Pseudonymity and social networks.

Those who follow me on Twitter, MyFace and Google+ will know that I have been linking a fair bit recently to news articles and blog posts about Google disabling peoples G+ profiles for doing nothing more than using a pseudonym.  There has been a large amount of discussion about it in the media too which I find surprising.  I wouldn’t have expected the media to care less about this story.  I’m also surprised so many people seem up in arms about it mostly because it’s been MyFace’s policy to only allow real names from the very start.  Nobody seemed to give two hoots back when MyFace started, nor do they give two hoots now.

I thought it was about time I threw my two cents in to the mix, as someone who exclusively uses a pseudonym online and actively uses that same pseudonym in real life.  There are already plenty of arguments about who is harmed by a “real name” policy, so I suggest you read those instead if that’s what you’re after.  Personally, I’ll be tackling some of the main questions and arguments I’ve seen in the last week in support of a “real name” policy, and why these arguments don’t hold water.

Suggested reading before you go on:

Who is harmed by a “Real Name” policy at Geek Feminism (Note: Read the Wiki link they have on this page too)

Infotrope.net – Skud, an ex-google employee’s blog on being kicked off Google+ (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

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I would like to preface this by stating why I don’t use my real name.  Privacy.  It was drummed in to me when I first got a computer that could connect with other computers, to never ever give out any personal information about myself.  You never know who the person on the other side of the screen is.  They could easily be as normal and unthreatening as you, or they could be a stalker, con person, thief, you just do not know.  It is all a matter of personal protection from people like this.  If they get your name and your city, they could look you up in a phone book and harass you not only via phone but in person and at your house.

This is why I’ve never understood people’s desire to use their real names, why I never understood their signing up to sites like MyFace and posting their addresses, numbers, contact information, pictures, and god knows what other private information that could be used and abused.  It wasn’t until MyFace made a rather mediocre change to their terms of service that the public in general suddenly realised what idiots they had been in sharing it all.  Only in the last 12 months has that public perception of personal privacy been reversed and returned somewhat to where it should be.

Real names and locations though are still common place.  Stalkers, harassers, con-people are free to go about what they do best.  I know at least half a dozen people who never say their children’s names online (they use Ms 1, Mr 3 etc), and have had others mention their children’s names to them (sometimes innocently, other times not so innocently).  One even had their child’s preschool mentioned to them, something this person had never told anyone online.  This was a real reality check for them, it scared them witless.  They now use pseudonyms online exclusively, just like me.

In the last few years I’ve also learnt the value of keeping my professional life and my personal life separate.  This is mostly for the reason of de-stressing and relaxing.  Businesses and organisations are regularly known these days for Googling employees and potential employees.  I however make a point to keep my professional and personal life separate.  No business or organisation hires private detectives to find out the social habits and conversations of potential employees prior to or after hiring, so what right do they have to search out this information online?  As long as I don’t breach their rights by talking publicly about what goes on inside the confines of work, then it is none of their business what I do in my personal life.

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Anyway, now on to the most common arguments I’ve seen used in support of the “real names” policy, and why they are wrong.

I want to know who it is I’m really dealing with. 

You don’t get that by a name, you get that by a profile and actually getting to know a person.

I’d rather verified people on a social network.

You’re not getting verified people with Google’s “real name” policy anyway.  That is the reason why so many people use the scare quotes.  You’re simply getting a real looking name.

There are plenty of avenues for Anonymous content on the web, but social networks require some level of validation/trust…

People can still be anonymous on Google+, and its “real names” policy only adds the illusion of trust.  Google is not requiring an ID to be checked and verified upon signup.  There is nothing to stop me from registering a gmail account and creating a Google+ account under the name “Matthew Fredrickson” (Note: This name is chosen completely at random) and then using that to slander and abuse people.  There’s also nothing stopping people from using other peoples real names either.  I know there’s a handful of “Bill Gates”‘s on Google+.

Anonymity is not desirable for a social network.

By forcing people with active and near exclusive pseudonyms to use their real names, you’re forcing them in to anonymity to some degree because you are forcing them not to use the name they are best known by.

I’ve been using “Bastard Sheep” off and on since 1996.  Even back before I started using it as my primary monicker, if someone made a reference to “Bastard Sheep” in both my online social circles as well as my offline social circles, chances are everyone else knew that they were making a reference to me.  It is because of this I took up the name “Bastard Sheep” as my primary monicker.  It was the most consistent name I was known by.

It is for all intents and purposes the name I am best known by.  Most people wouldn’t know who they were dealing with if they dealt with me by my real name.  I would become, anonymous.

It stops people hiding associations.

What if they want those associations hidden?  As I said above, I like to keep my professional and personal life separate.  I do not want that association intruding on my personal life because it is unrelated.  Take a look at the links above to see plenty of people who could be hurt for no valid reasons due to associations they unfortunately and sometimes unwantedly have.

It stops astroturfing, sockpuppeting.

No it doesn’t.  As stated earlier, ID’s are not verified upon signup so there’s nothing stopping me from creating a “Matthew Fredrickson” account despite that not being my actual name.  There’s nothing stopping me from creating accounts with real looking names to astroturf, nor to sock puppet.

Anonymous accounts makes it harder to identify and report accounts created just for abuse.

Actually I would argue having “real names” makes it harder to identify and report accounts.  As I’ve shown above, no ID is required to be verified before signing up so there’s no way to know that this person with a real looking name is a real person or not.  Nicknames and handles actually make it more obvious when there is a troll account as they’re more likely to have a name like “LOLF4GZZZ!!!one” than “Michael Christopher Brown”.

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There’s many more questions that I’ve seen, but they can generally be covered by the responses I’ve given above.  If you do have any further arguments in favour of Google’s “real name” policy then please do let me know.  Personally, my preference would be if Google’s policy was actually what they stated it was – “the name you are most commonly known by”.  For me and many others, that is our pseudonym.  For people like us, we should be allowed to use it.

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2 thoughts on “Pseudonymity and social networks.

  1. That…sums it up, really.
    Personally, I like it that you can link your entire online life together more easily nowadays, but you should be able to do that without linking it to your real one as well…

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