Pseudonymity and Online Collaboration in the Legal World

Not wanting to miss on the chance to hear from tech luminaries such as Tim O’Reilly and Reddit founder Alexis Onahian, I attended StartupFest in Montreal in mid-July. This post is about Ohanian’s talk (and the stream of thoughts that ensued) which was entitled “The Future of Community”. Since this is pretty vague, let me explain that Ohanian discussed the value of pseudonymity (and, in passing, the cuteness of bleps) and argued that pseudonymity was what allowed people to be themselves on the web and what in turn fuelled the seemingly more collaborative spirit that he observes on Reddit.

It’s worth noting that the standard practice on Reddit is not to use your real name as a username. This is important because the registration form does not ask you for anything other than a username and a password (no “profile” form to fill in and no profile pic). This creates a very different experience from that on other social networks (Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn) where our profile is basically a happier and more popular version of our “in real life” (IRL) persona.

It’s not difficult, either in the Ohanian talk or in your typical technophile post, talk, or book, to find unreserved praise for how fantastically world changing online collaboration is. Above the clichés, I agree that collaboration is changing the world and will assume that you agree too. However, the legal world seems, in large part, to be “immune” to this: we haven’t really been able to tap into the power of the crowds as much as in other fields.

Of course, there’s a very good example, right in front of me, of lawyers collaborating online: CanLII Connects. This is a fantastic resource where legal professionals contribute content for free and thereby “collaborate” in creating a database of summaries and case comments that complement and enhance the content found in the caselaw database. For the purpose of this post though, let’s define “collaboration” as something that involves more interaction between the different users, either:

  • through a Q&A format (as I will abundantly discuss) when trying to solve specific problems for individuals benevolently, i.e. with no expectation that this will have a significant impact on the contributors’ IRL persona, including reputational gains; or
  • through the actual coordination of several users seeking to create one unified piece of legal information (as on Wikipedia, where several unrelated users contribute to a single text on a specific topic).

There are obviously good (ethics related) reasons why legal professionals may be reluctant to collaborate (as I have just defined it) online, but it’s hard to fathom that there is absolutely no reasonable and prudent model that would allow us to tap into the more collaborative nature of the web to solve legal problems and, while doing so, meet unmet legal needs.

In comparison (and aside from the traditional example of Wikipedia), one field in which the power of online collaboration is most obvious is computer programming. In my experience as an amateur in this field, the now ubiquitous technique of “googling the error message” returns a useful post 99 percent of the time. “Useful” here means that somebody has already publicly asked the same question, and that the original poster’s problem was solved by a reply another user who came to help. In the remaining 1% of the times, I was generally able to get help from a user by posting a question myself, after worrying that I did something so stupid that no one had ever had the same problem as me.

Setting the ethical questions aside for a minute, it’s an interesting thought experiment to ask ourselves why programmers seem so much more collaborative in spirit. I think part of the answer is that lawyers sell their services to answer legal questions, whereas programmers don’t: they are hired to work on projects, not to answer programming questions for third-parties (as always there are probably exceptions).

By following this line of thought further, one could say that a lawyer’s online persona is a direct competitor to the lawyer’s IRL persona. Lawyers would rightly feel that they cannibalize their business by collaborating for free online answering legal questions. A computer programmer would probably not feel the same way. Going back to Ohanian’s claims about the empowering strength of pseudonymity, I have since been wondering if separating a lawyer’s online and its IRL persona (perhaps – I’m hearing you scoff – by creating two distinct sets of ethics rules) is not part of the answer.

The majority of my generally successful attempts at “googling the error message” in my amateur programmer life lead me to a discussion on Stack Overflow, a Q&A site specifically for programmers. Sorry to those familiar with the concept, but let me explain a bit: in a typical Stack Overflow discussion, a user asks a question and members of the community provide answers. The answers are subject to rigorous (and sometimes ruthless) feedback from the community, both through a voting system where the best answer is pushed to the top (and vice versa), but also in the form of written comments that either celebrate and perhaps complete good answers, or criticize erroneous or non-responsive ones. The discussion is generally closed when the user who originally asked the question indicates that one particular answer solved the problem. Some might say that an important difference between computer programming problems and legal problems is that it takes a lot longer to know if a legal problem is solved than in computer programming where it is instantaneous.

Stack Overflow uses a sophisticated reputation system to help users separate the wheat from the chaff and a high reputation gets you privileges. The IRL reputation of a user doesn’t seem to matter that much, if at all. A fair amount of the top Stack Overflow users (by reputation) use a pseudonym. Thanks to this reputation system, it doesn’t matter if you get a responsive answer from a person that uses his IRL name, or from a user with a mysterious pseudonym that has the picture of a slice of pie as an avatar … if this user was “upvoted” thousands of times in forums related to the field of computer programming you are most interested in.

In his talk, Ohanian explained that he used to collaborate and answer web development questions in early web forums when he was a teenager (from the picture shown in Ohanian’s slides, I would say he was about 13 then) and was generally found to be a very helpful contributor. Yet, he knows that nobody in their right mind would have asked him any question if his account was linked to his IRL persona, i.e. had other users known that he was a 13 year old with a spectacular bowl cut.

Some people will probably point out that there might be a more obvious answer to my question about the difference in enthusiasm for online collaboration in computer programming and law, namely that the equivalent in law to “googling the error message” is to paste confidential information in a web forum. It is true that in computer programming help forums, you may not only be asked by other users seeking to help you to copy the full error message, but also the configurations of your computer or a more detailed error log. This would be the equivalent, for a legal question, to providing highly specific details about your case. That said, I still think that this denies that there is a considerable amount of legal questions that can be formulated without referring to specific underlying facts. Legal research questions immediately jump to mind.

Thinking about how something like the Stack Overflow model could be implemented in the legal system isn’t new for me. That said, I’m a bit lucky that a very recent development (one that I was only made aware after finalizing an earlier version of this post) brings me the perfect conclusion to this post on a silver platter:

The online Q&A site Stack Overflow is part of a broader network of online references in Q&A format called Stack Exchange (which has previously been mentioned on Slaw). Aside from Stack Overflow, the Stack Exchange network has Q&A sites on video gaming, mathematics, and the English Language, among others. The full list is here. Note that the Stack Exchange network only creates new topical Q&A sites after consideration. In other words, you can’t wake up one morning and decide to create a Stack Exchange site on your favourite obscure topic: this needs to go through a lengthy approval process.

Out of coincidence, the legal Stack Exchange Q&A site has been out of beta since early July: In my mind, this is the start of a fundamental experiment in “new law” and one that is worth monitoring.

Lastly, to close the loop on Ohanian’s talk at StartupFest and my observations on pseudonymity in the legal online world, there may be something in the fact that the overwhelming majority of contributors on the legal Stack Exchange site (a higher percentage than in the computer programming site) use pseudonyms:

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