On 2 Feb I found a site that was centered around mental health and experiences. It appeared to be quite new and such sites are far less intimidating then those with established members who have already set the world in order so I thought I’d join. In a couple of months I expect to have matters to discuss so a few posts prior won’t hurt. On the first page I get asked for a username. I make one up and click Continue. I don’t mind someone knowing the label I have but that doesn’t mean I want to plaster it everywhere. Next screen asks for more information including my name. Complete that, agree to terms and then I’m in. There is much profile stuff to be completed but I head to the forum. As I do I see that Mark Riley has just joined the site. I switched pages and yes, it says Mark Riley has joined and is live online right now. That was a definite wtF moment.
Why ask for a username that will not be used? Why not say in big bold letters that your real name will be seen by everyone be they a site member or not? Why not respect the convention that a username is what others see, that your real name is never disclosed except by you? And why not realise that if you want people to discuss mental health issues – their own issues – you need to provide a degree of anonymity? Some people might not mind using their own name but the majority probably do not want their name alongside a mental disorder when they are googled. A quarter of Americans have a mental health disorder so if you know 12 people then 3 are affected (statistically anyway). But how many broadcast this fact? Bet it’s not the same quarter. Anyway, 2 Feb I open this site account and within 60 minutes it is deleted. I sent an email to the site owner expressing my concern.
On 11 Feb I got a reply. In the forum it’s my username, for the Rest Of The World it’s my real name. “Do you have any suggestions?” was in the reply.
“My suggestion would be to make it fantastically clear that your real name will be publicly displayed as soon as you join. Given the reason for the site and the stigma associated with mental health and the way that Google and others will never remove information I would expect any display of a real name to be double prompted with “Are you sure?”
I fully expected my username to be displayed everywhere. Literally everywhere, not my real name. I expected my real name to be known to you and you alone for some good reason.
What users choose to display is up to them. How users interact with others outside of the site is up to them. But otherwise I think the site should do everything possible to protect privacy and promote that fact. Promote the fact that you know it’s a sensitive subject but they are safe here with their username.”
On 23 Feb I got a reply (not quick are they?) saying changes would be made soon. I joined again 3 days ago with completely made up details and again the name displayed would have been the real one. If you insist on real names in any forum anywhere you run the risk of less particpation but in one that deals with a sensitive issue such as mental health then it can only be worse. It is worse because those that don’t mind others knowing will be open and those that wish they too could be open will not join. I don’t see a winner here, just loss all round.
I found a couple of other forums which I joined with the expected fake name. Both are established, both have users with thousands of posts. Back when I just had depression I also had access to usenet – a wonderful place until Google did it’s best to kill it. You can tell it was Google that did it because it’s full of spam with no effort to remove it. In usenet there were various groups for depression, most had irc chat. They were helpful to a point but there were many there who were swapping in-jokes and talking in a way that you knew there was a long relationship there albeit a text one. Odd in a depression ng and the same people led the discussions. Anyway, meds kicked in and I wandered off. A couple of years later I go back and it’s pretty much the same people in the ng and irc. I didn’t know if I was joining a social club, interrupting chat between friends or what. It was strange having the same people saying the same thing. I wondered if they were depressed or they needed that chat to stave off the depression or they were dependent on it. Yet here too it was loss. I got nothing from it and I have no idea what it was doing for them.
It’s a difficult thing trying to find some support. In real life it’s practically impossible and online it’s as bad. The lack of intimacy is fine, the fake names is fine but it’s the non-judgemental non-‘this worked for me so it will for you’ people you want. It’s forum posts from others that fit your need you want to see. It’s somewhere to write where people say the right things back even though you probably don’t know what that right thing is until you’ve read it twice. So you end up alone with your thoughts, thoughts which the docs are hoping chemically influencing and possibly bad things happen yet when they do the Govt and others express surprise because they say so much help is out there and it isn’t. It really is not there. Which is sad.
And in case you are wondering, I’m absolutely fine. That website just annoyed me.