My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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“Real Names” Policies Are an Abuse of Power

Everyone’s abuzz with the “nymwars,” mostly in response to Google Plus’ decision to enforce its “real names” policy. At first, Google Plus went on a deleting spree, killing off accounts that violated its policy. When the community reacted with outrage, Google Plus leaders tried to calm the anger by detailing their “new and improved” mechanism to enforce “real names” (without killing off accounts). This only sparked increased discussion about the value of pseudonymity. Dozens of blog posts have popped up with people expressing their support for pseudonymity and explaining their reasons. One of the posts, by Kirrily “Skud” Robert included a list of explanations that came from people she polled, including:

  • “I am a high school teacher, privacy is of the utmost importance.”

  • “I have used this name/account in a work context, my entire family know this name and my friends know this name. It enables me to participate online without being subject to harassment that at one point in time lead to my employer having to change their number so that calls could get through.”
  • “I do not feel safe using my real name online as I have had people track me down from my online presence and had coworkers invade my private life.”
  • “I’ve been stalked. I’m a rape survivor. I am a government employee that is prohibited from using my IRL.”
  • “As a former victim of stalking that impacted my family I’ve used [my nickname] online for about 7 years.”
  • “[this name] is a pseudonym I use to protect myself. My web site can be rather controversial and it has been used against me once.”
  • “I started using [this name] to have at least a little layer of anonymity between me and people who act inappropriately/criminally. I think the “real names” policy hurts women in particular.
  • “I enjoy being part of a global and open conversation, but I don’t wish for my opinions to offend conservative and religious people I know or am related to. Also I don’t want my husband’s Govt career impacted by his opinionated wife, or for his staff to feel in any way uncomfortable because of my views.”
  • “I have privacy concerns for being stalked in the past. I’m not going to change my name for a google+ page. The price I might pay isn’t worth it.”
  • “We get death threats at the blog, so while I’m not all that concerned with, you know, sane people finding me. I just don’t overly share information and use a pen name.”
  • “This identity was used to protect my real identity as I am gay and my family live in a small village where if it were openly known that their son was gay they would have problems.”
  • “I go by pseudonym for safety reasons. Being female, I am wary of internet harassment.”

You’ll notice a theme here…

Another site has popped up called “My Name Is Me” where people vocalize their support for pseudonyms. What’s most striking is the list of people who are affected by “real names” policies, including abuse survivors, activists, LGBT people, women, and young people.

Over and over again, people keep pointing to Facebook as an example where “real names” policies work. This makes me laugh hysterically. One of the things that became patently clear to me in my fieldwork is that countless teens who signed up to Facebook late into the game chose to use pseudonyms or nicknames. What’s even more noticeable in my data is that an extremely high percentage of people of color used pseudonyms as compared to the white teens that I interviewed. Of course, this would make sense…

The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalized by systems of power. “Real names” policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people. These ideas and issues aren’t new (and I’ve even talked about this before), but what is new is that marginalized people are banding together and speaking out loudly. And thank goodness.

What’s funny to me is that people also don’t seem to understand the history of Facebook’s “real names” culture. When early adopters (first the elite college students…) embraced Facebook, it was a trusted community. They gave the name that they used in the context of college or high school or the corporation that they were a part of. They used the name that fit into the network that they joined Facebook with. The names they used weren’t necessarily their legal names; plenty of people chose Bill instead of William. But they were, for all intents and purposes, “real.” As the site grew larger, people had to grapple with new crowds being present and discomfort emerged over the norms. But the norms were set and people kept signing up and giving the name that they were most commonly known by. By the time celebrities kicked in, Facebook wasn’t demanding that Lady Gaga call herself Stefani Germanotta, but of course, she had a “fan page” and was separate in the eyes of the crowd. Meanwhile, what many folks failed to notice is that countless black and Latino youth signed up to Facebook using handles. Most people don’t notice what black and Latino youth do online. Likewise, people from outside of the US started signing up to Facebook and using alternate names. Again, no one noticed because names transliterated from Arabic or Malaysian or containing phrases in Portuguese weren’t particularly visible to the real name enforcers. Real names are by no means universal on Facebook, but it’s the importance of real names is a myth that Facebook likes to shill out. And, for the most part, privileged white Americans use their real name on Facebook. So it “looks” right.

Then along comes Google Plus, thinking that it can just dictate a “real names” policy. Only, they made a huge mistake. They allowed the tech crowd to join within 48 hours of launching. The thing about the tech crowd is that it has a long history of nicks and handles and pseudonyms. And this crowd got to define the early social norms of the site, rather than being socialized into the norms set up by trusting college students who had joined a site that they thought was college-only. This was not a recipe for “real name” norm setting. Quite the opposite. Worse for Google… Tech folks are VERY happy to speak LOUDLY when they’re pissed off. So while countless black and Latino folks have been using nicks all over Facebook (just like they did on MySpace btw), they never loudly challenged Facebook’s policy. There was more of a “live and let live” approach to this. Not so lucky for Google and its name-bending community. Folks are now PISSED OFF.

Personally, I’m ecstatic to see this much outrage. And I’m really really glad to see seriously privileged people take up the issue, because while they are the least likely to actually be harmed by “real names” policies, they have the authority to be able to speak truth to power. And across the web, I’m seeing people highlight that this issue has more depth to it than fun names (and is a whole lot more complicated than boiling it down to being about anonymity, as Facebook’s Randi Zuckerberg foolishly did).

What’s at stake is people’s right to protect themselves, their right to actually maintain a form of control that gives them safety. If companies like Facebook and Google are actually committed to the safety of its users, they need to take these complaints seriously. Not everyone is safer by giving out their real name. Quite the opposite; many people are far LESS safe when they are identifiable. And those who are least safe are often those who are most vulnerable.

Likewise, the issue of reputation must be turned on its head when thinking about marginalized people. Folks point to the issue of people using pseudonyms to obscure their identity and, in theory, “protect” their reputation. The assumption baked into this is that the observer is qualified to actually assess someone’s reputation. All too often, and especially with marginalized people, the observer takes someone out of context and judges them inappropriately based on what they get online. Let me explain this in a concrete example that many of you have heard before. Years ago, I received a phone call from an Ivy League college admissions officer who wanted to accept a young black man from South Central in LA into their college; the student had written an application about how he wanted to leave behind the gang-ridden community he came from, but the admissions officers had found his MySpace which was filled with gang insignia. The question that was asked of me was “Why would he lie to us when we can tell the truth online?” Knowing that community, I was fairly certain that he was being honest with the college; he was also doing what it took to keep himself alive in his community. If he had used a pseudonym, the college wouldn’t have been able to get data out of context about him and inappropriately judge him. But they didn’t. They thought that their frame mattered most. I really hope that he got into that school.

There is no universal context, no matter how many times geeks want to tell you that you can be one person to everyone at every point. But just because people are doing what it takes to be appropriate in different contexts, to protect their safety, and to make certain that they are not judged out of context, doesn’t mean that everyone is a huckster. Rather, people are responsibly and reasonably responding to the structural conditions of these new media. And there’s nothing acceptable about those who are most privileged and powerful telling those who aren’t that it’s OK for their safety to be undermined. And you don’t guarantee safety by stopping people from using pseudonyms, but you do undermine people’s safety by doing so.

Thus, from my perspective, enforcing “real names” policies in online spaces is an abuse of power.

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174 comments to “Real Names” Policies Are an Abuse of Power

  • Marshall Kirkpatrick

    Great post danah. It’s unfortunate that the social network that aims to take a more nuanced approach to privacy, personas and context as its core value proposition so fails to acknowledge the issues of privilege and power you articulate here. I really, really hope the Pluslords will get on the phone with you (and others) to have an in-depth conversation about how to handle the challenges of messy community and flexible identity.

  • Thank you Danah. Working for Reporters Without Borders, I very much appreciate your post and our correspondents will too ! For obvious reasons in many countries, they have to stay anonymous. I too hope that the “Pluslords” will go further there and I would laugh hysterically ( and sadly) if they dare not to.

  • A. Nonymous

    I agree with most–perhaps all–of your points. However, I find the following excessively cynical:

    “Real names” policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people.”

    The phrases “authoritarian assertion of power” and “abuse of power” took away from what I thought was a very fine piece. Sloganeering.

    I’d be more inclined to enter into your frame of reference if you showed any inclination to more generously enter into the frame of reference of those who create real-name policies. Are there no downsides to online places that allow anonymous comments, for example? And are all real-names policies equal? Or are there worse and better ones? Ones that are more (or less) appropriate to certain contexts? Ones where the policy enforcement is either well or poorly done?

    Bit of a broad brushstroke. Otherwise, great points. The good news is that Google++ doesn’t seem poised to take over the universe–there are too many things they got wrong.

  • As an author, I use a pseudonym and I do it to keep my private life separate from my public one. It’s worked very well these past 15 years and if Google+ decides that allowing me to keep it isn’t going to work for them, then I’ll simply not use their site. It’s that simple for me and it’s non-negotiable.

    I fortunately also work with a number of tech folks who are equally annoyed by this and they’ve been raising their collective voices about it.

  • Sam

    It seems to me like you are ignoring the rest of the community that has to deal with the people that use anonymity for bullying, harassment, trolling, spam and scams. It certainly doesn’t seem as black & white as you are making it out to be.

  • Well written article, thank you.

    I find myself in the “real identity” camp, notice not necessarily real name. If someone wants to establish a pseudonym I have no issue with it assuming it can be tied to an individual. How this will be worked out over the next few weeks months is yet to be seen.

    A few facts that I accept as given:
    Google won’t accept accounts that can’t be tied to an individual, this is closely associated with personalized search and authority algorithms.

    There are places for completely anonymous communication and perhaps G+ is not the proper place for such.

    Identity verification can’t be manually applied, must be data driven and scalable which will expose some flaws on an ongoing basis, example: the search algo isn’t perfect and never will be.

    The system is in beta and currently inherently flawed which I accept as par for the course. The more flaws exposed now, the better the product will evolve into.

    If someone chooses the path of using a pseudonym to protect their identity, they can’t assume 100% protection anywhere on the web.

    I don’t personally see an abuse of power.

    With a masters in American History, I have very strong feelings regarding civil rights (or lack there of in the US) and a natural propensity to play devils advocate.

    Looking forward to further discourse on the matter.

  • I’m not so sure this article is spot on. If anything, it seems wildly off. I, and I imagine others, do not see the connection between enforcing real names and being an authoritarian exertion of power. The claim that “The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalized by systems of power” does not follow from your data. For example, many of the data comes from people who are afraid they might be harassed online. I would not call such people those “marginalized by systems of power.” Power — law, privacy — embraces those people.

    In fact, what seems much more true (and obvious) is that anonymity is the enemy of the marginalized masses. Websites which give users full rights to anonymity (e.g. 4chan) breed hatred and disgust. They reinforce the marginalization; they don’t hinder it.

    “Real names” serves to enforce accountability in an online community; anonymity promotes volatility.

  • intel_chris

    Hmmm, as you can see, dspite being a member of the priviledged elite, I used a pseudonym here (my twitter handle), because that’s how I’m best know online, as my name is not unique and I’m not even the “most famous” person using it. Christopher F Clark the historian and the hockey player are both better known than I. Even in my own field of computers, I know of at least two other people called the same as I, and disambiguating our publications takes some work.

    All that aside, the only legitimate reason for a “real names” policy is to prevent fraud and it isn’t clear that it is the best solution for that. While as a computer security professional I don’t want spammers and scammers to be able to create numerous online accounts that are untraceable to whom they belong, it is clear that there are people who need some (very high) level of anonymity and ways of protecting what they say from being used against them and to be able to particpate without their privacy being breached. One size never fits all.

  • Jenna

    Danah, I appreciate your post, but you don’t acknowledge any of the reasons why Google Plus or another website or social network would be driven to have a Real Names policy. I think there are valid concerns about the types of online anonymity used in many spaces, especially as regards to political speech.

    You do make some excellent points about the abuse of power; I also am interested to see what you’ve written about privilege versus rights when it comes to access to social networks. My observation is that people are generally approaching participation in social networks like Google Plus as a right and not a privilege. I’d be interested in conversations around this.

  • Ripner

    Umm but they don’t want real names, they want REAL SOUNDING NAMES. It’s been stated a couple times that they want pseudonymous if used to sound l;ike a real name not be some leetspeak like most places.

  • Melissa Hall

    There are 7 people named Melissa Hall using google plus right now. I just don’t understand why using that, instead of my more unique and well established pseudonym is even helpful.

    I did not fully understand that in seeing it as a quirk rather than a serious problem I was not taking in to account people who are in more tenuous situations than I.

  • Tanek

    @Sam

    I think you are making the mistake many others are making when looking at the arguments. There is a difference between anonymity and pseudonymity. Most of the people are fine having a consistent online presence, they just want that presence to be under something other than their full first and last name. Plus, nothing is stopping the people who really do want to be malicious from signing up under something that looks like a real name and launching attacks from there.

  • Kerry

    The problem with repeating “but it is anonymous people who cause all the trouble, this seems to be clearly and simply true” is that it’s cherry picking. It’s painting the entire Internet as opposing extremes between nothing but 4Chan and this idealized vision of Facebook that doesn’t actually seem to exist.

    Facebook is *filled* with abuse and people who offensively harass and stalk others using what are their real names and even photos. Or, and here’s the rub, a “real sounding” to those who accept the security placebo of a “realistic name”.

    The problem is not anonymity or pseudonymity – which is not the same thing as true anonymity. The problem is systemic in real life, in people who have the motivation and personalities to behave horribly to other people. Some (not all) facilities on the Internet can encourage people with bad attributes to act on those attributes. But it’s a horrifying – but popular – simplification to paint the Internet as nothing but a bunch of anonymous hooligans versus fine upstanding people who never do anything naughty and plaster their RL mug everywhere they go.

    The crucial point that is now coming to light, is that the people who ask others to confirm to a singular “truth” about identity online, are usually not the people who have anything to lose! They’re the corporate VPs, the architects, the professionals, and the technologists who have “control of the realm” or at least critical influence. They can, to put it funnily, afford to hire plenty of lawyers and if necessary ninjas to deal with anyone who displeases them on the Internet. They can much more readily use “the system” in some idealized sense to protect themselves.

    But they’re the ones asking everyone else, the average person, to pay the cost for their ideologies and the shape they want to force onto the Internet. The notion that “power” embraces those most marginalized seems terribly disingenuous. Power often does nothing of the sort, and is wielded by those who have found ways to pervert it to push those on the fringe further into the fringe. I’ve seen the incredible, narcissistic claim in these debates that everyone concerned about their privacy is “just whining”. That they “have nothing to fear from everyone knowing who they are.” Another choice quote “Hardly anyone needs to hide their real name. A tiny number of people at most. It’s all overblown. People are afraid of nothing.”

    Now, I’m sorry if this is an -inconvenient- stereotype for some, but the person who tossed those lovely bombs out was the very image of a straight white powerful and enfranchised technologist and businessman. If there’s any purer example of a person living in a bubble of privilege I don’t know what it is. But these are often the men (and in some cases, women) who are trying to set the rules for everyone else. Using the boogeyman of anonymous “hackers” and spammers and bullies on the internet as the new “info terrorist” threat that we must stop at all costs. Even if that means allowing their ideologies to define our identities for us.

  • Totally agree with your conclusions: people should be free to have accounts that are not personally identifiable.

    Is it really an abuse of power? Nobody’s forcing anyone to have a Google+ account, after all. I think that’s a sensationalistic way of putting it.

  • bklynchic

    I’m loving Randi’s comment. I wonder if she’s going to kill her bestie Julia Allison’s account for being in violation of facebook’s real name policy since that’s a pseudonym. Ha!

  • Two false assumptions in these arguments really keep catching me.

    1) The assumption that pseudonyms = safety.

    2) One’s vulnerability is because of one’s proper name.

    I have no problem with pseudonyms, and I think it’s dumb that Google won’t allow them. But that said, these two assumptions used to anchor the argument are misleading and wrong. When Tunisia went after Facebook users, they went for IP addresses, not names. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/01/the-inside-story-of-how-facebook-responded-to-tunisian-hacks/70044/ If you are vulnerable, it is because of the mechanisms of power, and the technology by which those mechanisms are supported, not by how you sign your posts. Just like on a city street, it is an entire network of power relations that make profiling/discrimination/etc a reality, not the literal color of one’s skin. The student from South Central: even if a pseudonym would have protected him from the prying eyes of the Ivy League (which itself is hardly likely) the problem is that they felt the need to doubt his story to begin with, whereas a more privileged student’s essay about volunteering with gang-outreach might not have been checked. Even if he had applied to the school under the name “John Smith”, it was the subject of his essay that brought the scrutiny. That is the real problem, and making it simply an issue of allowing pseudonyms dodges the real matter of how power is wielded, and what makes people vulnerable.

  • As someone who chooses to participate on the internet using only a pseudonym, I’d like to say BRAVO to this post. I’ve used Cstar and Cstar1 online since 1998 – including as a staff member at Delphi Forums since 2002. There isn’t a single real argument that can be presented by G+ (or anyone) that supercedes my right to privacy. Google suspended my account and my appeal has been denied – by “Neil” – who curiously failed to sign his Last name to the rejection. If only Twitter and Delphi Forums welcome me and my pseudononymous participation, then those are the services I will use, and to hell with what would have been a nice venue.

  • “abuse of power”? Facebook and Google only have power over me if I use them. If I don’t, they don’t have power. I can create an anonymous blog, post on Twitter, chat on Reddit, search on Google and even use Gmail, all without giving away a real name. So what’s the big deal? Facebook and Google+ want their T&C to be you have to be you. This isn’t the internet asking you to be you. I think this is overblown — we have more than one place to live online.

    Me.

  • Kat

    Great article, danah!

    I’m unsurprised that the most adamant critics of what you have to say here are, from their profile pics, white men who have the luxury of speaking from a position of unexamined privilege.

  • S Jones

    Thanks for the excellent post on a pivotal issue.

    This reminds me of privacy debates about public surveillance: “If you have nothing to hide, what’s wrong with being monitored?” The problem with that argument is that it confuses small-p public (i.e. it occurred in public) with big-p Public (i.e. it is public knowledge). Before video tape, public acts could be still considered mostly small-p public, still “private” by means of obscurity. A public act could not live on beyond the time and place it occurred except by its effects on eyewitnesses. In a surveillance society, public acts become increasingly big-p Public. They could, under the right circumstances, end up on the nightly news. Luckily, cameras aren’t (yet) searchable.

    Online, the only way to preserve the kind of small-p public freedom we (mostly) enjoy in real life is to use pseudonyms. Otherwise, every stupid picture, every idle thought and every hasty, heated exchange becomes big-p Public, instantly tied to you and searchable. A real names policy will not only have a chilling effect on free speech but will force people to be even more deceptive to stay off the radar screen.

    One more thing: Pseudonyms aren’t just for hiding. If you have a common name (like I do), your real name doesn’t precisely identify you anyway. In a lot of online spaces, your pseudonym is also your brand that differentiates you and gives you a unique identity.

  • I cannot imagine why you think that a company building a software platform then giving away access to it for free, under terms you dislike, is somehow an abuse of power.

    The only premise I see supporting this is a ridiculous presumption of entitlement.

    If you don’t like it, don’t use Google Plus. Gasp; choke.

  • Jenna

    @Kerry – Your comment makes more sense to me than the original post.

  • Very well said, thanks for this danah! Though I of course remember your post on Facebook’s policies (hell, I cited it in a paper), I’m glad to hear you weigh in on Google+.

  • JZP

    There is no universal context, no matter how many times geeks want to tell you that you can be one person to everyone at every point.

    Nit: as you pointed earlier, the “tech crowd” is a world of handles and pseudonyms. Real geeks do not assert as the quote above indicates.

  • jon

    Well said as always danah. And totally agree: it’s great to see marginalized people organizing and speaking out, and it’s great to see privileged people organized and speaking out too! My take’s at http://www.talesfromthe.net/jon/?p=2918

  • I like Amazon’s “RealName” tag they put if your name is real. This gives you the option of using your real name or not, lets you protect your real name from mis-use by others, and lets you choose a pseudonym if you desire.

  • Great post. I’ve been struggling to explain the heart of the issues behind the “real sounding name” system that Google Plus have been promoting and this has helped put the details into focus.

    As a side note, many teens that I know (all female, now that I think about it) delete their Facebook accounts once a year and start a new one. I thought it was an interesting dodge of the tracking … and accountability, too. But what young woman should be held accountable at 18 for the things she said at thirteen? Ergh, I’d be toast.

  • I think we need to bear in mind what Google+ is actually *for*.

    From a business POV, Google+ is not primarily a social network: it is an advertising platform. Users are not the customers or clients, we are the *product*. The social networds and content are not the purpose or function of the system, they are the *bait*. The defining characteristic of a Real Name, from a business POV, is that it is on a credit card.

    What Google really needs to know, in setting its policies, is whether pseudonymous non-white Facebook users (for instance) are cost-effective. If they aren’t, then maybe they’re making a business decision to hang everyone who can’t afford to use their credit card name out to dry.

    Which is why I prefer Dreamwidth, where I pay, and I am the customer.

  • The only true reason I can see for why these companies are enforcing a real name policy is for advertising purposes. Legitimate leads to an actual person are worth a lot in any industry and you can be sure marketing & sales are thinking about this. What is frustrating is the effort put into convincing us that it is for our own benefit to reveal everything openly. It clearly depends on an individual’s needs and circumstances. Unfortunately, I don’t think it is possible to be completely anonymous online anymore, but there should be protection for those who wish to be.

  • Wiley

    I usually agree with your polemics but I find this post to be full of contradictions. On one hand you are celebrating the rage of early adopter techies while on the other you’re claiming that real name structures are an abuse of power over vulnerable people. Aren’t the early adopters the ones typically in control or at least influencing the systems? If anyone desires anonymity there are plenty of places they can hang out online some of which I belong to. For others, real names are a distinct social asset.

  • Anonymous

    People like Facebook and Twitter (vs email and usenet) because they make the Internet less like the Internet and more like Real Life.

    Real Names are part of that.

    I expect this trend to continue as long as people keep demanding services that de-Internetify the Internet.

  • I find the title a bit of offensive, in that it presumes Google has absolute power to attract you, and you must go where they point you.

    A website, a membership, is a contract, one that relies upon agreement by both parties. If you don’t wish to reveal your identity, don’t — I certainly have no intention of giving Google Advertising more ammo to profile me, and I’m shocked at how so many otherwise savvy people sign right up.

    But it’s Google’s right to offer a contract, and your right not to take advantage of it. Calling their offer “an abuse of power” leads to dangerous places, where the loudest can coerce the creative. Please reconsider your assumptions.

  • Markus

    “Real name policies” simply don’t work, period. There is no way to verify the social or legal validity of a name, just as there is no way of declaring one single name and one single identity as the “true” identity or name of a person (yes, people can have several identities, for completely legitimate reasons). Facebook alone, with its “real name” rule policy in place, is full of profiles that don’t comply with those rules, and it’s a piece of cake to create a new one that they won’t be able to verify either. Google will fail with this just as Facebook and others have failed there before them.

  • Richard Millward

    Turn your assumption around… Pseudonymous accounts allow for what I consider the real scourge of the Internet: the trolling, bullying, and absolutely consequent-free posting of all manner of slop. I believe in personal responsibility and want to see more of it, not less. I’m happy Facebook at least tries to force the association of an account with a “real life entity,” and that Google+ is going even further.

    Which brings me to another point: no one is FORCING you or anyone else to use Google+. I, in fact, chose not to, almost immediately upon its release – the transparency of their unstated business model to “sell” me to advertisers was a little too blatant even for GOOGLE, who are masters of that sort of thing. There can be no “authoritarian assertions of power” when participation is completely and utterly voluntary. You make some interesting points, but your rhetoric is so high-handed and overwraught, it significantly diminishes the weight of the rest of your article.

  • Superman

    Interesting to me that to leave a comment on this post you require a Name and email address….Some would argue that it is after all Abuse of Power? What’s more an email is required along with your real name. More abuse of power?

    But that again I did not have to comment on this post…just as those who are not comfortable giving out their real name have to use Facebook or G+.

    Let me see what would happen if I were to call myself Superman and put my email as Clark.Kent@dailyplanet.com….would it be published? If so why as email address and name to publish a comment.

    Then again why use real name to put up a blog post? Perhaps those of us who seek attention like to use real names and those of us who are paranoid dont? But in either case Social nextwork, blog post and other media gives you a choice….Take it or leave it. Perhaps we should MAKE G+ and Facebook give up their right to manage their own network and in doing so embrace communism…Can you say abuse of power?

  • stryx

    What’s at stake is people’s right to protect themselves corporations’ ability to provide gold standard marketing intel, where reasonable assurances can be made that IRL identities (credit history, awards programs etc) can be tied to the social graph and browsing habits of online accounts.

    We are not the customers, we are the product.

  • Danah, excellent post. However, I agree with other commenters who say “abuse of power” is a bit over the top. It’s melodramatic.

    Google owns the network, and as such, it gets to set policy. If you don’t like those policies, don’t use the network. That’s a user’s ultimate power.

  • John Kroll

    Sam, Thomas: I’m one of the people who does have to deal everyday with the spam, trolling, harassment, etc. I moderate comments for a well-trafficked news site. And I agree with Danah.

    Anonymity is not the cause of the evils of comments; inadequate moderation is. No level of ID verification is going to keep out the trolls.

    Would it cut down on them? Maybe. But I’ll trade that for the shelter that anonymity or some form, not too restrictive, of pseudonymity provides to those who need it. There are ways to combat the sludge that comes with anonymity by being better at moderation, by using appropriate filters, and so on. There is no way for our site to protect someone who comments under their real name and is then tracked down by someone who wants to deliver insults or threats in ways more personal and alarming than typing tough in a forum. There is no way for our site to protect a real-name user who gets fired because her boss objected to her views.

  • Peteywheatstrawjr

    Posted on Facebook. As a long-time computer user, I’m shocked at the amount of information that people have been conditioned to put online. When I was a kid in the 80′s you would NEVER consider using your real name on a bbs system. Facebook and Google simply do not care about their users privacy and would rather endanger their audiences to keep in the good graces of the private and government spies that have a pathological urge to watch over us sheep.

  • Danielle Eber

    @Sam – I don’t mind Google knowing who I really am. I mind being forced to let everyone else know who I really am. The problem of anonymous “bullying, harassment, trolling, spam and scams” as you listed is solved if the social site operator knows who is who. Then they can kick and keep out the people who cause trouble. But the label on the profile page does not have to be the same as the database field that says “Account Owner”. The former is a “display name” which we can choose to be the same or different than the Owner name.

  • Kingsley Diddlethorpe

    First of all, how ironic to see the comments on this site requiring a name and email. Just to be up front.. the email is fake, my name is real. Secondly, how does Google+ know you are using a fake name if you use a plausible one? Are they (gasp) spying on you? Checking your cookies? Comparing your ip address? Checking any public authentication tokens they can find on your computer? Finally, why not just opt out of social networking? It’s an intrusive blight on the world any way you look at it.

  • ABC

    It’s odd that Danah Boyd would assume that a higher % of nonwhites use pseudonyms because they feel “most marginalized by systems of power”.

    She herself has suggested and anecdotally documented that they may be doing it to avoid harassment by their own peers:

    http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2010/11/08/risk-reduction-strategies-on-facebook.html

    P.S. Ironically I was required to fill out the name field to post this!

  • Doug

    Google wants your real name so they can cross reference you to Gmail, etc and sell you more targeted ads.

  • Great post.

    One of the issues is the “Beta” excuse. I deal with it among other things here:
    http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2011/08/why_google_has_broken_its_prom.php

    The other issue is the idea that people can just walk away from Google+ if they don’t like the rules. True. But in the US south there were diners where people could just walk away and eat somewhere else if they didn’t like the rules. (Not to Godwin the thread, but …)

  • Julia G

    I completely agree danah- you’re the first person I’ve seen write about this. I use a nickname on both facebook and google plus and I hate the fact that I’m always afraid they’ll crack down on me one day. I have a unique last name and don’t want to be so easily searchable/identifiable.

  • @Sam – A “real names” policy does not protect you in the slightest from that. There is no verification that the name used is someone’s actual name at signup, so there is nothing to stop the spammers, harassers, bullyers etc from simply using real looking names that may not actually be their own. There’s already a tonne of spammers on G+ using real looking names, for example. A “real names” policy like this does nothing what so ever to protect against or even decrease the very things you are complaining about.

  • christian reubens

    The article is interesting inasmuch as I don’t think the author is familiar with G+ at all. Fully half of her examples are irrelevant b/c posting to specific circles eliminates cross-over between groups of people you want to keep separate.

    In fact, the only relevant example provided is the one in which people have created persistent pseudonyms which they have used for a number of years. So, if your situation is such, do you really want to be using a social network specifically designed to connect people? If so, great! Sign up using a valid pseudonym… then manually ‘sign off’ at the bottom of each post with persistent pseudonym.

  • ABC

    Agreed (with reubens above).

    These real names policies are also fairly innocuous because if you’ve been going by a certain pseudonym in real life for awhile (let’s say you already have a gmail account where you go by it, sign your emails there that way, etc.), and sign up with it on G+….it’s not like they’re ever gonna know it’s not your ‘real real name’. It’s not like they make you provide a government ID with that name. Basically, it’s a non-issue because the enforcement can’t be that stringent anyway.

  • By the way, a little-discussed, but probably influential actor in this area are the national and international police and intelligence agencies. They are huge customers of the data miners, and probably are directly influencing Google policy as well.

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