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    Since there's no official MO blog to collect such information, I hope it's ok to make a note here.

    In case you haven't followed the nymwars surrounding Google+ and its clear name policy, one byproduct is a site called with testimonials for online anonymity.

    On that site there's a very good post by Grant Olney Passmore about MO as a good example.


    There's the thread "MathOverflow success stories" which is sticky, and a reasonable place for such mentions.


    Also, I think Grant Passmore's post which you mentioned neglects to properly explain how we handle anonymity here. Here's the very brief summary:'

    1. Pseudonyms are fine.
    2. Multiple accounts are fine, but voting between them is considered abuse. (We've detected a number of such cases, and dealt with them privately.)
    3. If you act disruptively under a pseudonymous account, you might expect less sympathy or professional respect from the moderators than we usually aim for.
    4. Real names are encouraged, both because they promote civil behavior, and because they help establish the professional credibility of the site.

    I think this fairly reflects the moderators' previous positions on pseudonymity, but feel free to disagree, or make a case for new "policy".


    Scott, sorry for overlooking the other thread.

    I think Grant's post aims to highlight that anonymous posts play an important, useful role in every community. Although, on second thought, I agree that some more information on the specific policies would probably have been an interesting idea, too.

    I only meant to bring up the story because, once again, MO and its moderators are credited as a good example. Which I find fantastic and well deserved.


    While we're discussing pseudonyms let me once again put in a plug for transparent pseudonymity as an option. If you don't want MO to come up on the first page of google, you can use a pseudonym which together with your subject identifies you (like initials) or use a pseudonym but link to your homepage on your userpage. This option provides many of the advantages of pseudonymity but avoids many of its downsides.


    I find the idea that a "big name" mathematicians would want to use a pseudonym to avoid giving the impression that he/she does not know everything rather silly. If you don't ask elementary questions you similarly run the risk of being perceived as vain, pretentious, having a tiny, brittle ego, and on and on and on. Perceptions are such a house of mirrors!

    • CommentAuthorWill Jagy
    • CommentTimeAug 15th 2011
    VA was, what, pseudonymous for the longest time, and asked no foolish questions. There is somebody pretty strong who answered one of my imponderables and changes symbol each time. Not the slightest idea why, in either case.
    Seems to me that anonymity is very much the exception at MO. If you look at the top 100 users by score, most go by a full name, and most of the few who go by initials or a single name have links to full identification on their profile pages.
    • CommentAuthorgrp
    • CommentTimeAug 15th 2011 edited

    Looking at the top 100 by score (reputation, I presume) is one view. Looking at the list of recent posts is another way, and there are 9 distinct IDS out of 48 posts which may be pseudonymous, and that is not counting the unknown (googles) or the (to me) unlikely named Rudy Toody. It does include at least one user with over 10k rep though.

    Gerhard "Smile When You Say That" Paseman, 2011.08.15

    Personally, I have nothing against anonymity, especially if one is simply providing quality _answers_.
    @Gerhard, if you look at Rudy Toody's account information, you'll see his real name.

    @Gerry Myerson on the one hand, @grp made a good point. But I also think that MO is such a good example (albeit on second thought Grant's post wasn't that good but that it exists is very good) because it is neither completely anonymous nor completely clear name -- and that's the point that is trying to get across: it's not internet weirdos that want pseudonyms, it's regular people with very good reasons; for an example there was a recent post about refereeing posted anonymously though likely from a clear name user because of possible negative effects of using the clear name account.

    The great thing about the MO community imo is that people understand that pseudonyms can make sense; the community can differentiate between abuse of anonymity and necessary uses of it. That's exactly the point that forced clear name policies are missing.

    Gerhard, when you write "48 posts", do you mean 48 questions, or are you also counting answers, comments, and edits as posts?
    • CommentAuthorquid
    • CommentTimeAug 16th 2011

    Great that MO got mentioned positively. Though, at first I had to smirk that it was mentioned to sort-of promote anonymity. Yet, then, it is in my experience true that while most regular users are non anon/pseudonymous, one still can lead a 'happy life' as anon. And so, on second thought, it likely is a really good example. As one of the few regular anon-users (not top 100, but at least 200, I guess) and since this takes a bit of a general turn, and my thoughts on this evolved a bit over time, let me say:

    It is not that I am somehow scared to post under my real name, or also to only link my MO profile to my real-life-existence. It is just that I do not want to do it, for example, because I think it is important that anon/pseudonymous users remain at least somewhat visible on MO. Indeed, personally I think that if MO were just like now but without the real names, it would be a still better site (although it might well have been impossible to create it without the real names, so this is a bit of an abstract point). Some of you might still recall the 'women on MO' discussion; where the explicit or at least implicit pressure to use real names was mentioned (negatively).


    @quid Do you think that department common rooms would be a better place if everybody wore masks? Do you wear a mask so as to ensure that masked people remain visible in your department? Of course both of these question are semi-rhetorical, but a genuine non rhetorical is: what is the difference in your opinion between this hypothetical situation and anonymity on MO? How exactly would MO be a better place if everybody was unkown (google)/Gauss/user12345?

    • CommentAuthorgrp
    • CommentTimeAug 16th 2011

    When I go to, I see a list of recent questions, as well as handles, indicating some sort of activity associated with both the question and the handle. As a counter to Gerry's point (which may have some validity but only with regarfs to high rep users), I went to the page, counted the posts, and came up with 12 handles, 1 of which was repeated and 1 which was a nom de chortle, leaving 9 out of something like 45 distinct handles from the 48 posts that I thought Gerry would classify as anonymous.. My point being that this view shows anonymity as being more prevalent. I do not know if the activity was questions, answers, comments, edits, or what.

    Gerhard "I Know Who I Am" Paseman, 2011.08.16

    • CommentAuthorquid
    • CommentTimeAug 16th 2011

    Alex Bartel, regarding your first question: yes, in some (figurative and abstract) sense I would. I am thinking since a while how to effectively get my point across; perhaps with counter questions: What does a name give you? Often mainly some hint on gender and cultural origins/ethnicity. Do you need this information? Should everybody be forced/pressured to reveal this information?

    There are studies indicating that female given names on papers and/or grant applications can have a negative effect on how the quality is judged. There are other studies indicating that in general certain types of names have effects on the perception of a person (I would have a hard time finding that one, but teachers somehow were given a list of names and asked to say which students are likely good and which are likely bad, with significant effects).

    And, there are also older online discussions, in other context but essentially professional ones, I believe related to Launchpad, were people (in particular women) expressed the sentiment that they find it problematic to use their real name online.

    Now, it would be great if all this were a nonissue. But, since it is not, it might not be bad to allow in contexts where this is easily doable (viz., online) to at least allow to sidestep these effects.

    Finally, as various people frequently point out, MO is anyway not an online common room.

    It is true that linking an MO profile to a real-life person, in particular if this person is somehow 'present' in the math community has some actual value. Although, there are also negative side effects, I conceed that overall the positive aspects should dominated.

    In any case, in my opinion, insisting on names is barking up to wrong tree (as I argued at some length some months ago). And, if anything, the linking of the MO user to a real person is relevant (as Noah Snyder suggests); indeed, I would consider it as better, in view of the above mentioned reasons, if the displayed name was in general somewhat neutral and if people want to reveal what is 'behind' to find out required some small effort. Somewhat in this vein, in the context of the 'women on MO' discussion, I believe S. Carnaham promoted the idea of using only initials for the given name.

    • CommentAuthorStorkle
    • CommentTimeAug 16th 2011


    Perhaps quid has already clarified this somewhat: the point is not really that MO would be a better place if everyone used pseudonyms (or used it anonymously, which is not quite the same thing), but rather that it is good that it is possible to do so.

    The analogy to department common rooms seems very strained to me. MO is not at all like a department common room, and submitting pseudonymous questions on MO is not at all like wearing a mask to department tea (for one thing, I would be somewhat frightened if masked men showed up to department tea, while I am not at all frightened by pseudonymous/anonymous MO questions).

    I agree that real-name participation has its advantages. So does pseudonymous/anonymous participation.


    Since this is getting in to the "anonymous/pseudonymous/real name" debate, it may be worth linking to the last time we had this conversation: as there were many good points made (and not all by me).

    • CommentAuthorAlex Bartel
    • CommentTimeAug 16th 2011 edited

    @Storkle I was specifically referring to quid's statement

    Indeed, personally I think that if MO were just like now but without the real names, it would be a still better site

    @quid I agree that the issue is not which nick a person uses, but rather whether I can link an MO participant with a particular person, be it through his profile or other revealing factors (I mean it wasn't hard for somebody in my area to figure out who JSE was, even before he linked to his home page) .

    I will try to answer your question about what a name gives me. Personally, I enjoy personal communication, on mathematical and non-mathematical topics. I don't really understand the wish that you and some other people have to remove the personal component from conversations and turn them into a soulless mechanical exchange of ideas. I agree that a name of a person I don't know anyway doesn't tell me that much (although a name of a person whose work I know does). I am particularly interested in knowing the identities of MO users who I know from real life, since a conversation on MO is, to me, a continuation of my personal contact with them. E.g. I may exchange an email or two about an MO question with them, or continue an MO discussion next time I see them. Even if we don't specifically talk about an MO question, the communication on MO remains part of the history of my exchange with this person, which somehow brings me closer to him/her, since we get to know each other better (even if it's only our mathematical ideas/tastes/styles - and it's usually more than that).

    You will often see that not everything that is written on MO is pure information on a mathematical topic. E.g. when a person arrives and somebody knows him/her from real life, they may greet this person and welcome him/her. If someone likes an answer or a question, they sometimes leave a comment to that effect. If somebody I know (of) leaves me a comment saying "nice argument", it pleases me just as much as if somebody told me this personally after a talk (which means a lot). If some Gauss or unkown (google) leaves me such a comment, it means almost nothing to me. For all I know, this comment could be computer generated. I am exaggerating of course. But the upshot is that I don't know anything about the standards of the commenter, so the value of the compliment is completely unclear. People who are using pseudonyms rob themselves of the opportunity to make somebody happy in this way, or to do any of the many other wonderful things that personal communication can do. It is their choice, which is why I have so far abstained from this discussion. But the suggestion that this would be a better site and that common rooms would be a better place if no personal communication took place slightly appalled me.

    As for the studies you cite, I suggest that you browse around on MO and try to form your own unbiased opinion about who gets a better reception on average: women or unkown (google)s. I find studies about high school teachers completely irrelevant in this context, since we are talking about a concrete community.

    • CommentAuthorRyan Budney
    • CommentTimeAug 16th 2011 edited

    One can of course make arguments for near anything if you only follow carefully-guided anecdotes. To me the macroscopic picture is that MO is a site for professional mathematicians, and as such it's a far more mature place where ideas are exchanged productively provided people largely let their actual identities be known.

    Quid's anecdotes do make good points, like the one about women on Launchpad. It's not clear these points tell us that allowing/encouraging anonymity is better, only that it can remove a certain amount of discomfort for some, at a cost to all. If participants haven't read the thread Andrew linked to, I'd like to encourage it.


    Oh dear. I hadn't intended to start this discussion. But since I made the mistake of not posting in the correct thread, may I ask the moderators to close this thread?

    There's a perfectly good discussion thread for bringing up old arguments for either side...

    • CommentAuthorquid
    • CommentTimeAug 16th 2011

    I had prepared a longer answer, but will respect Peter's request not to abuse his thread (too much).

    Just, two clarfication

    .) the 'better' was likely too vague to be understandable for anybody but me; there are some minor points I do not like on MO, and I somehow believe they would be still minor if real names were inexistant or less visible (whether or not this actually is so, well...unclear).

    .) I do not have the wish to remove personal communication (either in common rooms or on MO), I merely have the wish to minimize the effect of stereotypes and prejudices.


    Per Peter's request, I'll close this thread in a moment.

    That said, if anyone has further points they'd like to make, or if anyone thinks there are concrete policy implications of the discussion above that should be discussed further, please start a new thread. (Said otherwise, closing the thread is just 'housekeeping', rather than trying to inhibit this discussion!)