Friday, June 12, 2009

The Economic Logic of Anonymity and Pseudonymity

My previous post talks about my recent NBER working paper with Muriel Niederle and Utku Unver. Earlier this week I received an email that this paper was featured on another blog, Economic Logic. The email was signed "Economic Logician." And when I looked carefully at the blog itself (which I had read before; it's one of the economics blogs I have on my bookmark list), I couldn't find any identifying information about the blogger, even after clicking on the links through which blog owners often identify themselves.

So I replied to the email asking "Are you blogging anonymously, incidentally? (May I ask why?)"

I received the following reply: "Yes, I remain anonymous. This allows me more liberty in my writing, and I hope the blog will gather reputation on its own merit, instead of being attached to a name."

This got me thinking about the market design aspects of anonymity , and its not so close relative pseudonymity. When I asked EL about his/her anonymity, I was referring of course to the fact that I don't know who he/she is, what his/her day job is, which personal pronoun is appropriate, etc. But when EL speaks of the blog developing a reputation, he/she is referring to the fact that the posts are under the repeated-use pseudonym Economic Logician (with respect to which the name of the blog is an eponym), so that each post can both rely on and help establish the reputation of the same unidentified/pseudonymous person who wrote the previous posts.

Lots of internet markeplaces allow pseudonymous usernames, and still manage to foster reputation building and trust. (In an earlier post I wrote about the redesign of eBay's reputation system from one in which feedback could only be identified or pseudonymous to one in which it can also be anonymous: "ENGINEERING TRUST - RECIPROCITY IN THE PRODUCTION OF REPUTATION INFORMATION," - by Gary Bolton, Ben Greiner, and Axel Ockenfels. ) That paper notes how being able to identify who left feedback led to reciprocal feedback, either jointly positive or jointly negative, which reduced the informativeness of certain kinds of feedback.

There are other contexts in which anonymity is encouraged or allowed (and not just in comments to blogs). The refereeing of academic papers for publication is an example in which we seem to believe that the benefits (increased frankness) of anonymity may overcome the costs (e.g. an increase in self-serving reviews).

Some journals have double-blind refereeing, in which the authors as well as the referees may choose to remain anonymous during the review process (e.g. by deleting their names from the cover sheet, and also not posting the paper where Google can find it). Google now essentially prevents journals from enforcing anonymity on authors, since it gives authors a way to identify themselves if they wish, despite the requirement that their names and affiliations may not appear on the submitted paper. I think that preventing referees from knowing who the authors are would be a mixed blessing; it would level the playing field in certain desirable ways, but it might also remove information that would be valuable in evaluating the paper. (For example, if you read a paper saying that, on balance, the conclusions of Roth (1977) need to be revisited, it might be useful for you to know if Roth is one of the authors.)

Of course, marketplace rules may allow participants to be anonymous from some parties and not from others, and internet privacy rules are concerned with who can choose how individuals are identified. (See this nice take on the famous New Yorker cartoon about anonymity on the internet.)

So, anonymity has its uses, as does identity, and pseudonymity has some of the advantages and disadvantages of each. I'll keep blogging under my natural name for the time being, since, especially when my posts are unclear or incomplete, they may get some helpful context from the fact that they are linked to me and the work I do .


Anonymous said...

Of course, you do allow anonymous comments....

Anonymous said...

And they are truly double-blind, as also the reader stays anonymous.

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