I hadn't been paying much attention to the Google "Real Names" clusterfuck, because it was so obvious to me that they were going to lose this one in the press that it would all be over soon. But it's still not over, and the Google brass appear to be digging in their heels, despite the universally bad press they're getting over it.
And then the other night I had dinner with a friend which turned into an hour long argument over it, because he thought that forcing everyone to use their real names was just fine. This is someone I've known for decades, so to say that I was shocked and horrified by his attitude is an understatement. It was as if my friend had suddenly started beginning sentences with, "I'm not a racist, but..."
I imagine that like my friend, many of you, my readers, fit into the category of "white, middle-class males who haven't left the cubicle farm in years", so let me give you some reading that will hopefully make you understand why even though you have nothing to hide and live your life like an open book, pseudonyms are really important to people who do not lead the cozy existence that you do.
There are myriad reasons why an individual may feel safer identifying under a name other than their birth name. Teenagers who identify as members of the LGBT community, for example, are regularly harassed online and may prefer to identify online using a pseudonym. Individuals whose spouses or partners work for the government or are well known often wish to conceal aspects of their own lifestyle and may feel more comfortable operating under a different name online. Survivors of domestic abuse who need not to be found by their abusers may wish to alter their name in whole or in part. And anyone with unpopular or dissenting political opinions may choose not to risk their livelihood by identifying with a pseudonym.
As Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens put forth in deciding McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Comm’n 514 U.S. 334, 357 (1995),"Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation -- and their ideas from suppression -- at the hand of an intolerant society. The right to remain anonymous may be abused when it shields fraudulent conduct. But political speech by its nature will sometimes have unpalatable consequences, and, in general, our society accords greater weight to the value of free speech than to the dangers of its misuse."
Just as using "real" names can have real consequences, mandating the use of "real" names can too, excluding from the conversation anyone who fears retribution for sharing their views. While one added value of requiring real names might be increased "civility" of the conversation, it is most certainly to the detriment of diversity.
When the rebuttal to your argument is The Federalist Papers, generally that means that you've lost the argument.
This post from Kee Hinckley has a great list of red herrings, and a great list of examples of people who need pseudonyms:
Anonymous speech on the Internet is a mess
This is absolutely true. Go to any site where people can create accounts just by entering a fake email address, and where there are no valuable relationships between users to maintain, and you'll find a mosh pit of spam and just plain garbage. Fortunately, nobody is asking for anonymous speech on Google+; we're asking for the ability to use pseudonyms—persistent names that aren't tied to our real life address, home and personal information. All the usual validation processes (SMS messages, voice activation on the phone, etc.) would apply to them. When people give examples of how pseudonyms create hostile environments, they are almost always referring to comment systems, not social networks like Facebook, Twitter, LiveJournal, or Google+.
This bears repeating, because this is the terrible example that my friend kept using: "Boy, those comments on Youtube sure are a disaster." Yes, they are. But you know what, just because Google has failed at creating a useful comment system on another of their products doesn't mean it's impossible, and certainly doesn't mean it has not been accomplished many times in the past.
So you think that if Youtube required real names, the comments would be better? And you think that Facebook's real names policy has mandated civility? Well allow me to retort!
Here's an example of a system that had only pseudonyms with millions of users and tens of thousands of effective communities: USENET. It lasted about 20 years. Here's another example: LiveJournal. It lasted about a decade. Here's another example: the blog you are reading right now. This blog began inside LiveJournal, so that's kind of the same example, but I have firsthand experience here that there are people who have been commenting here using the same pseudonym for ten years, and while I know them, I don't know their names. Some of them, I've even met in person -- and their pseudonym is more real to me than their real name.
(It's true that USENET and Livejournal have both pretty much died, after only a decade or two of wild success. Google and Facebook should be so lucky.)
This post from Stephen van den Berg has some dirt from inside Google (anonymously, oh the rich irony):
As suspected, many Googlers support the nymwars cause for pseudonyms. There are those that do not support it, but even they agree that Google is messing up royally in the way the name violations are being handled. There already are Googlers that left Google because of this policy and it is likely that more will follow.
The nymwars are a recurring topic during the company-wide Friday-meetings, at times even taking over the original agenda of a meeting.
Popular counterarguments (both raised internally and externally), and why they won't fly with Vic Gundotra (G+ product manager) or Larry Page:
- "Women, LGBT, abuse victims, etc, will be disadvantaged"
Larry/Vic: "There are other places they can go to, we don't have to fight every ethical and social injustice every time in everything we do, G+ is one of the occasions when we don't seek to right the wrongs of the world, we just want to get the work done."
- "White privileged men will be denied the diversity of opinions because of the bias of Google+ toward white privileged men"
Larry/Vic: "Most of them seem to be just fine with that. Sure, most people pay lip service to diversity of opinions, but what really gets their panties in a knot is when their search results show what they consider garbage."
You stay klassy, Larry and Vic.
He goes on to quote a source:
At one point before G+ launched, an internal petition in support of pseudonyms was signed by about 10% of all Google engineers, which was a huge deal for the petition organizers. It seems that the G+ team is currently overwhelmed with technical issues of the current system -- that, combined with Vic's attitude, means that nymwars is not going to be addressed anytime soon. [...] My Google friends who support pseudonyms are becoming very frustrated and worn-down. We've only been fighting the battle publicly for a month, but they've been pushing internally for much, much longer.
And finally, for comedic value, Google's enforcement of their Real Names policy is incompetent, as Gary Walker's testing demonstrates:
Here's what I gave them instead: Now, if this "driver's license" looks familiar, it should. If it doesn't, you should probably watch Superbad some time. I went well out of my way to make this an obvious fake. My picture isn't aligned correctly, it isn't scaled correctly. The font on my name doesn't match the rest of the ID, etc. etc. Entirely aside from that, I don't live in Hawaii. About the only way to make it more obvious would have been to leave the "McLovin" signature on it.
That one deserves a Slow Clap.