“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 thoughts on ““Real Names” Policies Are an Abuse of Power

  1. JeffPseudonym Nowayukiddingme

    So I’ve known a couple of people whose identities were stolen by way of accounts they had on facebook. This makes me think I should use a nickname on G+.

    A person can steal an identity using any combination of ingredients:

    Real name; Birth date; SSN; Street Address; Account password (which sometimes unravels other related account passwords – if you’re not careful enough); Knowledge of “who your friends are”; Knowledge of “who your employer is”; Knowledge of “who your bank is”; etc.

    You do not need to have all of these, just a few ingredients will do. But one thing you absolutely do need is the person’s real name. There is no substitute. Lacking that one critical ingredient is a complete barrier to identity theft.

    So my question is: Will Google pay all the fees incurred to restore my credit rating and my good name? Also, will Google pay me at my billing rate (that’s $200 per hour, and I am not kidding!) for my own time an effort in case of an event like this?

    I’m not talking about Google being “hacked”. I’m talking about a standard G+ account being capable of dispersing enough information for an identity thief to “hit the ground running”.

    (After all, Google *can’t* be hacked – a big company like Google can “protect itself”. I mean, look a big technology company like Sony. They haven’t had any security problems at all and … oh, wait … )

  2. Shawna Green

    If you don’t like it, don’t join it! Bunch of freaking idiots calling it an “abuse of power”. It is called “terms of service”. MORONS!

  3. bblackmoor

    I think would be clearer to refer to Google’s policy as requiring the use of “government names”, rather than “real names” or “common names”. Google has made it abundantly clear that they do not care about anyone’s real name (i.e., the name they actually use and are known by) — what they care about is the government-sanctioned name. (If it sounds “normal” enough.)

    Remember April 2009, when Google refused to require YouTube users to register their government-sanctioned names at the demand of South Korea, because Google said (correctly) that it was an unacceptable a priori restriction on freedom of expression? I do. A pity that Google seems to have forgotten it.

    “We have a bias in favor of people’s right to free expression in everything we do. We are driven by a belief that more information generally means more choice, more freedom and ultimately more power for the individual. We believe that it is important for free expression that people have the right to remain anonymous if they choose.” — Rachel Whetstone, Google Vice President of Global Communications & Public Affairs, April 2009

    South Korea is abolishing that requirement, by the way. Apparently, they have decided that it is too great a threat to privacy.

  4. Dr. No

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


  5. Xira

    It doesn’t end with ad campaigns.
    It ends with everyone you ever interact with being told what they would find most interesting about your past.

    The computers know your behaviors, your likes, your dislikes, your crimes, everything about you.They also know all of that about the person snapping the picture and using facial recognition tech to get database info about you.They will soon combine the two into one. A person will snap a picture and the computers will tell them what they most want to know about you automagically.

    Let’s say they are a cop, they’ll want to know what crimes you have committed, and what crimes you may have a propensity to commit, who you hang out with, how much money you have, ect.

    If they are a date you meet in a bar, they’ll want to know if you are married, if you are single, if you are gay, what STDs you have.

    An employer? They’ll snap that pic and get back who you have worked for in the past, how long, what you’ve said about them, if you’ve sued them, weather or not you got along with your last boss, everything.They’ll get it all of that and whatever else they’ll want.

    This doesn’t end with targeted advertising. This ends with a permanence record of every man woman and child on the planet available to anyone for purposes good or evil.

  6. Cara Wilcox

    This all comes down to what kind of service you want to use– one that allows anonymity, or one that does not. IMHO I think using real names creates a more valuable product. I’m more interested in reading from and discussing opinions with people who are unafraid to express back it up with their real names and reputations. If you can’t stand behind whatever you say with your name and reputation, you probably shouldn’t be saying it at all.

  7. Bridgette

    I don’t understand how it makes sense that more teens of color use pseudonyms as compared to white teens. That sounds ignorant and honestly racist. This article is completely biased and using your real name on the internet does not infringe or undermine one’s privacy. Giving one’s name does not give any personal information that would be dangerous to the one publishing their own name. Celebrities and various people that are successful are well known and their names are known by many people and they are not considered to be in danger of any kind.

  8. John Clifford

    I believe that offering real name and pseudo name options could be engineered to satisfy both use cases and real needs for protecting the vulnerable. The motivation to use targeting advertising similar to FaceBook’s attempt is likely a significant factor in Google’s choices in this matter. I also agree that i many contexts a lack of real names seems to encourage less than civil conversations and Youtube comment stream fulls of venom. Hopefully community feedback will guide companies like Google to find a balance that can addresses both sides of the issue. I do appreciate Google’s attempt tp make it easy to export your data and take it with you unlike Facebook and other social graph networks that prefer to lock user generated content inside their walled garden.

  9. spock

    Well done, Dana!

    What Google, in their apparent insensitivity, has done is simply violated the collective trust they’ve built up since ’96 in placing user needs first.

    Brin & Page seemed to have forgotten, like Microsoft did in an earlier era with their failed Passport scheme, is that users value their individual right to privacy more than the need to communicate under Google’s abusive, intrusive real names policy.

    Google, the power of the people surpasses the power of “collecting the world’s data.”

  10. Seriously...

    Wait a second. No one is forcing you to USE Google+. Just because it’s a service an it’s out there doesn’t mean you HAVE to use it.

    This is just whining.

    “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.”. Then don’t!! It’s not like you don’t have a choice.

    Just don’t use Google+. There. Problem Solved

  11. Joshua

    In my own opinion, every quote above about people not wanting to use their real name b/c of privacy… they are all invalid with the circles concept. You choose who sees what just like in real life.
    Don’t want everyone to know you’re homosexual – just limit who has access to any of your homosexual content, or don’t put it up there. And G+ is free, don’t use it if you don’t want to..

  12. Some Jackass

    To all the “don’t use it, lawl” guys, I get the whole arrogant, laissez-faire cocksucker thing, or whatever. And you’re right, not using the service is a good way to passively induce a change in their policies, so as to be more competitive. But to say that criticism and complaint are completely illegitimate and useless means to bring about change is foolish. Maybe people who would’ve signed up before will think twice. Or at least keep the risks in mind. Thing is, if a large chunk of people make it known that their preference is for a little privacy with their connectivity, Google will just about have to change it’s policies in order to attract new users.

    Oh, also. “Don’t like other people’s opinions? Seriously? Why waste the time replying? Just don’t read them. There. Problem Solved.” HURRRRR.

  13. Pmarcus

    Hmm…the arrogance by which Google and thier companion apps feels its OK to collect and store every scrap of info on a person and then have the balls to you have to do it this way or else, smacks of a system that wants total control, and there in lies the problem. I for one will be a deleteing fool over the next few days to be rid of not only everything Google but Facebook as well, and they will soon follow and I will commit all to Cyber pergatory.
    I cannot abide a company or companies that feel they are the end all and be all and that they have at their finger tips my cyber history, emails, downloads,accounts my likes and dislikes, the good websites the bad websirtes ETC.
    and at anytime can give it up to what ever government authority decides they didnt like the way I said something that they think my be suspect.
    I believe this goes far deeper than a company just changing policy, I believe that because of the popularity of both Google and Facebook there are clandestine powers at work here. Yes I sound like a conspiacy theorist which I am, but with all the paranoia and crap thats been going on in the US since 911 I believe there is something much, much deeper going on here.

  14. Max

    The general trend (and not just from Google) seems to be towards “accountabilty” online. I have just read about someone being jailed for sending racist tweets. It seems that wehther we like it or not privacy is being removed everywhere, you cannot even walk down your High Street without being monitored by tens of CCTV cameras. All of this is usually justifed by those removing the privacy as introducing accountability, a word that sounds intrisically moral but as always such concepts are open to abuse.

  15. Kia151

    Although, I agree with Google’s statement that people behave better when they are using their real names, I can see why this would pose a potential danger. I do agree with some of the previous comments, using our real names does make us more vulnerable to identity theft. I just don’t feel like many users of Google Plus would even consider the potential damage using their real names could pose. Isn’t there something that could be done to alert the public what they are really getting themselves into or will Google sit idly by and ignore their social responsibility?

  16. moonglow

    I see this article is almost a year old, going by the comments on it. Youtube is just now starting in with this real name thing. I am not one bit happy about it and was searching for a place to comment on their site (which obviously I haven’t found yet) to ask why…and then state why I do not want to do this. I surely hope they don’t force this on us or I will have to close my youtube account. As a Christian and a woman, I would feel too vulnerable using my real name. I get threats and attacks for my beliefs already. Youtube should know about the constant threats people get on there already because of who they are or what they stand for. This is really setting people up for some dangerous situations. A person can set their video’s to private but its difficult to pick out who you want to see your video’s and kind of defeats the whole point in having a youtube account. :/ Really upsets me they are doing this. Its not right.

  17. sapphirepaw

    Ah, somehow I missed this post of yours last year. But the nymwars haven’t left my head, and finally I got around to writing about it — http://www.sapphirepaw.org/propaganda/2012/07-13-why-nymwars-matter-me.html

    To summarize, in case I break that link someday: besides the cultural frame you mentioned, there’s a temporal frame, and I don’t necessarily want the digital trail of a 20-year-old me being associated to a 40-year-old me down the road. A nym gives me something I can drop when I decide I’m no longer “the person the nym represents” whereas wallet names are forever.

  18. Dave N

    “And I’m really really glad to see seriously privileged people take up the issue”

    Really? Do you live in America? Yes. Then you are seriously privileged too. So is every minority that lives in this country.

    Don’t think so? Go live in Africa for a while or Mexico. You’ll see.

  19. Ivana Spanku

    You stupid Americans. Google wants your real name actually all your personal info to sell to advertisers. It has nothing to do with bad words or your fucking feelings. It is all about your beloved capitalism!!! Assholes.

  20. namename

    The most ridiculous argument for real names is that it somehow makes people “behave”. I don’t believe using “real names” makes the internet any safer at all. No one sane is going to hunt down someone that upsets them on purpose, I believe it’s the other way around. It’s people that are already victims of harassment who are going to suffer more.

  21. Just Me

    Wherein does Facebook get the legal power to force those of us who have been stalked and geographically located to continue to use the true name that originally got us in trouble.

    It’s nice for you who are saying we don’t have to use it but I am deaf and have very few ways of communication as it is and I think Facebook is crossing the line. Why should I have to live in fear of someone I cannot even hear coming after me. There has to be another way and I’m on the verge of complaining to the FCC. I am being denied access to a service I need and for no fault of my own.

  22. Galactus

    If I am reguired to use my real name to post anywhere online, all you get from me is silence.

  23. Marie

    I’m in the process of ditching my old gmail account and all the G+ crap I’ve had to put up with because of it. I’ve also uninstalled Chrome, and am either switching to Bing (shudders) or Yahoo for searching. Google is just getting draconian. So many pre-2000s dystopia works assumed the surveillance state would be the work of the government, but they’ve got nothing on Google and Facebook. Of course they’re presumably not terribly political (they care about their money and other business relevant stuff), they only want you to reveal everything about yourself so they can sell you out to corporate interests, not help the government monitor its critics.

    Frankly, the government could probably create a program with far superior reach than their current mass surveillance project if they paid Google or Facebook enough to let them access data with unfettered access to user accounts. (I’d go with Facebook before Google though – Zuckerburg seems like he lacks the principles needed to turn down a big paycheck (he certainly has no problem stripping users of privacy settings one at a time anyway) while Google may be desperate enough for some good press to blow the whistle just to redeem themselves.) The government would have worldwide reach and access to tons of data they don’t even have to pay to store themselves, and it would be constantly updating (sure they’d be paying for access, but paying to access data users willingly submit to Facebook and/or Google (especially data that users willingly submit to be publicly displayed) would likely be more efficient than trying to collect it on their own).

    They’d still have your expected but annoying problem with running a mass surveillance program: sifting through an excessive amount of irrelevant data. But if they know which group or issue to target, finding and observing its supporters or critics won’t be hard. And individuals’ friends, family, phone number, address or at least hometown, occupation, their current location, when they will return home from trips etc. can often be easy to find or deduce. And computers are always getting faster and more efficient.

    I like to read and write dystopian fic in my free time by the way, so I’m naturally suspicious. That said, the real world seems to like taking good dystopian ideas and putting them in practice (like unlimited corporate donations to politicians being legally sanctioned because corporations are people – a bit too cyberpunk for the real world if you ask me). The government had Green Peace as a keyword it watched for, so it’s not like they’d never abuse their spy programs (the UK found out and was not happy).

  24. Groot

    Shawna Green:
    My college course basically requires me to join their facebook page as it is where they post any information that isn’t directly related to work and usually isn’t on their website, like information we need to know about upcoming events etc.
    So some people don’t have a choice but to join.

    And that aside, it isn’t just people who don’t want to use their real name this affects.
    I have a friend whose last name is “Hardick” and so ironically, facebook wont let him sign up using his real name.

    Furthermore, I’ve heard of celebrities who were late to sign on to facebook and then when they attempted to, they could not because facebook assumed that it was someone using a fake name.

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