The fight over the ability to maintain a type of anonymity on social media originally spoken of as fiascos surrounding “Real Name policies” and dubbed the “Nymwar” (after psudeonym) has returned to the table once again as Facebook opened up another salvo. In what looks like a cynical attempt to discover if users are using their real names or not, pop-ups are appearing on people’s dashboards asking if their friends are using their real names or not.
Blogger Paul Bernal discovered this questionnaire and posted about it on his blog, outlining the nature of the questions and how that might affect thousands of users. The concept of enforcing “real names” itself is sticky in of itself and breaching online anonymity can have catastrophic effects for certain consumers of social media.
Facebook has had a “real name policy” for quite some time; however it has gone largely unenforced.
“Facebook is a community where people connect and share using their real identities. When everyone uses their real first and last names, people can know who they’re connecting with. This helps keep our community safe,” writes a Facebook FAQ on the policy. “We take the safety of our community very seriously. That’s why we remove fake accounts from the site as we find them.”
Bernal even relates a story about how Salman Rushdie ran afoul of Facebook’s ill-thought-out real names policy when the company decided he wasn’t the real thing and suspended his account. In order to get his account restored, Rushdie sent in his passport to prove his identity—however, when his account was restored, Facebook had used the name on his passport “Ahmed Rushdie.” Aside from extremely insulting (changing someone’s name on their account for the sake of matching their passport) this displayed the fundamental flaw in the “real name” policy: it doesn’t reflect reality.
Rushdie eventually used his celebrity status and other social media (Twitter) to strong arm Facebook into giving him his proper name back on his account.
An everyday Joe or even pseudonymous blogger using Facebook to keep up with her friends or do activism wouldn’t have such resources.
Why is the “real name” policy a problem and not just a nuisance?
First, Facebook’s claims of “safety” has been largely debated across the Internet by sociologists and anthropologists alike—and there’s obvious reasons why psudonymity and anonymity is important to activists and even everyday people. The focus of this debate has been covered on SiliconANGLE before and even spoken to by moot of 4chan fame. The “real name” policy forwarded by Facebook may have the verisimilitude of increasing the “safety” of their community; but it really decreases their time-on-target for enforcing harassment rules and has the byproduct of decreasing the actual safety of some of their members by making them even more targetable by people who might mean to do them harm.
Certainly people have heard of Penny Arcade’s famous “Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory,” wherein a normal person plus anonymity behaves like a giant jerk. Facebook hearkens back to this to suggest that they want to clean up their ranks by giving accountability directly to real people. However, the risks don’t match the rewards: Facebook still must locate and ban people for harassment; they must still contend with fake user accounts and sockpuppets generated by would-be harassers; and as I said above it opens up otherwise normal people to being connected easily to their online identities.
Second, as with the Salman Rushdie example above “real names” are not as cut-and-dry as any policy might suspect. A person’s legal name may not be the name that they use on the job, in their casual lives, or even online. Identity is a fluid concept and isn’t subject to an overarching rule set that touches every aspect of our lives—this is especially true online. By locking a person on social media (a separate community) to the name on their passport of birth certificate strips from them a powerful notion of controlling their own identity.
Our own editor-in-chief Mark “Rizzn” Hopkins has a strange name that he uses across almost every tier of his life. With Google Plus, he discovered that their “real name” policy prohibited him from using this name, even though for all social intents and purposes it is a trademark of his identity. The uproar against G+ over their own “real names” policy reached a fever pitch when Google stumbled in their usual innovative and all-encompassing spirit by making an algorithm that tried to detect “real names” leaving people with non-American names out of in the cold.
This eventually led to the promise that psuedonyms and brand pages would be added to the ranks of G+ to help match up with other social media experiences.
Activision-Blizzard learned the hard way that some online communities are build around psudoanonymity when they attempted to forward the Real ID policy forcing players and posters in their forums to use their real names. The backlash from this became so fierce that they were forced to quickly backpedal, and possibly still feel the sting even today from 2 years ago.
Sneaky Facebook, Sneaky
Yes, the question does state that the answer will not affect the friend’s account in any way; but why should anyone trust Facebook on this admission? They have a policy in place that says people cannot use “false” names (whatever that means) and will certainly use that to clamp down on people using pseudonyms.
Furthermore, some users are now culling their friend’s lists of untrustworthy people who might snitch on them and turn them in to Facebook for not using their “real name.”
This won’t lead to Facebook taking much egg-on-the-face socially; but it’s likely that we’re going to see a resurgence in the Nymwars debate. Perhaps it’s about time for G+ to enable psudeonyms so that they can compete in the market and make themselves look like the good guys.
The Nymwars are far from over and it’s about time people started paying attention to how our privacy is treated by large data warehouses that track our thoughts and moods such as Facebook, G+, and Twitter.