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

  • Name Required

    A few thoughts, perhaps not as coherent as they could be:

    One thing often overlooked it how much is revealed with the repeated use of a given pseudonym. Any truly unique identifier can be used to profile your statements from across the internet, and a single leak which leads to further details is enough to tie your real name to your handle.

    Pseudonyms used for security are best changed every so often, like a password, but if an adware/spyware/cookie tracking company catches you in the act, well, that’s more information they can sell, isn’t it?

    Companies exist which specialize in reconciling these types of information. Have you ever used your full name with that email address? Has anyone ever forwarded something sent from that address to a newsgroup? Is there any spyware in your system or cross-site javascript or facebook apps taking notes on what users are logged into which sites simultaneously, and collecting profiles? There’s so much to be learned that any half-decent black-hat intelligence operation would be crazy not to. “Would you like to install my free toolbar?”

    “Identity Resolution” is an industry, and many in the intelligence community are already scanning blogs and such for “OSINT” – Open Source Intelligence.

    That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but it’s good to be aware before you say something really outrageous that yes, they are watching, and some of them are even listening.

    The abuse-of-power factor is only made more blatant in the case of Google and Facebook, in their myopic idealism, and only surves to further abuses that are NOT under strict military jurisdiction.

    Just the same, it’s nice to have a semi-public space to share where caustic strangers are systemically rejected… Now that folks are connected, are real names actually necessary to make that work?

  • sudslurp

    Let me remind those who bash this article because it’s from Microsoft, Microsoft is an investor of Facebook! Take your negativity somewhere else. Oh Yeah, we know who you are, because you used your real name.

    For those who are concerned of having people being “responsible”, where do you draw the line? For instance, I have a really embarrassing health question to ask online, and I WILL NOT ask others under my real name!!

    Yeah, I do see those problematic individuals who abuse the system under pseudonym. Then again, what makes you think people under real name won’t? If they do, then what would you do? Hold them “responsible”, hunt them down in the real world and make them apologize? Call the police?

  • Anonymous

    “For this reason, Google Profiles requires you to use the name that you commonly go by in daily life.”

    Thanks for that, saves me from digging it up again.

    Some of us go by pseudonyms even in real life. I have a nickname and use it for everything from personal interactions to signing checks (Yes, my bank accepts them). Hell, I have close friends from YEARS back who still don’t know my real name…

    …yet my g+ account was deleted for using my nickname as per their own policy? Really?

  • Anna May Wong

    glad to see someone seeing my/our side of things.

  • Kisai

    Good reasons to prohibit real names:
    1) Harassment. Mentioned in the article, particularly those that are marginalized.
    2) Stalking. People want to say, “Hey I live here”, but not when their real name is attached to it, since it then says “Rob me!”
    3) Nosy employers, employees, students or family. Maybe I don’t want them to know each other.
    4) False identity/Mistaken Identity. Look how many times certain trolling forums goes out and harasses people.

    The sword cuts both ways. It may protect trolls, but it also protects victims.

    There are ways to add trust to real and pseudonyms. One way is by tracking the frequency of financial transactions associated with the identity. People who want to use their real name have phones, credit cards and bank accounts in their own name. People who want to remain anonymous do not. However people who want to use pseudonyms long term will still use the same financial information consistently. Google+ or Facebook can simply put a “Verified in the last 90 days” token so that the people they want to communicate with know that the pseudonym used on Google+ hasn’t changed since they last interacted.

  • Peter Hess

    Love it or leave it is “not an argument” in the case of citizenship where “leave it” is not a true option. “Leave it” is a real possibiity in the case of Google+ so I see nothing wrong with the argument, per se. You may object to your reduced set of available options, but, hell, I run into that one about 5 times a day, every day of my life.

  • Sarah Grayson

    This is not my real name.

    I am a middle school teacher. We have been told that it would be in our best interests to maintain an online presence to further facilitate assisting our students with their educations. We are encouraged to use Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. However, we are also told that anything we say may be grounds for termination if someone decides it’s somehow inapporpriate. We are not given guidelines on what that may be, beyond the obvious. A few months ago a teacher was fired for a smart-mouthed, sarcastic comment she made on FB about administration. She was using a filter, but one of the people on her filter forwarded it. So we are then told that we should have one identity for ourselves and to *use a pseudonym* for our students. For example, I may be Sarah Grayson to my family and sign up as “Ms.” Grayson for my student “fan” page. ‘Ms.’ would be my “first name.” Now tell me on what part of God’s green earth should I have my account cancelled for my necessary pseudonym? And yes, “love it or leave it” is not a real argument. How would you people feel if someone appended a $100 tax for phone calls and then said to you, “hey, if you don’t like it you can always write a letter”?

  • Real online identity is a fact of life and if you want to interact at certain levels online, you have to be real. Would you interact with your bank and not be validated? Social sites and other online institutions need to create this realism with you to further the business interaction with your online identities. If you do not trust these social networks with your real identity, please do not give it to them. That is your right no matter what the “social pressure is”.
    Stand up for your identities and make sensible dicisions online for you and your family.

  • Microsoft Sucks

    People should not be required to post under any name. People who use singular pseudonyms are also potential victims of harassment, stalking, nosy employers, or mistaken identity.

  • I am also very pleased to see this issue come to the forefront of the general public’s attention.

    What I have studied for +25 years is the sociology/anthropology of the net. It’s a new model; very exciting. Part of that excitement is, as you noted regarding the loud, insightful and thought-provoking response of the “early adopters”/tech community, the beginnings of what I believe is Electronic Democracy, which would be a real paradigm shift.

    This is the Vox Populi, outside the information control of the Media cartels. It’s no wonder they seek to destroy this unique manifestation of egalitarian communication.

  • Yup. If the people who need to find me are using my pseudonym, doesn’t that make it the most important and REAL way to identify myself? How useful is it for someone who doesn’t know my real name to try and find me if Google is making them search by data they don’t even have? If this is really about networking, they’re doing a piss-poor job of it. But you’re right, it’s not about networking–it’s about attempting a Facebook 2.0 and getting control-freaky when it doesn’t turn out exactly like the thing they’re trying to beat.

    News flash, Google. Don’t try and BE Facebook–try and IMPROVE on it.

  • Alex Wright

    “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. ”

    If it’s so dangerous for these people to be identified then what are they doing on social networks? Do they post fake profile photos? Fake vacation snapshots? Do they connect with fake friends? Your name is not your only identifier on a social network. And what about real life? Are they in complete hiding all the time? Or has all harassment moved online now? lol

    Stupid article is stupid.

  • Luis Grangeia

    The use of nicknames is kind of useless in social networks. your network of friends is much more revealing of your identity than your real name.

    Using a pseudonym may give you peace of mind, but it won’t give you any extra real security in social networks.

    That said, the author has a point, and I also agree that pseudonyms should be allowed.

  • Anonymous

    Empowerment depends on the ability to communicate the message that we are never remotely anonymous online, as security through obscurity has always been a method of spreading false confidence to reveal our inner design.

    The difference between complacence and assuming the risky leadership role to enact change depends on the bait to keep people choosing an easy out to social responsibility. People who don’t want to think they are watched are easier to manipulate into revealing their values and key factors that will make them easily swayed.

    Encouraging someone to assume they have any anonymity while continuing to closely monitor the online population systematically (ie. cookies, social network integration, spyware, IP address, or the new anti-net-neutrality legislation to allow IPs to monitor and prioritize traffic) gives all the empowerment to the watcher, aka a system of sentiment analysis that will be able to flag language of a certain opinion. It already exists. It’s clunky and easy to spot at this point, but that doesn’t stop the effort required to combat it that will continue to suck time away from innovative thinking and marginalize everyone, anonymous or not.

    Pseudonyms worked on Gutenberg presses where the original evidence of hand-written manuscript could be burned in a fire, and cameras on every corner did not exist to find out who delivered the mail.

    That world does not exist today. It’s gone, and anyone trying to live there has neither anonymity nor empowerment. Though no one has mentioned it, the quest for anonymity is also a sign of laziness, because hiding in anonymity means refusing to speak out in well written counter arguments with advocacy for plausible solutions. People love to complain because it gets attention, but it’s work to actually use attention responsibly to champion positive change.

    My real experience of requiring verified registration has systematically resulted in marginalizing account holders being dealt with and removed, allowing the marginalized to appeal to a clearly defined authority when they are abused to get the harassment resolved.

    The question is who has infiltrated the ranks, and controlled systems are the most appealing targets to those with an agenda, who will fight the hardest to infiltrate them in order to gain control of administrator roles.

    The single most damaging epidemic in social networks has been handing media agencies the keys to our leadership administrative roles. This provides an airtight system to keep users in line with the manipulation of authority that favors a certain brand, sentiment, or political agenda, depending on the purpose of a particular network.

    I’d say a full eighty percent of social media forums have this problem, as the huge cost of paying and vetting qualified social media experts prices most forums out of being able to choose rather than beg for administrators, because again, it’s work.

    Individuals also have personal biases to pander to for favor and tend to be extremely tempting targets by one group or another. Every successful grass roots mission doing this realized they could use a loyal admin to manipulate opponents into complacency, or disband the forming counter-culture before it opposed them. It’s the easiest it’s ever been for the oppressor, thanks to the function of implied anonymity.

    DARPA admits they are actively seeking proposals on ways to help, as social media brainwashing is leading to epidemics of school shooting attempts, fraudulent suicide packs, and home-grown terrorist mindsets.

    For anyone worried about the publicity of their dating preference or how they voted in the last election, understand that data isn’t the end goal, it’s the collar and harness. If you don’t like how it feels, step up and help correct the system.

    True, people will try to scare you because it’s cheaper than advertising, but even if they’re not bluffing, what sort of world would you rather live in?

    Signed,
    Anonymous

    PS: I’ve had false addresses I gave out pipe bombed, had land line phone calls where a recording of my private home conversation was played back to me to intimidate me, and I’m still here. It’s probably because I’m not anonymous, and I choose to be a force of assistance, not hate or cowardice. Also, when people destroy you before you’re even old enough to drive just because they can and you were led by millions of marketing dollars to believe you were safe on your PC as long as you were anonymous, there’s not much left to scare you about adulthood. Think you’re anonymous now and net nanny will solve all your problems?

  • Mark

    I don’t disagree with anything in this article. However, the defining vulnerable people as a subset of all people involved with social networks is the forest for the trees.

    When any individual is practically exposed to the entirety of the global online community there are implicitly going to be power differentials between that individual and one or more people. The point being that everyone is vulnerable. Singling out a subset of people minimizes the issue and makes it seem less than systemic.

    Also, not putting a huge asterisk by “anonymous” is a mistake. In the end, no one is truly anonymous using the standard mechanisms of the internet (heck… commenting on this article requires my e-mail address), thereby exposing every single individual to the greatest power differential of all… individuals vs. powerful agencies such as governments and corporations.

    BTW… the real mistake that Google+ and Facebook are making with their policies is programming obsolesence into their platforms. They, of all people, should know their users.

  • anonymous

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

    No, a government law requiring real names would be an abuse of power, since it removes all avenues for posting anonymously. On google+, it is the terms of service.

  • In my community, if I lived in the country rather than in town, I wouldn’t participate online under my real name.

    and thumbs-up to Danah for noting that “The assumption baked into this [real-names policy] is that the observer is qualified to actually assess someone’s reputation.” As someone who’s been on the receiving end…

    Yet -
    In an online conversation peppered with anonymous chaff, heuristically it is still sensible for the real-named folks’ comments to carry more weight. So the downside of responsible anonymity is the difficulty the visitor (or filter) has in distinguishing its contributions from the chaff.

  • tz

    I call Google’s algorithm that purges handles “robobigot”.

  • Tom West

    Creating a climate where people are either not safe or not welcome is elitism in a nutshell.

    I’d probably not feel welcome in quite a number of social media communities, not should I be. (A social media site oriented towards for young people for example.)

    Is that elitist? Are they wrong for not changing the community to meet my needs? Of course not.

    No site can be all things for all people. Why shouldn’t the demographic who want real-names be served? (Again, if G+ was a dominant force, I could see an argument, but right now you have to *make* an effort to be included.)

  • Kevin

    So don’t join it. I don’t see an “abuse of power,” because nobody is forcing you to join this site.

  • Tom West

    Yeah, I do see those problematic individuals who abuse the system under pseudonym. Then again, what makes you think people under real name won’t?

    In *any* solution, you won’t find a complete answer to abuse (or any other problem). However, the design of a real-name system will tend to lower the level of abuse. In a system where the threat of your behaviour being revealed to your peers/family/employers exists, people will tend to moderate towards the norm.

    Depending on the norm and the individual, this can be a good or a bad thing, which means, once again, that one size definitely does *not* fit all.

    Want a site where there’s a small push towards social norms? Find a site with “real names”. Want a site where the users don’t have to worry that overly restrictive social norms will prevent expressing themselves? Choose a site where pseudonyms are allowed or even encouraged.

    The question is should a company have the *right* to produce a site that allows “real-names”. By calling such an attempt an ‘abuse of power’, Ms. Boyd seems to indicate that companies should not have that right.

    (Her following post is completely correct – Google would have been far better off encouraging real-names through design without the draconian enforcement.)

  • Did You ReallyjustAskMeForThat

    Sorry but Google wants you to use your real name because they make money from it. They well your data to advertisers, and if they can pin you down exactly, even if they don’t turn your name over to the advertisers, they still can say to the advertisers that this data is derived from certain knowledge and not composite.

    If you are doing market and behavioral analysis and you’re uncertain if the person is the same person or not, the uncertainity in your calculations quickly adds up and makes your analysis worthless or misleading.

    If on the other hand you know with absolute certainty that the source is from the same real person, your power to do such analysis goes way way up and your information is more valuable.

    Sorry also but the concept of anonymous speech , at least in the USA is enshrined in our cultural DNA, starting with Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin.

    One more sorry. Sorry but the myriad good reasons for someone wanting anonymous speech are so obvious that anyone pretending to not acknowledge them and honor them is not arguing in good faith. That goes for you too, Google.

    Maybe you have an idea that anonymity is quaint because you’re awash in tons of the most personal data about total strangers and it makes you feel powerful and superior. The truth is, if you were absolutely certain your data as it applied to an individual were rock solid, you would not require them to reveal their personal identities; you’d know them already, you’d be able to prove you know them already, and your data would be more valuable.

    But you’re not certain. You need the user to assist you in your endeavor, and towards that end, you’re going to coax, appeal , cajole and finally strong arm your users into giving you what you cannot otherwise acquire.

    I will always be able to clearly mark the time when I no longer trusted Google, and that is right now. Maybe I was naive, but up until right now, in my mind, they were the good guys who shared my values and were intent on conducting their business as a win / win. I put up with the small things, like the lack of a decent bookmarking facility in Chrome (because Google wants all your information on their servers, not stored locally on your own machine) and the news article about eh unilateral, unexplained cutting of a customer or two or more from their own data as Google closed their accounts and in the process disappeared those people’s data without any explanation or chance to appeal the decision.

    No more. This is not all right with me. I’ll be gradually cutting back on my Google services, spreading my email and purchases around to other services more and selecting from a wider variety of search providers and finally selecting programming APIs and technologies I develop with from a broader range of companies.

    And I’ll be unloading my Google stock because any company who’s got this attitude is going down the road to self destruction, without question.

  • I’ve been using this nickname since the mid-1980s when BBSes were common. The lcoal BBS group back then went to a hamburger joint where they called out your name when your food was ready and we all used our nicks. I’ll be the first to admit – hearing someone shout out ‘The Werewolf – your burger is ready’ was *hilarious* but everyone in the group knew who that was for.

    Names are how we identify ourselves. They used to have meaning (Peter, for example, means ‘Rock’ and the parents would give the name in the hope it would inspire the trait).

    My name came about because I happen to have a strong interest in the mythology of lycanthropy. I used to order a ton of books on it at a local bookstore and one day I walked in to pick up an order and the clerk said ‘There’s the werewolf guy…’ and it stuck.

    I use it on all my artwork as well – so it’s readily recognisable in a fairly large community.

    So, is this my name? Or is the name my parents gave me – which wouldn’t be recognised by anyone – my ‘real’ name? What’s the POINT of a name other than a way to uniquely identify someone in a known group?

  • I think Tom West and Kevin are missing something.

    Imagine for a moment that a social site becomes so pervasive that if you want to be taken seriously, be invited to events, possibly even get a job, you had to be a member of it.

    I can think of two which have essentially acheived this level of pervasiveness: Facebook and Twitter. I can also think of a technology like this: cellphones. All are ‘technically’ optional, and people do live without them – but over time, it becomes increasingly difficult to communicate and be included without them.

    When that happens, and that IS the goal of these sites, suddenly the ‘you can go elsewhere’ argument doesn’t work anymore because anywhere else isn’t the *same*.

    Good example: MySpace. Used to be THE social place. Then Facebook took over. The people on MySpace could just stay there – but they’ll be at a disadvantage.

    Google+ isn’t there yet, but in just a month, it has gained millions of users and a huge amount of public awareness. It’s possible – especially since it’s so tightly intertwined with Google – that it could elevate to the status of ‘important to have’.

    Simply put, it’s not a level playing field. The game is to talk to other people you know – if they’re not where you go – you can’t talk to them. That means you can’t just ‘go somewhere else’ and that means yes, Google, Facebook and the others ARE abusing power when the impose undesirable restrictions, especially those which might compromise people’s privacy.

  • HWT

    The interesting thing is: The article is “only” about Google+, respectively mainly focusing on it. There you still have some chances of just not using it (not thinking about peer pressure for the monennt).

    Hans-Peter Friedrich (Germany’s current secretary of Interoy (which inlcues the DHS, using US terms) just annoucned today that he is pro a “real names” policy justifying with things like Breivik’s terror in Norway. If that gets real (I’m optimistic that not!) we definitely talk about abuse of power.

    Principiis obsta!!

  • Years ago I used a pseudonym consistently online. Guess what? I was stalked by an abuser from real life this way.

    I have been using my real name online since 2005 for blogging purposes. While I have occasionally gotten reprimanded by an employer, this fallout occurred not because of what I wrote, but because the person upset had not bothered to read closely; thus, it was misinterpreted, rumors started, and nobody bothered to go back and read what I wrote.

    Using a real name online is empowering. I say this as someone who can be thrown into several of the groups named — woman, LGBT, abuse survivor, and activist. Speaking out has power. Having the courage to put one’s name on her thoughts has even more power. It sets an example for younger generations and those who might feel forced into silence, forced into closets.

    Using one’s name also encourages responsible speech online.

    If I do not want someone contacting me by Google+ or Facebook or Twitter, all I need to do is “block” him.

  • I’m just saying this post is brilliant and I’m reminded of it again because #HoodRatNamesOnFacebook is trending on Twitter.

  • Anyway google does whatever they want, if your site is not pretty and you are not “rich” ( buying ads from them ), then you get penalised under the terms ,”sorry your site doesn’t respect the guidelines”.

    My site has been banned for no reason and i have no way of knowing why. Google has become an EVIL monster that nothing can stop. Since google made it impossible to talk to a human being except to BUY something from them…
    Google already has a picture of your house via satellite, now they want a picture of YOU in underwear to display next to your website.
    For my searches i now use duckduckgo.com………. i’m not a number i’m a freeman ! there are still a few people who don’t want to be assimilated by the google borg.

  • *wild cheering*

    I’m one of those privileged folk who chose to speak in support of ‘nymity and has had his G+ profile nuked as a result. I even commented in your G+ stream as “I am Spartacus”.

    I continue to admire and appreciate your presence and public pressure on the issue.

  • rachel

    Not so sure about the empowering qualities of using your real name online… If you are LGBT (just to name an example) and live in a small community, using a nickname may be your only chance of communicating with like-minded people without being forced to abandon you family, your home, your job. Of course we all want the world to be a place where this sort of subterfuge isn’t necessary but me going real name won’t make that happen – all it’ll do is ruin my life and that of my family. There are more effective ways of promoting equal rights.

  • CW

    BTW: In California, using a nickname on legal documents for 6+ years confers legal status to that nickname. It is the only alternative to spending time and money on a change of name through the courts. I’ve done it, as have countless others. Why should online ‘rules’ be more conservative?

  • Amy

    “Then along comes Google Plus, thinking that it can just dictate a “real names” policy.”

    Sure it can. It can dictate any lawful policy it wants to. Those who don’t want to abide by its policies can choose not to use its services. It’s that simple.

  • Despite being a privileged white person,I write and post poetry and blogs under a nom de plume. Many writers do this for a variety of reasons. I guess Mark Twain and Richard Bachman would be deleted by Google plus. My guess is that it’s an effective tool for data mining and advertising. They know who you are, the pages you visit and can tailor ads just for you. However, the Patriot Act destroyed all pretense of privacy and Facebook and Google are just jumping on the bandwagon. Isn’t that lovely?

  • Char

    I’m glad to see the tech community speaking out on this issue. I recognize and respect all of the reasons cited above. On a personal level, I’m less worried about reputation and more interested in making sure the value of each social medium is maximized to the appropriate segmented audience. I’m a corporate manager with a unique viewpoint into a major business transaction. My professional opinions have to be kept largely private, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have strong opinions on relevant business, government, and tech topics for which I enjoy intelligent discourse in more limited settings. I have a wide range of topics I enjoy reading and sharing, but my FB friends that include aunts, distant cousins, etc. don’t want to see those all of the time. Segmenting my social interactions means multiple e-mail accounts, pseudonyms, and profiles, but utilizing these helps me to segment my life, interests, and interactions in an increasingly connected world.

  • I’ve made a protest website where you can vote if it makes you happy or sad, pls vote: http://antimatter-studios.com/googleminus/

    Using this I hope to gather thousands of answers from people and hopefully it will put another Kilgram of pressure on Google to change their idiotic psuedonym policy.

  • “Real names only” doesn’t work anyway, unless they are going to require that people send a copy of their birth certificate or driver’s licence. I usually use “Annie @ PhD in Parenting” or “Annie PhDinParenting” because that is what people recognize me as, but I also have a fake real sounding name that I use when supposed real names are required.

  • Anita

    I was required to open a Facebook account by my boss so that I could monitor social networks for mention of our company, and so I could follow/friend the Facebook pages of our competitors. I had to do so under my real name.

    I was promptly added by my mother (EEK), a bunch of high school friends (who I begged not to post photos of me yakking in a toilet after getting drunk at Mardi Gras in college), some exes (who I was hoping to never hear from again), current friends (who I begged not to post any photos of me from FantasyCon last year), the hyper-religious family of my brother-in-law, and assorted coworkers – with no real (at the time) way to guarantee any of them could or could not see my posting. Talk about an unpleasant clash of the worlds. Then the phenomenon of “Liking” bands and businesses in exchange for coupons really hit its stride, but everything I “liked” was reported on my interests page and Wall stream. Did coworkers and business networks need to know that I like My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, the X political party, and Silk brand soymilk? NO.

    At this point I want a separate Facebook that I can be my public-adult-to-friends-but-not-coworkers self. I was hoping Google+ would be that. Being able to go by my common online nom de plume would give me a space to express myself without being constrained by what my business wants to hear.

  • Well, I think the logic is that, with Circles, you’re supposed to be able to share _diferently_ : if you fear for your safety, you’ll very logically only publish “sensitive” content within your pre-approved Circle and not, like on Facebook, for everyone, on your wall. It’s not the best policy (I hate it when people tell me what I HAVE to do) but I see the logic behind it. And also, you CAN state your other nicknames underneath. It’s very american, isn’t it ? No one lies etc etc. Here, my nickname, here, my true name, etc. I already did that on Twitter : my true name for professional purposes and my nickname for when I chose my nickname I was, let’s say… a teenager. And didn’t want to bother changing it and losing my followers.
    I just think that there is a place for every type of content : if I were an activist, I would open a blog, with followers sharing my content, under their true name, to give even more credibility to what I would say. But, if _shit happens_, I also think I should be able to contact Google and ask for a shield : a pseudonym or whatever.

  • Jami

    I’ve had an online presence using this name for over a decade and a half in any number of forums. On the internet, this IS my “real” name. Is it the name my family and friends from high school and college and the military and on my job use? Is it the name that shows up on my paycheck and bank account and credit cards? Maybe not. Or maybe it is. Whatever the answer is, I don’t want ANYONE to dictate to me the validity of any name by which I choose to be known. Which is one of reasons I’m not on Google+ under any name, and I’m VERY glad that this has become an issue.

    There are any number of valid reasons for NOT using a full and correct name that matches a government-issued ID, but so far I have yet to read/hear a valid reason for enforcing a “real” name edict other than “because we SAID so”.

  • Me

    The big downside to fake names is the quality of the social network. Without any validation how do I know who I am befriending and in my circles? I’d feel much safer with real name that were validated… so I actually can control who sees what about me.

  • Alias

    Honestly I agree with alias / pseudonym’s as being a safety precaution, online identity, reputation protector. I have used an alias online almost my whole life, some IRL friends tend to call me by it as well as the bulk of their early interaction with me was online.
    I’ve never had an issue with my alias – as it sounds much more realistic than many – it’s a name, just not the one on my mail, birth certificate, tax details or electoral roll. While I am sure some dark devious tech wizard, intelligence community or other highly motivated person could tie my net nick to my real life identity – though I think those who would try in my life wouldn’t be that skilled or motivated (I would take more precautions if I had greater reasons to worry).
    My point here – my alias passes both Facebook and Google+ reality checks… Facebook’s check is actually pretty weak – having friends on my list similar to Reality Defined, Snow White ect…
    Like the internet filtering in Australia debate – this is a waste of time and resources on something that can’t be controlled, will negatively impact on consumer perception and open up avenue after avenue of controversy…
    Hopefully Google gets smart on this soon.

  • Miriam

    I think this is an interesting article but that it’s doing two things that I think an experienced researcher should know better than to do.

    a) You’re confusing effect with intent when you define a real names policy as “an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people.” It may well be that the effect of a real names policy is to marginalize and disempower vulnerable people, but there is no stated reason to believe that is the intent of the policy. Google’s public statements have been about civility, which is a legitimate issue on the Internet. There has been lots of research on the connection between harassment, rudeness, trolling etc. and anonymity. Given that Google has already responded to criticisms with changes and their senior VP said they’re working on further changes to respond to criticisms, I don’t think Google has earned mistrust of their intent.

    b) You’re neglecting context. Google+ is in field trial. It is in wide field trial precisely because Google learned from the Buzz debacle that the company cannot effectively design for social testing internally. So while I’m sure Google wishes the real names kerfluffle had happened less vitriolically, the kerfluffle is exactly the type of issue Google wished to discover by doing a wide field trial (or in CS terms, it’s a feature, not a bug).

    Personally, I think Google made a mistake opening up plus so widely, so fast. I think it’s caused users to view it as a finished product rather than the beta product that it is. I think they would have benefited from a more limited field test first. OTOH, a social network is only as useful as the vastness of the network, so perhaps there’s just no good way to field test.

  • How do we push back or protest this policy?

    I’ve changed my G+ name to “I am Spartacus” and encourage you to do the same. Even if they’re going to threaten to ban us all, we can at least make it a laborious crackdown. If enough of us do it, they might get the message at this early point in the game.

    https://plus.google.com/106143004230434426104/posts/RnCiK452qs7

  • Dr. Meme

    Solution 1:Suffer from a multi-personality disorder, have multiple names use whatever you wish.

    U mad Google?

    Solution 2: Lie! Buhahhaha.

    solution 3: make one single word that is an anagram of your full name and use that, if complaints arise claim dyslexia .

    solution 4: send an email to google and explain that you are in fact a super hero and that Dr. Doom will find you find you use your real name.
    if application is reject become super villain and bring down google
    (solution 4: applies only to super powered beings)

    soulution 5: read books instead of using google+, or facebook or any mind-numbing social network.

    solution 6: complain but use your real name anyway
    (solution 6 is for pussies)

    solution 7: buy a pony, name her/him , go to a weid place, marry her/him,claim to be Mr.Twilight Sparkle/Mrs Rainbow Dash.

  • Name (required)

    Anyone else find it ironic that to leave a reply to this article a name is required?

  • Dock Holiday

    “If companies like Facebook and Google are actually committed to the safety of its users…..”

    Wake up, darlin’. They’re giant corporations. They’re committed to money and power. No matter what.

  • Mouser

    “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” — Oscar Wilde

  • Resilient

    I am tangentially involved in research in online communities and there are some interesting points here. I would tend to argue for requiring real names for any online community. I know of a significant body of research that show a positive connection between good social behavior and a lack of anonymity.

    When people are protected and feel like they can not be connected to their actual identity they get much meaner. It’s not that more mean people come to communities that allow anonymous users, it’s that they actually get meaner when they are anonymous.

    The only communities I spend any time in these days are ones where people are easily tracked to their real life identies. If on the other hand, a community is not what you are going for with your service, then there is no loss allowing fake names. No one is going to say flickr is about community, it’s about photo sharing.

    And on a final point, if a policy really is a strict real name policy, then that wont help. The policy needs to be to use whatever name it is people know you by. Lady Gaga should go by Lady Gaga, otherwise it would be counter productive.

  • Balu

    Just show Google how important pseudonyms are to you:
    http://www.google.com/moderator/#9/e=9fe9f&g=pseudonym

  • Jay King of Gay

    The author is missing a couple vital points here. Google is not like Apple or Facebook where they patently refuse to listen to their users. Many of the changes to Google and it’s services over the years has been driven by the users. There are all kinds of features on Gmail that have been user requests, in some fashion or another.

    The Market is also being ignored. People wouldn’t be flocking to G+ in droves if this policy was a non-starter for them. Google Wave was a flop because nobody understood it or even used it. I don’t think it ever even made it out of beta testing. I don’t have data on this, obviously, but for me the draw away from Facebook is that I’m tired of the shell game that is their privacy policies. Facebook has made it clear they don’t consider the users in their decisions. Google has, in my experience as a user for almost a decade, done very much the opposite in terms of how it treats users, and how it caters to them. I’m leaving Facebook for what they HAVE done, but I’m not going to be deterred from Google based on what this author or others say they imagines they COULD do. For the privacy policy as well as other reasons, people are fed up with Facebook, so Google is poised to offer a better solution. It will have to be a slam dunk of a solution if it’s going to unseat Facebook, and they won’t do that with policies people find offensive.
    We’ve seen with the internet that anonymity breeds trolling. When people aren’t responsible or accountable for what they put forth they will say and do the most evil, outrageous, unethical, offensive, and disgusting things imaginable. When people have their real named attached they have to think about the consequences of what they do….just like in real life! Just like being an adult!

    And as a Gay Person, I call BS on your marginalization. Our enemy has been, and always will be, The Closet. Most every issue we face can be traced back to the closet. It is a FACT that a person is more likely to support LGBT issues when they know a real live LGBT person. Anonymity doesn’t protect us, it perpetuates injustice.

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