Sunday, August 07, 2011

On real names, opt-in networks, and the benefits of authentication

I was reading Danah Boyd's response to the Google+ real-name enforcement policy. I was going to put out a tweet or two, but it turned into something more than a couple of 140 character comments; you'll notice my statements getting longer and longer...

So here are my thoughts on the matter:

I agree people shouldn't be forced to use their real names online, but why should we insist that all social sites accommodate them?

How can Google's efforts to enforce real names on + be oppressive when they're providing a free service that people can use (or not use)?

Not every site needs to have the same policy, and even within a site, authenticated vs. non-authenticated users can be given different privileges.

Danah Boyd couches the issue of pseudonyms from the standpoint of user safety, but I believe her argument hinges on the assumption that people are forced to use Facebook and/or Google+ as opposed to some other competing social network. After all, there are plenty of places to express yourself online where your real name is not necessary; the market (and the internet) can accommodate many competing solutions.

Right now, it's not always obvious why real name enforcement is more than just huge software corporations asserting their will just because they can (e.g. "it's authoritarianism plain and simple, and authoritarianism is bad!"). After all, we just want to get online and have fun and socialize inconsequentially, right. It's not like we're getting money out of the bank, right?

For now, perhaps, but hopefully not forever. As our online interactions increasingly mean more in our daily lives (and carry over into the "real world"), and as what we do online becomes an important measure of our reputation and credibility (see Klout and Peerindex, or even one's eBay reputation score), then it makes sense that we need more places online where authentication, trust, and accountability are required. As someone who is online all day long, I want more (not fewer) places where my words and actions on the internet have an impact on the rest of my life.

Formalized systems of online reputation are just starting to take off. I think it's safe to assume that Google is interested in that space (especially given that PageRank is all about website reputation). For those of us who want safe places where we can congregate and communicate anonymously (or using pseudonyms) online without people stalking us, those exist and nothing is (currently) stopping anyone from making more.

I'm a fan of diversity and choices online, and being angry about a company's decision and choosing not to use their product is something I completely sympathize with, but that's not the same as saying a company's policy regarding a product--that is completely opt-in--is forcing people to be victimized. (For the record, I'm much more concerned about companies adopting initiatives that are opt-out only).


  1. > How can Google's efforts to enforce real names on + be oppressive when they're providing a free service that people can use (or not use)?

    Well users themselves are expected to provide the content which will then be used to attract advertising revenue, so there is some moral responsibility for Google to be responsive to users' concerns.

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