09 March 2013


'Pseudonyms and the Rise of the Real-Name Web' by Bernie Hogan in Hartley, Burgess & Bruns (eds) A Companion to New Media Dynamics (Blackwell, forthcoming) 290–308 comments that
Despite their ubiquity, pseudonyms are an under-theorized element of online participation, as is the use of real names (or names commonly used to personally identify someone). This absence has become especially acute in recent years as sites listing an individual’s real name have become common. This shift towards real names is not merely a technical convenience, but a specific political turn. As pseudonyms are often associated with Internet trolling and cyberbullying, it is useful to track the use of pseudonyms in history and to consider many of their positive functions. Ironically, pseudonyms help to solve a problem that Facebook creates – the single heterogeneous audience, i.e., the collapsed context.
I describe three classes of pseudonyms: functional, where pseudonyms denote a specific social or technical function, such as eight character names or official titles; situational, where an external motivating force compels people to hide their real name identities (and of attributes) and personal, where an internal drive to adopt a different persona makes pseudonyms useful. I then describe how these uses operated in a pre-web 2.0 era, and how their use persists.
In discussing the 'nymwars' he argues that
These issues came to a head in the summer of 2011 with the rise of the "nymwars". This term emerged to capture the dissatisfaction with Google+’s assertion that people who joined the service had to use their real name. This decision was widely derided as problematic by a host of scholars and policymakers. As mentioned above, in one such example boyd (2011) called this policy an abuse of power. The counter arguments, however, were just as strong, and based on two general claims (see comments on boyd’s post for examples of this discussion). The first theme is ‘‘don’t like it, don’t use it; its Google’s house, not yours.’’ The second is ‘‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear.’’ The third is ‘‘it doesn’t matter since it is all going public anyway.’’
The first claim carries the most weight insofar as, indeed, Google is the architect of this system, and can make good claims to determining how it is run. However, Google’s policy is nevertheless a presumptuous one. That is, it presumes its particular model for the distribution of content is sufficient for selective sharing, when there are good reasons to think otherwise. Google+ offers individuals the ability to place friends in lists (or ‘‘circles’’). One can share content with these friends or any combination of lists. However, once the friends view this content, there is nothing except a polite pop-up preventing them from redistributing that content to whomever they choose.
The most concerning aspect about this claim is that Google’s policy has the potential to become national or state policy as well. Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO, reinforced this with comments at the same Marie Claire panel where Randi Zuckerberg was quoted above. He believes that at some point all governments will demand real names.
The second claim is more easily discredited. In particular, Solove has made a strong case that ‘‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’’ is a red herring. Even without the assertion of privacy as a fundamental right, Solove (2007) was able to demonstrate a convincing case for why individuals should have an interest in the sort of informational self-determination that is central to an interest in privacy. In particular, people self-incriminate in many unanticipated ways and lose control when they lose privacy. This claim dovetails Nissenbaum’s (2004) notion of ‘‘privacy as contextual integrity.’’
This article on privacy reframed the debate and crystallized the sentiments of many in both policy and academic circles. For example, if we are so close to our parents or spouses, why do we tell things to our doctor that we do not tell them? Nissenbaum argues that privacy is intimately bound up with the notion of contextual integrity. She explores not what privacy is from a positive point of view but what constitutes a breach of privacy. To breach privacy is to move information from one context where such information is understood or expected to reside and into another context where that information was neither intended nor appropriate given the existing social norms. For the hedonistic tourist, Las Vegas is a vacation, not just from another place but another context of norms. Consequently, the Las Vegas tourist board did well with the slogan ‘‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.’’
This is privacy understood as informational self-determination. One has privacy when one can assume that information created by a person will be managed in the way that the person deems appropriate. A doctor who calls a patient’s boss to tell them of a recent diagnosis is breaching privacy. It is unprofessional, but might happen if the doctor and the boss are friends. A website that reveals the IP address and email of someone who posts anonymously is breaching privacy. By linking all information to one’s real name, one effectively transfers informational self-determination into information curation, and allows Google or Facebook to be the curator.
The third claim, typified by Marc Smith’s notion of ‘‘the myth of selective sharing’’ (Smith 2011), draws upon Brand’s earlier claim that ‘‘information wants to be free’’ (1987: 202). That is, it does not matter whether one uses a filter or not; information will end up unified and searchable in the end. This claim is a moderated version of the second claim as Smith is not saying people have nothing to fear but only that, if information is encoded in some form, it is both possible and plausible that it will first escape from the confines of the desired context and second make its way back to the producer. This makes the case a fortiori that labeling all information with one’s real name will undermine informational self-determination. It remains to be seen whether a user interface will emerge that can allow selective sharing with audiences in a useable form, and in its absence we are again left with curation.
He concludes
I conclude by returning to the claim made at the beginning of the chapter: the real-name web is not a technology; it is a social practice. But, in light of this discussion, it is clear that there are both technical trajectories and historical antecedents that foster a trend toward real-name spaces as well as a persistent need for pseudonyms. In particular, the early days of the web were characterized by the paucity of social cues, the sparsity of one’s social network, and the strangeness of people who might be quite different from what they say they are. Pseudonyms made sense both technically and contextually. The modern web, by contrast, is a rich multimedia experience where large corporations curate content on our behalf via cloud services. These corporations continually seek ways to assert their legitimacy, through technical interfaces (e.g., Google’s social circles model) and politics (e.g., real-name policies). In essence, they are suggesting that they have figured out a solution to context collapse (their particular interface). To push people toward these solutions, it is conventional to publicly discourage the use pseudonyms, despite their efficacy.
The increasing use of real names does not, however, attenuate the motivations for pseudonyms. It only mitigates against the personal motivations of cranky and vulgar users and serves to make people and their content more findable. There still exist functional reasons for pseudonyms (such as a unique name or email address), situational motivations in response to context collapse, and personal motivations of identity play beyond trolling and flaming. Through pseudonyms people can express their competitive urges in gaming environments, their health concerns on specialist sites, their sexual urges on pornographic sites, and their political appetites on blogs without these getting in the way of each other or personal and professional obligations.
In light of this, there is much work to be done both academically and politically. Academic work ought to provide greater nuance to identity practices online – when do people adopt a different mask and ‘‘troll’’ or play with identity? Under what conditions, such as those of Wikipedia, do pseudonyms enable effective local collaboration? Are pseudonyms dying out or surging, especially in crosscultural contexts? Policy scholars ought to consider work such as the current Canadian legal trend of balancing privacy online and public interests for freedom of speech. Reidentification practices ought to be lifted out of discussions about vandals and terrorists and reframed in terms of free-speech practices in a new era of persistent content and collapsed contexts.
Finally, we ought to dispel myths that pseudonymous online interaction is a Hobbesian state. In its place we ought to consider such interaction as a localized social contract and response to the increasing array of technologies focused on identity consolidation for profit rather than for the social good. Sites such as the fleeting protest site http://my.nameis.me helped to focus the discussion to good effect. After a protracted public relations war, Google+ has dropped its realname requirement and joined a growing number of sites that acknowledge the legitimacy, functions, and utility of pseudonyms as well as real names. This was announced at the 2011 Web 2.0 forum. At the same summit the day before, Poole (moot) made his most eloquent plea yet for rethinking identity: ‘‘Google and Facebook would have you believe that you’re a mirror, but we’re actually more like diamonds ... Look from a different angle, and you see something completely different . . . . Facebook is consolidating identity by making us more simple than we truly are’’ (Poole 2011a).
The web is not merely a highly connected place out there but a codification of the social relations that bind much of the developed and developing world. The real-name web helps to reinforce this sense of global connectivity. But it also runs against limits inherent in a system curated by third parties with persistent content. Pseudonyms are both an antecedent to this situation and also a partial solution. We may live in a global village but our huts still need curtains.