Anonymity, Pseudoanonymity, And Google+

July 26th, 2011 by Potato

I was just informed that Google intends to force G+ accounts to use “real” names, and in enforcing that policy has even gone so far as to delete other Google accounts with a pseudonym (even your Gmail!).

I’ve written before on anonymity and pseudoanonymity, saying:

That brings up a very good question of what it means to be anonymous these days. Is Lady Gaga anonymous? Madonna, Mark Twain, Prince, Robin Hobb? […] Is “Potato”? Sure, we don’t use our real names, but how much would our “real names” mean, anyway? There’s definitely a distinction between the fleeting anonymity of user213 leaving a comment on [a] blog with a dummy email address and then disappearing into the ether never to be seen again, and the pseudo-anonymity of CC or Potato, Gabe or Tycho, Yahtzee: established personas on the intertubes, with consistent messages, accountability (at least as much as if I was blogging with my real name), the ability to be contacted and engaged in dialog with. I publish under both my real name and Potato, and I daresay I’m better known and more widely read as Potato, with a longer track record (going on what, 13 years now of BbtP?). I would be more anonymous if I used my real name.

A name-brand source of information, opinion, ranting, and hilarity.

So I don’t think the “brave enough to be anonymous” ad hominen is warranted or fair. The internet seems to be growing up and moving away from pseudo-anonymity, but it’s still there (just as it is in “real” publishing) and I think it’s important to distinguish between actual anonymity and a nom de plume.

Anonymity contributes to the Greater Internet Fuckwad phenomenon, but I do see value in pseudonyms. It can give an asshole psychological permission to act like a giant asshole, but it also lets people make poignant comments or tell moving, important stories without fear of what impact those tales may have on their day-to-day life. For whatever reason they have: just shy, out of character with their other work, or because they live in a politically dangerous situation where their words could hurt people (including themselves). I liked the anonymity of the early internet: sure, there were ultra-jerks and flamebaiters and megatrolls, but there was also a culture of reasoned people who spent more time reading the message than the from field. It didn’t matter who your father was, what country you were from, how you earned your money, or if you were a 16-year-old high school kid: if you had something good to say, people listened.

Besides, I’m not sure that real names really solve the anonymity problem — I got through over 30 search results for my other name before I stopped counting, none of whom is me, and there are many more out there across the world who don’t rank highly in search engines. If I chose to be a troll, would my real name really remove that barrier to human interaction that leads people to say things they never would directly to a person’s face? I’d still be effectively anonymous.

They’re right in that it probably would help, at least a bit: prank calls went down after call display became popular, but they didn’t go away completely (just got one last week). Trolling would probably be reduced with some sort of real ID system, but I think that there’s value enough in some aspects of anonymity/pseudoanonymity that it should be kept. For example, should a LGBT teen in deepest darkest born-again country be forced to use their real name to join an online support/chat group? What about corporate whistleblowers? Or just people whose lives are interesting enough that they have secret obsessions they’d rather not have come up in an internet search (e.g.: LARPers)?

Moreover, G+/Facebook are the *last* places that need to enforce such a policy, since you have such tight control over your circles/lists. You should know who you’re adding: either the man behind the mask, or the nature of the invented persona (troll or not). Anonymous or not, if there are trolls bothering you on G+ or Facebook, odds are you approved them.

[Note that I’m being somewhat unkind here in not mentioning the good arguments for why a lack of anonymity may improve the internet experience for most]

Update: a nice op-ed about the issue, and how allowing (initially, anyway) pseudonyms was precisely what set G+ apart from Facebook, and may be a part of what’s made it so successful so quickly. [HT: LG]

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