of lower quality. Moreover, these punished authors are more likely to later evaluate their fellow users negatively, percolating these undesired effects through the community"


It's counterintuitive but it makes a great deal of sense once dropped into the framework that I've seen any number of times:

Joe makes a post that is (evaluated against the standards of the existing community) Not Good (it may be a genuinely rude/thoughtless post, or it may be a 101 question in a space where people don't want to do 101 questions, or it may be coming from such a different political frame of reference that it looks like trolling to the regulars). Joe gets pushback, maybe a mix of sarcastic putdowns and genuine questioning. Joe starts to feel like everyone is against him and the blog only tolerates a certain kind of groupthink, which leads Joe to push back more strongly and rudely (because he feels socially rejected, because he feels that his views aren't being taken seriously.) Regulars feel even more justified in having been rude to Joe in the first place, and either Joe quits, or someone moderates the discussion, or it has a high chance of turning into a long-term flame war.

Joe may have never meant to be a troll, but once he's spent years on the same opposite-political-wing blog arguing with the attitude of "I'm the only smart person here," he is functionally indistinguishable from one.

Considered that way, gently nudging people toward topics on which they might be able to find more common ground than politics (say, writing poetry) is very nice as a moderation strategy.

#36 ::: James Harvey ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2014, 06:25 AM:

Dave Bell@2: god bless you for that wonderful Battle of Maldon quote, I hadn't heard it in years. It takes me right back to my second year tutorial with Margaret Connolly in St Andrews

On the subject of online communities, I still miss the moderated, threaded environment of CIX in the UK. It was like the Usenet, but with less of the downside. Mismanagement and under-investment means it's a dying thing now, a shadow of its former self, but in its 80s/90s heyday it came closest, I think, to the online place I most enjoyed. There too, strong moderation made for civilised debate. Anyone could start their own conference, and moderate it how they willed. I suspect it was the UK equivalent of The WELL.

The clientele in those early days also helped: most of UK IT journalism, the online presence of the Liberal Party, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Mary Gentle, goat farmers, ex-drug dealers, bikers, gays, it was a very rich slice of British life. I still admit that I struggle to follow online discussions which don't thread, and which don't mark the posts I've read. After 20 years of the Usenet and CIX, linear amalgamated response chain discussion confuses me.

#37 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2014, 09:46 AM:

Dave Bell #2: I think it is plausible to argue that Skinner's operant conditioning is, for we humans, a load of over-simplified bollocks. If it works, why don't Douhet's theories work. Why is it that London did take it, and paid back with ample interest on the cities of Germany. And why didn't that bombing force Germany to collapse. That was a heck of a thumping big downvote.

I beg to differ on this point. Even with operant and classical conditioning, as the OP and others note, you need to be know what rewards are actually in play. But more importantly, operant conditioning is one of several mechanisms for learning and responding. It isn't and was never supposed to be the only factor in animal psychology, much less human. And in particular, it does not trump aggressive conflict, and especially not dominance conflicts. Those have very different rules, as do any number of other patterns of human (or animal) behavior.

#38 ::: UrsulaV ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2014, 12:17 PM:

@33 & 34 There was a sad and fascinating example a few years back--which of course, I have long since lost all links for, though I think I got there through Harry Connelly's LJ originally--about a blogger who had a persistent troll. Nasty, hateful stuff, often commentary on the blogger's wife and kids, on every single post. Always the same guy, for years. Blogger figures he spent more man-hours dealing with this one troll than any other issue on the blog.

Anyway, a few years later, blog is shut down for whatever reasons, and the blogger finally tracks the troll down and asks him why he kept doing that.

And it comes out that the troll thought they were buddies. He thought he was saying these awful things and it was totally cool and acceptable and all the bans were just the blogger playing along and they were friends. In the troll's world, you could say these vile things all the time to people telling you over and over to stop, and this was within the bounds of a normal relationship.

He was quite shocked, if memory serves, to learn that the blogger didn't like him. (Though I think he might have also said it wouldn't have stopped him, if he knew, but it's been many years and my memory is often faulty.)

Weird aberration or not that surprising? I don't know.

#39 ::: infovore ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2014, 01:20 PM:

It strikes me that a real name policy is no such thing. If you are known to other people by some pseudonym then that is no less a real name for you as the name by which you're registered with the government. Better to call a real name policy a legal name policy.

#40 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2014, 01:51 PM:

So what you're saying is we need a "This is not a game of The Dozens" card/ticket/stamp. I'm thinking of a "Troll Ticket" that is similar to the "Permission Slip" you posted on the 13th. Only the wording on this would be along the lines of "This virtual citation is for the Internet Traffic Violation of Trolling" followed by a traffic-ticket style detail. Check boxes for assorted violations included.

Of course by the time you get all the violations on the form, it will look a lot like a troll bingo card.

Maybe just a sign "Playing 'The Dozens' on the internet means you're a troll."

oooohhh!!!! Maybe an "I've Been Trolled" badge of honor.... Okay I'll stop now. (I recently went to an air museum, and saw an old fighter plane that still had the 'kill record' on the side of the fuselage. I have this image of 'troll kills' for moderators.)

Dave Bell @ 2
In my experience, most of the people in meat-space who cite freedom of speech have never heard the following explanation. "Having the freedom of speech is like swinging a fist. The right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins." They also tend to forget that in the USA (where I live and therefore hear it the most) Freedom of Speech is only protection against the government, not private citizens and the like.

To paraphrase my father (with a nod to nannyware) "Speaking like a poopy-head earns you the right to get treated like a poopy-head, and nobody likes a poopy-head."

#41 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2014, 02:23 PM:

I'm on a very few sites under my legal name. For all the others, although I think I'm pretty civil, I can hardly imagine being other than pseudonymous. For all of those sites, I'm "Theophylact" ["the Unbearable" being understood).

Civility notwithstanding, I don't want to be hunted down by trolls at my home or email address. A pseudonym protects my privacy, but not in (any real sense) my identity. I'm sure that I've left enough clues around the internet for a diligent sleuth to figure out who I am in meatspace. Fortunately, trolls don't seem interested enough in me to do that. But I would certainly feel less free to comment if I thought I would be stalked.

#42 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2014, 02:47 PM:

Josh Berkus @31, yes, exactly.

There's also an element of name frequency that I think is in play. I have an uncommon name - as far as Google can tell me, there's one other person with my full name in the US, one in the UK, and one in the Netherlands. That means there's essentially no "hiding in the crowd" for anything associated with the name. People with relatively common names are more likely to have their "real name" contributions mixed in with those of everyone else sharing their name to a casual Google, and thus less likely to have everything they've ever said online available to anyone with a passing interest.

I'm quite sure someone who knows me well could figure out who I am based on my online activity - I've left enough clues. But just googling for my name won't turn up the pseudonym (I check periodically, just out of curiosity) or associated activity, and that's what matters to me.

#43 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2014, 02:49 PM:

Me, too. Just about everyone in the US with my last name is either a known relative or an ex-wife.

#44 ::: Cally Soukup ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2014, 03:15 PM:

James Harvey @36

I've got a fairly simple way of marking messages "read": I click on the date next to each message as I read it. That turns the link into the "visited link" color (which I've made sure is a nice high-contrast magenta), so I can see at a glance on the "last 1000 comments" screen that I've read it, and can click on the next unread one when next I look at Making Light. Of course, this doesn't work if you're using more than one device, but I find it useful. (And if I'm going back and forth between devices, I at least have a high water line past which I don't need to look.)

#45 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2014, 03:42 PM:

As far as I can tell, the only people in the US with my last name are me and my parents.

#46 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2014, 03:51 PM:

In case anyone is wondering, the "permission slip" that Victoria @40 is talking about is something that UrsulaV very kindly did after I asked her on behalf of my daughter. The exchange was Storified by @UncornPDX (whom I don't know, or at least don't know that I know). Here's Fiona with the final product, which she very much appreciated.

This should put to rest any doubts anyone had that UrsulaV is Completely Awesome.

#47 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2014, 04:27 PM:

abi @ 46... Any chance we can see a bigger version of your icon?

#48 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2014, 04:27 PM:

Seeing that photo of abi's daughter makes me feel old.

#49 ::: Clifton ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2014, 04:38 PM:

Oh yes! I need that! (Actually, I've been mostly doing ok giving myself permission, but it can't hurt and could help.) And my son definitely could use one.

#50 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2014, 04:43 PM:

Serge @47:

It's cropped from one of my favorite shots from Worldcon, which is alas quite grainy. Here is the original, on Flickr.

(Alex takes his cosplay seriously.)

#51 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2014, 04:58 PM:

abi @ 50... Alex takes his cosplay seriously

I'd say that he does indeed.

#52 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2014, 05:06 PM:

lorax/Theophylact: Me three, for my birth name. That's one of the reasons I opted to change my name when I got married, and didn't revert after the divorce. My current name gets lost in the noise of (1) a gazillion people who have my first name as their middle name and go by both, and (2) a few people who have the same name I do and are MUCH higher-profile.

#53 ::: Buddha Buck ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2014, 06:03 PM:

As near as I can tell, my given first name is unique (as a legal name; some have adopted it as a nick name). Fortunately, for the hide-from-Google-searches, it's common as a reference to a rather famous dude, so searches for me can be a bit contaminated, as it were.

My chosen nom-de-net is also the name of a famous (but long-dead) person. I have usually been able to get that name on social media sites (gmail/g+, livejournal, twitter, etc) before anyone else. I make no effort to keep the two distinct.

Of course, the problem with using the name of a very quotable person on twitter is that whenever someone quotes them, I tend to get a copy.

#54 ::: janra ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2014, 08:58 PM:

#36, James Harvey: I struggle to follow online discussions which don't thread, and which don't mark the posts I've read.

I find them less than ideal, but worse than linear discussions with no "read" marker are discussions sites which *are* threaded but don't mark the posts I've read. I have to search all over for what was posted that I haven't seen. At least with linear discussions, once you've found the first unread post you can be confident that everything after that is also unread.

#55 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 12:15 AM:

For myself, even my full name is not unique: Google turns up at least two other "David James Goldfarb" besides me. Sigh.

#56 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 12:53 AM:

There are so many people with my full legal first and last name that there are Facebook GROUPS for people with my name. I'm a member of a couple of them. Got a package for one of the other members recently (apparently someone wanted to send him something, knew he lived in Hoboken, and looked him (me) up) and arranged with him to come pick it up.

He looked nothing like me. Lucky man.

#57 ::: Josh Berkus ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 02:00 AM:

Xopher, David, Buddha, etc.:

I have a unique name as far as I know (amazing in a world of 7 billion people, but there it is). For someone who makes his living on the internet, this turns out to be a huge benefit; having a unique name people can google boosts your "internet fame" considerably. So much so that most of the career open source programmers I know who have relatively common names tend to adopt offbeat nicknames just to be uniquely searchable.

#58 ::: James Harvey ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 06:59 AM:

janra@54: totally agreed. Threading DOES NOT WORK if there is no way of marking what you have and have not read.

#59 ::: James Harvey ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 07:00 AM:

abi@46. That is really quite seriously cool

#60 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 07:40 AM:

Not only is my name not unique, but I have a "doppelganger" who's published books on topics I've had long-term interest in. He's apparently working for the Smithsonian, or was last I looked. I haven't poked too far due to hazard of existential despair....

#61 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 07:47 AM:

abi @46, I had seen and enjoyed that certificate at UrsulaV's LJ but didn't realize you and Fiona were involved. Good for everyone, all the way around.

#62 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 07:49 AM:

abi @46: That's great!

In my recent writing project I sometimes had to remind myself that the initial version of any chapter didn't need to be great or even good, it just needed to contain the information I wanted it to contain. Afterwards I could rewrite and I could move the paragraphs around so the story flowed from one piece of information to the next, but the first draft just needed to get the information down.

#63 ::: estelendur ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 08:09 AM:

My legal name is nowhere near unique - there was another person with the same name down to the character at my (relatively small) university.

And I am and always have been the only estelendur, and am likely to remain so, since it's not only self-compounded Elvish, but slightly incorrectly compounded!

The permission slip is wonderful :)

#64 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 09:28 AM:

There's a pretty good applet for Slate Star Codex (wordpress) and Less Wrong (reddit clone) that marks unread comments. I don't know how hard it would be to adapt it for other blogs.

[Cleaned up something weird you were doing with a tag for Less Wrong. If there was a URL behind that, you're going to have to try it again.—Idumea Arbacoochee, Gardener of Threads]

#65 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 09:38 AM:

Note that the Movable Type installation we're using here is not a forever thing. We'll be changing platforms when the Watchmakers are done with their bits and everyone (else) is out of the Jeffries tubes.

#66 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 09:54 AM:

abi... The engines cannae take it anymore?

#67 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 10:31 AM:

Dammit, Jim, I'm a gnome, not a software engineer.

Although in abi's case, perhaps both.

#68 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 10:34 AM:

@46: That picture of Fiona with the certificate is adorable! The certificate on its own somehow doesn't have the same impact.

#69 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 12:09 PM:

Idumea, thanks for cleaning up the link.

In the interests of simplicity, here's the url for Less Wrong.

#70 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 01:25 PM:

There's a Greasemonkey script linked from the front page of this very blog that will show previously-seen messages on a gray background instead of white. It requires the Greasemonkey plugin for Firefox, although it may work with other browsers as well.

I use that script, but I also click on the date of the last message I read, so I can look at the last 1000 messages page and see if there's anything new on the threads I'm following. I also use Firefox Sync so I can see the links change color on both my laptop and my desktop regardless of where I clicked them.

#71 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 01:40 PM:

The whole "unique name" thing is very weird to me, because when I was young, Jeremy was a relatively obscure name, but in the first decade of my life, it went up in popularity 40-fold. As a result, I think I only met one other Jeremy between my birth and high school. So when I heard my name called as a kid, it pretty much always meant they were talking to me. Now, it's become common for me to hear a mother addressing her kid by my name, but it still startles me.

#72 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 01:45 PM:

Jeremy Leader @71, I feel your pain. For the first forty years of my life, I was the ONLY "Cassy" on the face of the earth. (Ok, I know that's not true, but I never, ever met one.)

Now a friend's teenaged daughter's good friend is named "Cassy". And so, on a regular basis, I hear from that family, "Cassy said..." or "Cassy did..." and it's not me.

I jump, every time. I simply can't get used to there being another Cassy.

Worse is when she's visiting the same time I am; "Hey, Cassy..." and I answer...


#73 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 03:11 PM:

'Mary' seems to have gone the other way. I am 'Mary Aileen' because when I was 11, I knew seven other Marys and got tired of the confusion. But the name is a lot less popular these days.

#74 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 04:37 PM:

My first name + surname is quite common - I am one of three people in my academic field who has it. I think it likely, though, that no one else has my full name, including middle name.

My paternal grandmother, on the other hand, had an amazingly rare surname, which I believe is now extinct, her sister, who died in the 1990's, being the last person to bear it.

#75 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 06:47 PM:

abi: @46: Boy, you know, making terrible really bad art is hard.... (says one who is attempting to produce same)....

#76 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 06:51 PM:

Cassy, are you of the right age that for a while, people told you constantly that their dogs were named Cassy? I got that a lot (-ie version).

#77 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 07:11 PM:

Diatryma @76, I dated a guy in high school whose dog had my nickname. (Not Cassie, a diminutive of Elizabeth.) Being at his house and hearing someone yell, "Would someone let (name) out?" was an odd experience.

Also, on uncommon surnames. My husband has one (which I acquired by marriage) and the oddest thing about his family reunion this summer was being in a room with 40-some people who had that last name. Plus not needing to spell it for the hotel clerk when I made the reservation.

#78 ::: Angiportus ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 07:50 PM:

Not of a mood to take on the name thing right now, except that I've always wondered why more people didn't invent/choose their own legal ones like I did, long before I found my online nick. But as regards the maintenance of proper online behavior, I recall a blog that started out well written and featuring a lot of intelligent commenters as well, but over its last couple of years devolved into a troll-ridden wasteland, because (as we all later found out) its author was himself in the process of crashing and burning. It was a sad waste of a good writer. I notice that the places I hang out online now either have moderators or else the trolls haven't found them yet.

#79 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 08:47 PM:

Diatryma @76, I may or may not be of the right age to have canine namesakes, but if so, I'm in the wrong region. The dogs I knew were mostly called either something like "Lady" or "Snowball", or with a bog-standard human name like "Ralph" or "Betsie". (Actually, OtterB, I wonder if it was the same dog? <grin> Probably not; no males in that household....)

#80 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 09:19 PM:

There are enough Erik Nelsons out there that sooner or later I will need a pseudonym, and I don't know the best way of going about establishing one. (as a literary by-line; I don't really have any issue with internet names) I would need to a) pick a good one that doesn't annoy me after a while and make me feel I picked the wrong one and b) do a reasonable job of letting the world know I am using it.

#81 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: September 17, 2014, 10:35 PM:

A couple of times this past year I've gotten email (or a tweet, or so on) asking me if I'm the Andrew Plotkin who is producing the _Name of the Wind_ TV show (Pat Rothfuss's series).

No. No, sadly, that's the other Andrew Plotkin. I just read 'em.

#82 ::: CN ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2014, 12:31 AM:

My name is quite common, and I guess I could hide in the crowd. But, Paranoia is All.

I did once post here under my real name, and TNH tracked me down at work by telephone to discuss what I'd posted (about my inability to understand poetry). Unfortunately, I was away from my desk and I missed her call. I'd have loved to have that discussion with her. I have no idea how she managed that.

#83 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2014, 09:23 AM:

CN: The mods here have the advantage of being able to see peoples' IP addresses, which helps narrow you down a *lot*.

#84 ::: John Dallman ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2014, 10:01 AM:

I've never been serious about any online forum that had upvotes and downvotes. That was pretty much instinctive, but thinking about it, I can see a couple of uses for them:

One is that they breed addiction to the "Upvote! yeay!" dopamine rush and the "Downvote? I'll show them!" adrenalin buzz. That's useful for operators of sites, but it's not my taste. I bailed from Second Life after one day when I work up from a night of dreaming about it with a strong urge to go straight back on. No, not playing that game.

The other is that they enable you to sort the good parts out of too many postings. Yeah. If a "community" is too large for human community behaviour to work, it's something different, and it needs new forms of behaviour. I have enough trouble with the forms I need to use to interact in the real world; I'll put the time into practising those.

#85 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2014, 02:25 PM:

re 84: What seems to happen on Disqus in practice is that if there are more than a dozen or so responses, a lot of responses don't appear to get voted on one way or the other. Deep threading seems to produce the same issue as TL;DR overwhelms the interaction. I suspect that TheRiverInBrasil's "was this review useful" produces better voting because it isn't asking readers to affiliate with the response.

That affiliation is, I think, one of the strongest drivers of on-line responses. Even if nobody is around to give you a thumbs-up, you may well give yourself an attaboy/girl for upholding your position or refuting the opposition.

#86 ::: Student ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2014, 02:48 PM:

I agree with #85 that fixing the affiliation/substantive-contribution conflation would make comment ratings more helpful. "Damn straight!" could be a different radiobutton from "This was useful", to distinguish visceral from reflective.
I'd also like to see a shorter "comment summary" field, so if readers wanted, they could keep the prolix from overwhelming the succinct.
Or maybe some form of text highlighting, to help readers skim the cream from a longer comment.

#87 ::: Student ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2014, 02:56 PM:

And on how to keep a community from devolving into destructiveness, how about putting up a post soliciting just ideas for how to protect it? I'm sure plenty have been offered in the 100-odd comments above, that aren't being noticed by most readers.

#88 ::: John M. Burt ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2014, 03:37 PM:

I used to get phone calls for at least two other John Burts living in my area. I located other John Burts in magazines and newspapers (including, embarrassingly enough, one of those pastors who successfully inspires enough hatred to get a parishioner to murder a doctor or two).
I made up a set of membership cards in the John Burt Society (motto: "Hello, my name is John Burt")and sent them out to several dozen John Burts (with a letter signed "Yours in name only, John Burt").
I was kind of disappointed that I didn't hear back from any of them (I didn't send one to the evil pastor, although if I had found his address, I would have sent him one in pieces, and a letter commanding him to change his name).
When I started posting stories for sale at Amazon, I found out there were a couple of other John Burts writing, none in my own area. Even so, I decided to make sure I was always listed as "John M. Burt", thinking that had a better ring to it than "John Merritt Burt". The other day I discovered that Amazon was listing me as "John Marshall Burt" -- no idea how that happened.
Some days, I wish I had not reconsidered my adolescent urge to change the spelling of my name to J'Onn (with no effect on pronunciation, because I say so).

#89 ::: UrsulaV ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2014, 05:17 PM:

The only other Ursula Vernon was apparently born in 1601 and thus has a very limited internet presence.

However, while I am the holder of "ursulav" on stuff like gmail, there's at least two people who seem to think it belongs to them. There was a mad influx of notices in my inbox that I was now registered for X, Y, and Z, asking me to verify their grandchildren's Club Penguin accounts, and whatnot. Since I was also getting the password change requests, I had access to all their accounts AND credit card info. I finally tracked her down in the phone book and left a voice mail saying "PLEASE DON'T DO THIS! I am VERY uncomfortable having this access!" and she mostly stopped, but I still get occasional sign-ups.

The other one, alas, is in Spanish, and I really hope she doesn't need those notices from the Brazilian immigration department because I have no way to forward them.

#90 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2014, 05:40 PM:

John B., #88: My ex-husband's name was Tom B. There was also a Tommy B in the phone book; he was a plumber. We used to get calls for him sometimes. After the first couple of times (once we figured out what was going on), I would tell people, "You have the wrong number. You want Tommy B, the plumber." It was simply amazing the number of people who could not grasp the notion that Tom B was not the same person as Tommy B -- even though they were listed separately! And it got worse when Tommy B closed his business or moved away or something, because then people would get downright abusive.

#91 ::: Clifton ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2014, 05:53 PM:

I had believed until very recently that I was the only Clifton Royston on the Internet, despite being the 3rd; my grandfather died quite a while ago, and my father changed his first name in the '80s. (That incidentally caused a few institutions to think I'm him, such as the U. of Michigan, which is quite insistent that I'm an alumnus.) However, I recently got a notice from LinkedIn that a Clifton Royston had been checking my profile, so it appears that there may be another one out there somewhere.

Despite my near-uniqueness on the Internet, I now mostly use my real name. Back when I used a pseudonym, I ended up being a bit too open about the peculiar contents of my psyche. It felt safe at the time, in the groups where I was hanging out.

Eventually I got a net.kook after me, and all it took was one slip where I signed a post the wrong way out of habit for him to connect two different accounts and start posting a bunch of potentially really damaging stuff about me on Usenet. The only saving grace of the situation was that he was so well known for being plain nuts and making crazy stuff up that few people paid any attention, as far as I could tell. I still felt very badly burned.

Later on, I accidentally found out my ex- was stockpiling old Usenet posts from me to talk.bizarre to prove in divorce proceedings that I was mentally unstable and an unfit parent. I ended up going through Google's interface to request deletion of my entire Usenet posting history from their Deja News archive, post by post: all the poetry, short stories, banter, self-revelation - everything, just so she wouldn't have any more ammunition than she already had. I was crying steadily most of the time I did it. That was 16 years ago and I haven't written much poetry or fiction since.


Ursula, I feel for you. My gmail account is in much the same situation with regard to one Clifton Robinson, and also a Clifton Reed. At least it appears the former finally got his Wells Fargo account changed so that they were no longer mailing all his banking information to me.

#92 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2014, 06:31 PM:

When I was a kid, seemed like everyone had an aunt named Sandy.

(I now know a Cassy who is also a Sandy. Lovely name, Cassandra, although it does have some baggage.)

#93 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2014, 06:37 PM:

Yeah, the whole not being trained to deal with others having your name.... For a while, at least my spelling was reasonably unique, but that ended about ten years ago.

... The actual total weirdness of someone else having both my first and last names.... I had to lay in wait for the .com to come free and then pounce. Well, she wasn't using it!

And we won't discuss how many j [mylastname]s are listed locally. Who apparently don't pay their bills and/or keep up with old acquaintances....

#94 ::: Lady Kay ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2014, 07:21 PM:

for about 15 years, my brother's wife had a VERY similar name to mine. At one point, she and I went into the school where her children and my child were going, just to prove that we were two DIFFERENT people.

And one sad flight to a funeral, the ticket agent was sure that she had already checked me in for the flight. Again, we showed her that we were two different people with two different reservations.

#95 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2014, 07:49 PM:

I find on sites that don’t have like, dislike, etc. buttons, that I miss being able to give the online equivalent of a head-nod or a listening noise: sometimes I don’t have anything specific to say, but want to let the poster know they're not talking to an empty room.

#96 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2014, 08:02 PM:

My companies-for-the-use-of email address (not the one I use here) is my initials plus my last name. There is another woman at my email provider whose name is Mary Anne Mylastname; I get email for her sometimes. As best I can tell, her actual email address has a number after the name but is otherwise the same as mine. Sometimes the email is from friends of hers, who probably typed it wrong, but at least once it's been a hotel reservation confirmation. And I'm pretty sure that she's the one who signed (me) up for Sen. Gilliland's mailing list. The important-looking stuff I do reply to with "I'm not her, try again" but a lot of the time I just let it go.

#97 ::: Buddha Buck ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2014, 09:31 PM:

There's an architect/building engineer in Australia who has the same name as my pseudonym -- which I also use for my gmail account. Unfortunately, sending his father emails saying "I am not your son. Stop sending me applications for architecture graduate programs in Melbourne!" have not worked.

I assume he dealt with the grad school problem well enough, since I'm no longer getting school paperwork, but his father was recently on what sounded like a nice vacation.

#98 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: September 18, 2014, 11:23 PM:

Lee, we get a similar thing at work. I'm with the school district, and our suite (we're an offsite program) recently got the phone system the rest of the district has, where you dial the last four digits and that connects you.

It turns out our last four digits are the same as the bus company's. Except they're not in the system because they're the bus company.

We've gotten pretty good at asking if they're calling for Buscompany, then explaining. We're not so good yet at transferring calls, mostly because the interface is pictures and not words. I can do words! I have done words! Do not ask me to interpret your hieroglyphs. I only do that in Space Team.

#99 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2014, 04:15 AM:

#95 ::: Sarah

I've been in apas where RAEBNC (read and enjoyed, but no comment) was used for that situation.

#100 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2014, 10:18 AM:

My ex is a Mary A (for Alice) Lastname and her sister-in-law is a Mary A (for Anne) Lastname. Naturally, their financial and other history has been mutually mixed up, by various institutions, and repeatedly.

#101 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2014, 11:08 AM:

Evelyn Waugh's first wife was named Evelyn:

Among their friends they quickly became known as "He-Evelyn" and "She-Evelyn".
But were they pronounced differently? History seems to be silent on the question.

#102 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2014, 11:10 AM:

I had someone on the book of face tag in me from France in French, thinking I was her friend. So I do have a name doppelganger (doppelnamer) It's just easy to tell us apart (In addition to English, I speak some Spanish and enough Japanese to make the native-speakers smile.)

#103 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2014, 11:20 AM:

So far nobody has asked me to pass strange cases on to the Bureau of Paranormal Defense and Research.

#104 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2014, 11:26 AM:

I was, until junior high, the only Heather that I had ever met or heard of. It was seventh grade--which was not a great grade for its own usual reasons, on top of being in a new school in a new country and so forth--when I discovered that Heather was apparently a wildly popular name in my generation, so long as one wasn't in the particular subculture I had inhabited up to that point. And thus all the obligatory Mean Girls (TM) in the junior high had the name that I associated with being only me...

Anyway, this was pretty influential on why I changed my name as an adult. But I still look up whenever someone says "Heather", even as I know multiple other people by that name myself, and haven't gone by it in...gosh, a little over a decade, now. Go figure. Some hardwiring is pretty deep.

(I wonder if that's why I've always had so much trouble getting my dogs, acquired each from the shelter as adults, to learn and respond to their names; their puppy-acquired names are the ones that sunk in. But it may also be that I'm not particularly good at training dogs.)

#105 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2014, 11:38 AM:

Theophylact #101: If they were pronounced differently, I wouldn't expect the "he-" and "she-" disambiguation, at least not in speech. They might become "Eve and "Ev" or somesuch.

#106 ::: Cally Soukup ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2014, 12:00 PM:

The He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn disambiguation makes me think that it was written that way, but was really pronounced Heevelyn and Sheevelyn. But I don't actually know.

#107 ::: Clarentine ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2014, 12:59 PM:

I've been Clarentine on LiveJournal and Gmail for well over a decade. Never had any name conflicts until this year, when someone on Path used Clarentine as part of her ID there...and then keyed in my email address. I finally located a customer service email for Path. They promise me they've fixed the problem. I'll believe it when I stop getting responses to her "moments" in my Spam folder.

#108 ::: Duncan j Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2014, 01:34 PM:

Another Duncan Macdonald exists in the US Navy's NMCI (Navy-Marine Corps Intranet) e-mail system. There are approximately 400,000 entries in the global address space, and you get to a person by typing lastname, first name. The other Duncan shows above me in the Global since his middle initial is "A". Even my co-workers will occasionally choose the wrong Duncan, despite the fact that I have added my "J" initial to all my signature lines.
Luckily, he and I have a good working e-mail relationship -- we generally have three-or-so mis-mailed items per month, from both directions.

#109 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2014, 01:52 PM:

Fade @ 104

Now I'm curious (but not nosy) about what year you were born. I first encountered another Heather in high school but it was still a very rare name in my circles at that point (mid-70s). When I was in college, suddenly there were hordes of pre-school-age Heathers being addressed by their parents in public spaces. I'm not sure I ever got over jumping any time I heard someone say, "Heather! Don't do that!" I recently almost ended up with an office-mate named Heather -- in fact, we would have been working in the same function for the same department which could have caused no end of amusement. She ended up in the same function in a different department and we occasionally get each other's e-mail. (Helped by the auto-compete function in MS Outlook.)

A few times I've run across another "Heather Rose Jones" online, but never connected sufficiently to know how many distinct instances they represented. And google seems to agree with me that I'm the most important one. So far, high discoverability has only had positive consequences.

#110 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2014, 02:58 PM:

Heather Rose Jones @109: Early '80s, in my case. My mother said she picked the name because she heard it once, and thought it was pretty and unusual; I thought I was the Only Kid In The World with that name until junior high. Which was just a quirk of circumstance; apparently while the name was rising through the ranks in the US, the fundamentalist Christian and missionary subcultures were still naming all their girls Christine and Esther and Rebecca and so forth.

#111 ::: Tamlyn ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2014, 08:52 PM:

I am the only me in the world. I've heard of a couple of other Tamlyns - exactly two. One is an actor, so she takes up most of the internet. There are probably more around. I know tamlyn on its own is often taken for emails and log ins.

But I am definitely the only Tamlyn with my surname.

#112 ::: Arkady Martine ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2014, 09:36 PM:

My legal first name -- which is also the name I use for my academic work -- is rather unusual. (It's along the lines of 'Saralinda', except not quite. Thank you, Mr. Thurber, for influencing my father.)

Nevertheless when I was in university I managed to consistently get the snail mail of a woman named the equivalent of Sara Linda. Who attended my university. In a graduate program which bears a strong relation to the graduate program I eventually attended myself. (Almost but not quite the same field; both humanities; both dealing with the same part of the world.)

It actually caused some significant mixups, as she was applying to fellowships and I was getting her rejection & acceptance letters. Later she graduated and I lost all track of her. I do hope she is doing well somewhere.

#113 ::: Anne Sheller ::: (view all by) ::: September 19, 2014, 10:35 PM:

My middle name is Judith. There are an awful lot of women in my age group named Judith Anne Somethingorother, but I don't know that I've ever met another Anne Judith. Not that I'd necessarily know.

At Iowa State I lived in a little shoebox of a dorm called Westgate; there were just over 40 residents per floor. One fall quarter there were 6 on my floor named Anne or Ann, including both me and my roommate. Also 2 Carol Smiths, who lived in adjacent rooms.

#114 ::: Cally Soukup ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2014, 12:44 AM:

When my dad was a kid, he was listening to Walter Winchell or some such radio newsman, who mentioned that there were 6 other Walter Winchells in the US. My dad lay there on the living room floor thinking to himself "Hah. I bet I'm the only $Unusual-First-Name Soukup on the PLANET."

40 years later, his namesake moved to the same town, owning a related sort of business. If he's a relation, he's a very distant one.

#115 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: September 20, 2014, 11:35 PM:

When I was young only old ladies were named Lucy. Now it's dogs. Very disconcerting at the offleash park.

#116 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2014, 07:41 AM:

Lucy Kemnitzer @115. Oh, dear. Yes, "Lucy, SIT!!" would be rather... disconcerting... I expect.

#117 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2014, 08:36 AM:

Tamlyn #111: That might change over the next couple of decades, either via the actress, or if some popular author uses the name (or a work using the name hits the jackpot). (It does sound like it could come out of, say, a Mercedes Lackey story.)

#118 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2014, 09:32 AM:

I adopted a dog named Maggie. When she was a well-behaved old lady at doggie daycare, a young pup also named Maggie became a regular. Poor thing was alarmed to keep hearing "Maggie! No!"

#119 ::: Shane ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2014, 09:40 AM:

Clifton @91. Sorrow and sympathies.

#120 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2014, 10:59 AM:

Lucy Kemnitzer @ #115, my middle child is named Lucy. (But, to be fair, my sister also once had a dog named Lucy; and my daughter is named after my father's aunt, so your point about old ladies and dogs seems to be well founded.)

#121 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2014, 11:34 AM:

Also, branching off from the Evelyns, I know a local woman named Michael, usual pronunciation. Alas, it didn't occur to me at the time to say "well, as long as your middle name isn't David...". (I still have "dmh" in some of my lognames.)

#122 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2014, 11:49 AM:

I was named for my parents (and my mother regretted doing it, later, because of confusion). There are at least two people here with the same first name, which is why I stick with initials.

#123 ::: Clifton ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2014, 01:40 PM:

Thank you, Shane. Much appreciated. I'm slowly getting over it, but it takes time, and I won't trust in pseudo-anonymity again for anything important.

#124 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: September 21, 2014, 11:21 PM:

Lila 120: as I was named after my mother's aunt. I have to admit I had a cat named Frank before I had a son named Frank. What can I say? I love the name.

#125 ::: Leroy F. Berven ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2014, 01:01 AM:

Some names seem to just drift in from . . . nowhere obvious. My own first name is reasonable enough -- it was my dad's middle name -- but where HIS parents got it from is a mystery. It's definitely not what most folks would think of as a generically Scandinavian name, either in Iowa or in the Old Country.

On the other hand: According to family legend, my middle name was taken from the middle name of the guy who became US Secretary of State a few months after I was born. Apparently they were sufficiently impressed with his public persona to bestow part of his name on their kid.

With that particular combination, however, I strongly suspect that nobody else in NorAm has an exact match to my first, middle, and family names. And anyone who shares the family name is definitely a relative.

#126 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2014, 04:31 AM:

Leroy #125: I thought that about my last name, too, but over the years I've discovered that the name is not nearly as rare as I thought it was, and that its origins are not what I thought either. At least now I understand why my grandfather couldn't trace the family tree -- it sort of disappears into a thicket.

#127 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2014, 10:19 AM:

The data comes, they say, from a recent US Census, and is imperfect, but this site tries to give a figure for how common a name is in America.

I suppose that it also shows what data in computer-readable form can reveal.

#128 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2014, 10:33 AM:

Dave Bell @ 127, interesting site. Apparently 16 people share my name, but only 2 people share my maiden name. My husband, however, has 146 other namesakes.

There are exactly 2 people in the US with my father's name. Assuming the fellow that moved into our hometown with a similar business some twenty years ago is still alive... well, that's both of them.

#129 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2014, 10:36 AM:

Addendum: with 3707 "David Bell"s in the US, you have a certain degree security-through-obscurity. Or, rather, security-through-ubiquity? Let me rephrase; you're hidden in the crowd....

#130 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2014, 11:04 AM:

I'll say it is imperfect. It says there's 99K+ people named Frank in the US and it's the 47th most popular name, while there are 102K+ people named Ted and it's the 536th most popular name.I don't understand how there could be some thousands more of a name and yet it is greater than ten times less popular. Am I missing something? It looks like a mistake.

#131 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2014, 02:17 PM:

Back in the 70s I knew a woman named Megan (or maybe Meghan?), who'd been the only person she'd known with that name for 20 years or so, until parents had just recently started naming their kids that. She pronounced it "Meegan", while the new cohort were pronouncing their names "Maygan".

#132 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2014, 02:42 PM:

There are apparently one or fewer people in the USA called 'Praisegod Barebones'. That's about the same as my actual name.

Some people have been known to write to the Times to establish that they are not the same as one another.

#133 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2014, 04:21 PM:

I have encountered, oddly enough, only one other Fragano. About a decade ago, one Fragano Santino tried to friend me on the Book of Face. Gail, however, said I should not.

#134 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2014, 04:27 PM:

According to that site there are 8 people with my first name and last (Assuming I don't do what I do on the internet and go by first-and-middle). Of course, my married surname is pretty common.

I was amused to discover that my husband's, er, maiden name is actually less common than mine was - in the vicinity of Manitoba, his would outrank mine for frequency, since his is a Mennonite surname and mine is Finnish. (IIRC, that might flip back around Minneapolis.)

#135 ::: Clifton ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2014, 05:00 PM:

"There are 1 or fewer" people in the US with my daughter's first and last name.

That wording kind of reminds me of an old underground cartoon by Willy Murphy, in which the diner booth in the background of the comic has a sign reading "Booths reserved for 0 or more customers."

#136 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2014, 06:50 PM:

Don't download software advertised on that "how many" site.

Raw data for surnames comes from the Census Bureau and for given names from the Social Security Adminstration. Presumably the "how many" site combined the frequencies in some probabilistic way.

#137 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2014, 07:14 PM:

Dave B., #127: Interesting! Apparently there are 224 people in the US who share my birth name (albeit that I entered it with a space and the algorithm spat it back out without one), but there are "1 or fewer" of those with my first name as well. That fits what I know from the family genealogy, which is that only 1 person with my birth name ever came over here, so anyone you encounter in the US with that name is related to me by birth or marriage. But my full name, if I were still using my birth name, is apparently unique.

As for the name I use now, there are supposedly 27 of them in the US. However, it's not quite as simple as that, because "Lee" is a very common Southern middle name, and a lot of those people go by both names (Bobby Lee, Sally Lee, etc.), so Google will pick them up on a search for "Lee Mylastname". And one of the other unadorned Lees is a prolific pop-science writer with a very large web footprint.

#138 ::: CN ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2014, 07:44 PM:

According to that website, there are over 400 people with my first and last name. So, I guess I really could hide in the crowd.

Oh, well. Who is John Galt? (A character in a poorly-written novel).

#139 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2014, 10:19 PM:

124 of me, 3006 of Karen. So I get to be more obscure than she does. That is, when I use Thomas rather than Tom -- Tom, there are only 10 of. I'd expect most of those Thomases use Tom at least occasionally. Indicates some sort of error in the analytic tools, I'd say.

#140 ::: Clifton ::: (view all by) ::: September 22, 2014, 10:27 PM:

me @ 135: Actually, I was remembering wrong, and the Willy Murphy cartoon I was thinking of has: "Booths reserved for 1 or more customers". Classic.

(Also at that first link, check out the gender roles on the cover of 'Flamed Out Funnies', from 1974; he had a keen eye for the Bay Area's leading edge of culture change.)

#141 ::: shadowsong ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 01:39 AM:

I am virtually certain that I am the only person in the world with my last name, let alone with my full name. I have my parents' two relatively uncommon last names, hyphenated. My brother has them hyphenated the other way around.

There are <10K of one last name in the US, <500 of the other, and my first name peaked in popularity in 1984 at #88 (>3K babies with my name that year).

#142 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 02:48 AM:

Allan Beatty @136

There is trash content on almost every website. We're using a statistical outlier here. It seems everybody has the same rubbish adverts (It's like the Wonga adverts on British digital TV channels) and the same lists of links to spurious news articles on "10 Startling Celebrity Butt Cracks You Must See!"

I shouted, "Don't click, Ethel!", but it was too late. She'd already been offered Green Stamps.

#143 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: September 23, 2014, 08:25 PM:

Paparazzi hate it! Use this one weird trick to avoid seeing celebrity butt cracks. (Hint: it's not coupons.)

#144 ::: Inquisitive Raven ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 12:01 AM:

I don't know what kind of effect it'll have, but one forum I'm on recently implemented a new voting system. There's no "dislike," but in addition to "like," there's "informative," "insightful," "hugs," and "funny."

It's too soon to know what kind of effect it'll have on the community, but I like the idea.

#145 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2014, 07:37 AM:

Inquisitive Raven @144, I like the concept. The idea of hitting "like" on a post where you want to show support for someone who just lost a beloved pet rather rankles, but "hugs" is entirely appropriate. And it's nice that they give different ways to appreciate a cute kitten video and a tutorial on how to fix that bug that's been driving you crazy....

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