The Nymity project posits the utility of pseudonymous, text-based communication platforms in promoting civil discourse within closed-network environments. Our approach is inspired by the ideal of American jury, in which persons from a diversity of perspectives come together in private as equals to discuss and reach consensus on an important issue. Charles R. Nesson, Weld Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and founder of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University (BKC), is the Principal Investigator of the project. Anthony Cascione, BKC Fellow, is its Project Manager.
Nymity traces its origins to Professor Nesson’s classroom. In 2015, Nesson introduced his students at Harvard Law School to Threads – a simple, text-only online communication platform which assigns each participant a different nym (such as Mercury, Mars, or Athios) for the duration of a chat session. Nesson introduced Threads because he found that when it came time to openly discuss difficult issues as a class, students were too often inhibited by fears of sounding unthoughtful or being subject to reprisal from those who disagreed.
Being given five minutes to respond to a prompt pseudonymously on Threads before engaging in face-to-face discussion enabled Nesson’s students to think through, articulate, and share their own responses free from the inhibitions described above. Nesson and his students found that face-to-face discussions which followed an opportunity to respond and read each other’s responses on Threads were increasingly incisive, lively, engaging, respectful, and deeper than those had without first using Threads.
We believe Threads’ positive effects on discourse occur because it provides a sandbox of sorts – a safe, private environment like a jury room in which participants feel able to express tentative views or beliefs without being locked into or permanently associated with their initial expression. Once a view has been expressed pseudonymously on Threads, it can be referenced and discussed rigorously without the temptation to shame or otherwise personally attack those who initially supported it. When a discourse environment allows participants to feel safe enough to express a belief and to later abandon that belief upon hearing & considering others’ perspectives, minds can change.
While they can be intense, we have found that group discussions initiated on Threads and framed by agreed-upon norms do not have the open internet’s propensity for discourse break-down. Threads is less susceptible to trolling and other disruptive behavior because of participants’ investment and common interest in their own discourse environment. As participants continue to develop a community around their shared goal of learning from each other, their collective ability to discuss important, difficult issues civilly and openly increases.
The mission of the Nymity project is to encourage and support experimentation with pseudonymous, text-based communication platforms by any group which would benefit from more open, civil discourse.