What's In A Name: The Importance Of Pseudonymity & The Dangers Of Requiring 'Real Names'

from the civilized-conversation dept

It feels like we've been having this debate for a long, long time. I still remember back in 2003 when Friendster users were up in arms over that site's sudden decision to delete "Fakester" profiles that did not use a person's real names. Four years later, Facebook started doing the same thing and now, four years after that, people are up in arms about the Google+ policy of requiring real names. Frankly, I've never understood why these sites are so against letting people use a pseudonym. What actual harm does it do?

There's a false belief out there that by somehow requiring "real names" it beefs up the quality of conversation. I think that's a myth. We see valuable contributions from anonymous and pseudonymous commenters all the time, and they've made it clear, many times over, that they would not contribute otherwise. And yet, the myth persists. The EFF recently noted that (former) Facebook marketing director (and sister of founder Mark), Randi Zuckerberg announced that anonymity "should go away."
I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away. People behave a lot better when they have their real names down. … I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.
And yet, there are times when being able to say whatever they want to say, but can't when associated with their real names, is incredibly important. Kirrily "Skud" Robert has started putting together a list of reasons why people prefer to use pseudonyms -- and there are numerous legitimate reasons that go way, way beyond "I want to be a jackass online."
  • “I am a high school teacher, privacy is of the utmost importance.”
  • “I publish under my nom de plume, it’s printed on my business cards, and all of the thousands of people I know through my social networks know me by my online name.”
  • “I have used this name/account in a work context, my entire family know this name and my friends know this name. It enables me to participate online without being subject to harassment that at one point in time lead to my employer having to change their number so that calls could get through.”
  • “I do not feel safe using my real name online as I have had people track me down from my online presence and had coworkers invade my private life.”
  • “I’ve been stalked. I’m a rape survivor. I am a government employee that is prohibited from using my IRL.”
  • “I work for a private club. I have to carry a card around which states I will not share any element of the club with any sort of media. So, If I want to talk about work (and I do) on the net, I have to use an alias.”
  • “I’ve been using this name for over 10 years in the “hacking” community. There are a nontrivial amount of people who know me *only* by that name.”
  • “As a former victim of stalking that impacted my family I’ve used [my nickname] online for about 7 years.”
  • “Under [this name] I am active in a number of areas of sexual difference for which it would not be wise for me to use my flesh legal name.”
  • “My actual real name is utterly non-identifying, as 1) it is the name of a character in a movie (Girl, Interrupted), and that overwhelms google search results 2) it’s not unique at ALL.”
  • “[this name] is a pseudonym I use to protect myself. My web site can be rather controversial and it has been used against me once.”
  • “I started using [this name] to have at least a little layer of anonymity between me and people who act inappropriately/criminally. I think the “real names” policy hurts women in particular.
  • “I use the pseudonym to maintain my online anonymity because I am polyamorous and have no desire for professional acquaintances to discover this.”
  • “I enjoy being part of a global and open conversation, but I don’t wish for my opinions to offend conservative and religious people I know or am related to. Also I don’t want my husband’s Govt career impacted by his opinionated wife, or for his staff to feel in any way uncomfortable because of my views.”
  • “I have privacy concerns for being stalked in the past. I’m not going to change my name for a google+ page. The price I might pay isn’t worth it.”
  • “We get death threats at the blog, so while I’m not all that concerned with, you know, sane people finding me. I just don’t overly share information and use a pen name.”
  • “This identity was used to protect my real identity as I am gay and my family live in a small village where if it were openly known that their son was gay they would have problems.”
  • “I go by pseudonym for safety reasons. Being female, I am wary of internet harassment.”
Danah Boyd, in typically insightful fashion, has also explained how a real names policy is actually an "abuse of power," and often harmful to the most marginalized people in society.
The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalized by systems of power. “Real names” policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people. These ideas and issues aren’t new (and I’ve even talked about this before), but what is new is that marginalized people are banding together and speaking out loudly. And thank goodness.

What’s funny to me is that people also don’t seem to understand the history of Facebook’s “real names” culture. When early adopters (first the elite college students…) embraced Facebook, it was a trusted community. They gave the name that they used in the context of college or high school or the corporation that they were a part of. They used the name that fit into the network that they joined Facebook with. The names they used weren’t necessarily their legal names; plenty of people chose Bill instead of William. But they were, for all intents and purposes, “real.” As the site grew larger, people had to grapple with new crowds being present and discomfort emerged over the norms. But the norms were set and people kept signing up and giving the name that they were most commonly known by. By the time celebrities kicked in, Facebook wasn’t demanding that Lady Gaga call herself Stefani Germanotta, but of course, she had a “fan page” and was separate in the eyes of the crowd. Meanwhile, what many folks failed to notice is that countless black and Latino youth signed up to Facebook using handles. Most people don’t notice what black and Latino youth do online. Likewise, people from outside of the US started signing up to Facebook and using alternate names. Again, no one noticed because names transliterated from Arabic or Malaysian or containing phrases in Portuguese weren’t particularly visible to the real name enforcers. Real names are by no means universal on Facebook, but it’s the importance of real names is a myth that Facebook likes to shill out. And, for the most part, privileged white Americans use their real name on Facebook. So it “looks” right.

[....]

What’s at stake is people’s right to protect themselves, their right to actually maintain a form of control that gives them safety. If companies like Facebook and Google are actually committed to the safety of its users, they need to take these complaints seriously. Not everyone is safer by giving out their real name. Quite the opposite; many people are far LESS safe when they are identifiable. And those who are least safe are often those who are most vulnerable.
The whole thing is worth reading. This is a big issue, and those who insist, simplistically, that forcing everyone to use "real names" all the time is better, are not paying attention to the problems that can cause. To be honest, I'm consistently surprised at how the various social networking companies have dealt with this. Pseudonyms have been a huge part of online culture from the early days, and the community has ways of dealing with bad actors. But assuming, automatically, that anyone using a pseudonym is a bad actor has tremendous collateral damage for those who have extremely compelling reasons not to use their real names.

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  1. identicon
    AnonymousFor25Yrs, 6 Aug 2011 @ 8:41pm

    Re: Re: Re: BS

    d00d, you are so ignorant of internet history and culture it is laughable. You smell like a Johnny-Come-Lately who doesn't understand what the internet really is; some boho tourist who comes to town, gets ugly-drunk in a bar and pisses on the local's lawns. Go work for a bank or something.

    A name is not a reputation or a guarantee of responsible conduct. Try wrapping your monetized head around that one.

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