Adam Obeng

It's not about real names

| Categories: networks, sociology, code

Google doesn’t care about real names.

If you’ve been even vaguely following the controversy about Google+, I’ll give you a moment to wipe the coffee off your monitor.

Bernie Hogan’s post is the latest free publicity for Google+ salvo in the “nymwars”: the blogosphere’s consternation over Google+’s policy of requiring users to use their real names. Now, although I don’t have a horse in this race1, I’d like to contribute what I think is really going on.

According to Bernie, real names in online interaction are sometimes better than pseudonymity. I think this is actually vanishingly rare. Google must realise this, and from the statements they’ve made, it looks like they do.2

We can only guess at what Google really wants, but if we take them at their word, their goal doesn’t require real names. The real-names policy on Google+ is just a beta feature, an experiment.

Next time, I’ll also have something to say about what it means to be “offline”.

Real names good…

Bernie says that:

 Real names and third-party curation [...] offer many advantages, but freedom is not one of them.

Understandably, he doesn’t go into much detail as to what these advantages might be. But it’s an interesting question: if we’re trading freedom for something else, we’d better make sure it’s worth it.

So what do we gain from real names? There’s no single answer, because many different activities are carried out online. Still, I suspect that what Bernie has in mind are activities based on reputation.

The discussion so far has focused on social networks, and as both Bernie and Danah Boyd note ([^Boyd)], a person’s online activities in a social network can belong to different contexts. But as well as targeting different groups of people, what we do online can serve diverse purposes.

Take, for instance, the activity in which I am now engaged: debate. Written debate is an activity that also occurs in the real world, perhaps most visibly in the printed media.

A newspaper letters page might also have a policy of only allowing real names. There, the policy makes the contributors show that they intend to back up their claims with their real-world reputation. In some cases, it could also reassure the readers with an argument from authority.

In the ideal debate, what people say would stand independently of their reputation, and each statement be judged on its own merits. But, as Kanye West might say, “How he stay rational in a room full of trolls?” People who are acting in bad faith might not be worth debating with.

Outside of debate, there are some obvious cases in which you want to know who you’re talking to: financial transactions, getting real-world advice you need to trust. You might want to use the Web to gather reliable information. In this case, you want to check that your correspondent is who they say they are: journalist, corporate spokesperson, or government minister.

All these reputation-based activities could be carried out on social networking sites with a real-names policy. In fact, real-name sites are not “necessarily inadequate” for this sort of interaction, they’re kinda handy.

…pseudonyms better?

But even offline, there are situations where speaking anonymously is the norm. You might get reliable information from “a senior politician”, without knowing who they are (yes, you do generally know who the journalist reporting it is). Monetary transactions are carried out anonymously or pseudonymously (when was the last time Starbucks asked you for ID?).

Debates held under the Chatham House Rule are another example: participants are forbidden from reporting who spoke or took part. The reasons here are to preserve the freedom of the participants: to allow them to say what they really think without consequence. Such debates aren’t anonymous by default, like buying a cup of coffee. They’re anonymous by design.

So there are both online activities which benefit from real names, and offline equivalents of those activities that have various levels of anonymity.

But there’s no reason why reputation needs to be linked to the real world. In most cases – especially where anonymity would be OK if you were offline – it’s just as good to have a purely online reputation, the reputation attached to a pseudonym (cf. Locke and Demosthenes).

In fact, many people in the offline world interact entirely pseudonymously, but maintain a reputation: does it really matter who Banksy really is? Does it even make sense to ask?

So, to answer the question posed above: it looks like real names only “offer many advantages” in the online world when the activity itself benefits from being linked to some offline existence. Real names are a hack: they splice offline mechanisms of trust into the online world.

When exactly does offline reputation matter? It’s not just that only “some lucky people give talks to large audiences, they get on the radio or tv”3. Only some lucky people are notable enough for their real names to matter.

Real names don’t matter

And it looks like Google has realised this. Robert Scoble reports that Vic Gundotra said that the real-names policy was supposed to:

make sure a positive tone gets set here [...] mostly to have a nicer, more personal, community,[^Scoble]

It makes sense to require real names if you’re trying to deter trolls. But it’s not necessary to use real names to build a community. In fact,

it isn't about real names [...] it is about having common names and removing people who spell their names in weird ways, like using upside-down characters, or who are using obviously fake names[^Scoble]

But if people have “common names”4, that they can’t just shed like a skin, then they carry their reputation with them. People will be “nice”, because they don’t want to get a reputation for being nasty. You can argue that point, but if it’s true, it’s a good reason for requiring “common”, or consistent names.

Of course, this is still speculative, but Google’s aim doesn’t seem to be banning pseudonyms, but rather to enforce their consistency. And that’s not in order to link what people say online to who they really are, but to make sure they’re civil. The statement about weird characters5 seems to reinforce this: it’s about image, the way the network appears to the outside world.

If that’s true, real names, like non-“weird” names, are being used as a proxy.

What you are known as is not important. That you are known is.

Next time I’ll talk about what it really means to be “offline”, and whether we can design a online social network that lets you be offline.

  1. I’m not on Google+ because I’ve got a Google Apps account…

  2. For the purposes of this article I will be assuming that Google is, in fact, not evil. 

  3. Real name sites are necessarily inadequate for free speech, by Bernie Hogan 

  4. I assume that “common” is meant in the sense of ‘consistent’, rather than ‘usual’. Please correct me if I’m wrong. 

  5. In some places, people can legally spell their names “in weird ways”, or have names that are “obviously fake”.