On Facebook, and now Google Plus, real names are required. Since its launch, there has been a fair amount of controversy surrounding the Google Plus policies, including this from a former Google employee who goes by the name of Skud, who had her account suspended. Today Jyri posted (on Google Plus) about Pseudonymous Accounts and why they should be permitted. He argues that people should “not be booted off the system for using a made up name” and quotes the diary of a gay teenage girl, Agnes, writing about her love interest, Elin, in Show Me Love:
This is not an edge case. Nor is it just about the two billion people who live under oppressive regimes. If you are a person who “thinks different”, think back. Were you ever the nail that sticks out, at some point in your life? Like in Amal, the home town of the two girls Agnes and Elin, the community preventing you from being all you can be the neighborhood school, church, friend group… often it’s your family.
Later in the afternoon Bradley Horowitz, from Google, posted about some changes to Google Plus addressing some concerns, allowing people to associate fictitious names with their accounts under “Other Names” (which can also be used for maiden names and the like), clarifying the rules during the sign-up process, and the implementation of a warning system prior to account deletions. He noted that he himself goes by the name “Elatable” on various places on the internet. And I think Google is being responsive and trying to do the right thing (That “Data Liberation” link gets me every time!)
The point I think is this: Pseudonyms are not in themselves harmful. Yes, they can be used for harm, as when people use them for anonymous, slanderous attacks, trolling, etc., but in the vast majority of cases there is no harm done. Importantly, they can serve to protect vulnerable groups. There’s even a comprehensive list of people harmed by Real Names policies. In the cases where pseudonyms are being abused, it is the harm that should be stopped, not the pseudonyms.
To my mind there are three categories of Pseudonymous behavior, and they should be treated differently:
AKA or “Also Known As” is a common use case. It’s like a stage name or a nom de plume. Say your Nom de Web is Kryptyk Physh. It’s not your “real name”, but you’ve staked your claim to it, it’s easier to register an original name in crowded namespaces, and your friends have come to identify you by it. These names are usually accompanied by a real name, like Bradley associating himself with “Elatable” or my friend Todd using his customary handle “Telstar Logistics“. The person is not trying to conceal his or her identity, just use a handle. Harm? None. It’s fairly easy to design systems to accommodate this, and this is the use case that Google Plus was addressing with their changes today.
Pseudonym A false name, or a name unassociated with a real identity, to preserve anonymity, for protection. The spectrum of danger ranges from people trying to avoid email-harvesting spammers, through gay teenagers risking the judgment of their peers and family, workers fearing they might lose their jobs, journalists in corrupt regimes or political dissidents who could risk prison or death. Sometimes their friends and allies know who they are if others don’t, in a kind of identity steganography. This is a strong case for allowing pseudonyms to exist online, and such white hat users can generally be identified by the content they post and their behavior online, which distinguishes them from
Trolls, a rubric I’m using to include Trolls, Harassers, Griefers, Spammers, Pimps, Exploiters, Slanderers, Criminals, Impersonators, Haters and so on — these are the abusers of anonymity, using false names as a convenient fig leaf to cover up anti-social behavior and to escape the consequences they’d face if they’d used their own names. Strong moderation is the solution to this problem. (And not to be forgotten: people harass others using their real names too.) On many systems there is a combination of real names and pseudonyms. The system can be designed to elevate in trust people using their real names, as Amazon does, and similarly can be designed to raise or lower the reputation of people using pseudonyms, by their behavior, using their posts, comments and contributions, rather than their identity. A general policy (that I use for my own sites) is to publish cogent, considered posts by anonymous contributors, but throw out posts that are angry, unproductive or concern trolling.
“Real identities” have real benefits to users — creating communities of trust, silencing trolls, people standing by their words. Nothing can destroy a happy social space faster than allowing the trolls to go unchecked. The use of real names online has gained momentum in recent years, I think as a consequence of the rise of social networking; in an earlier era this wasn’t the case. But most peoples’ pseudonymous online behavior falls into the first two categories — only the third needs policing. Pseudonyms, which provide so many benefits to the first two categories, should not be banned because of the third.
How real names benefit Facebook and Google is another story, for another post.