Saturday, August 6, 2011

Using your “real name” is not revolutionary.

Google+ and Facebook both require their users to use their real names on the site. This might or might not be a good idea that is beneficial to users. The wisdom of such policies can be debated. But having such a policy is not "revolutionary."

Alexis Madrigal begins his “revolutionary” claim by conceding his initial instincts "strongly pointed to requiring real names." He then uses a bogus thought experiment to convince himself otherwise:

Imagine you're walking down the street and you say out loud, "Down with the government!" For all non-megastars, the vast majority of people within earshot will have no idea who you are. They won't have access to your employment history or your social network or any of the other things that a Google search allows one to find. The only information they really have about you is your physical characteristics and mode of dress, which are data-rich but which cannot be directly or easily connected to your actual identity. In my case, bystanders would know that a 5'9", 165 pound probably Caucasian male with half a beard said, "Down with the government!" Neither my speech or the context in which it occurred is preserved. And as soon as I leave the immediate vicinity, no one can definitively prove that I said, "Down with the government!"

In your head, adjust the settings for this thought experiment (you say it at work or your hometown or on television) or what you say (something racist, something intensely valuable, something criminal) or who you are (child, celebrity, politician) or who is listening (reporters, no one, coworkers, family). What I think you'll find is that we have different expectations for the publicness and persistence of a statement depending on a variety of factors. There is a continuum of publicness and persistence and anonymity. But in real life, we expect very few statements to be public, persistent, and attached to your real identity. Basically, only people talking on television or to the media can expect such treatment. And even then, the vast majority of their statements don't become part of the searchable Internet.

I’m fine with analogies, but this is the wrong one. Facebook and Google+ aren’t at all like yelling out into a nameless crowd. Instead, you’re writing a message, to people you choose to share it with. This is a lot more like a letter or mass e-mail. Technologies much older than modern social networks, and ones that we quite often connect with our real names. Why? Because we wan’t our readers to know where the message is coming from. We want them to read it and trust it and care about it.

I’m not saying that anonymity doesn’t have its advantages. Sure it does, and it has a rich and honored history on the Web, including web forums, chat rooms, Myspace, Friendster, Tumblr and Twitter. But let’s not pretend that using one’s real name on the internet is some sort of crazy, unprecedented idea.

Both Facebook and Google are trying to connect you with your real friends, because those are the relationships that can most easily be monetized through advertising. And they are the relationships that create the “stickiest” network effects. You trust your close friends more than anyone else. This is the idea behind the “real names” rules.

If we must use a talking out loud analogy instead of a written one, fine. What if you’re talking to your friends in a bar, they all know who you are, don’t they? That bar is what Google and Facebook want to be. They want you to have a few drinks, let down you guard, and show you ads while you’re in the can. They are the new Cheers, “where everybody knows your name.”

You may not like it. You may be worried that someone will overhear, or that you’ll be taken advantage of. That you don’t really control your privacy. You may prefer a low profile. That’s fine. There are a couple of rando funhouses down the street. They’re called Twitter & Tumblr, and they’re great. See you there. I like all the bars in this neighborhood.

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