denise: Image: Me, facing away from camera, on top of the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome (Default)
Denise ([staff profile] denise) wrote2011-08-03 09:53 am
Entry tags:

"Real Name" policies: They just don't work.

I've been watching the debate raging around Google Plus's crackdown on "names they perceive to be insufficiently 'real'" with interest, and was really happy to see the "soft launch" of My Name Is Me, a project intending to shed light on the fact that self-chosen names are not "fake names" and that anonymity, pseudonymity, and the use of self-chosen names (I've seen some people moving to call that state "autonymity", which I like a lot) is not harmful to the health and well-being of an online service.

This is something I care about a lot. I've spent the last ten years of my life, more or less, immersed in the idea of what it takes to build a healthy online community and how to handle (and discourage) the abuses that develop. I've dealt with harassment, death threats, stalking, and a whole host of vile things people can say and do to each other online. (And I haven't been exempt, either; at least part of my decision to use my 'real name', which I don't feel any emotional connection with at all, for my work on Dreamwidth has been to help increase the positive mentions of said name on the internet and drown out the Google results from several of those harassment campaigns.)

When we decided to start Dreamwidth, I did a lot of thinking about what my ideal online community would be. Our decisions for policies, community design, etc, were sharply shaped by the existing codebase we chose to use and the design thereof, but we did make a bunch of changes while we were still in design mode in order to shape the community we wanted to take place. (Biggest example there: the split of "friend" into "I want to read you" vs "I want you to read my locked stuff", which is the #1 change I credit in the development of DW as a service where people are overwhelmingly willing to reach outside their existing social circles, make new contacts and new friendships, and seek out differing points of view and differing ideas. Which, if I haven't said it lately, is absolutely awesome.)

One thing we never, ever, ever considered, even for a moment, was instituting a "real name" policy to prevent abuses. Why? Because it doesn't fucking work.

Many of the people who caused the worst problems on LiveJournal over the years had registered with some variant on their "real" name, or had their "real" name in their profile somewhere, or were widely known under their "real" name. (I use "real" in scarequotes deliberately, because god damn it, "rahaeli" is my real name. So's "synecdochic". The entire staff I supervised at LJ, both volunteer and paid employee, called me "rahaeli" or "rah" in a professional context, to the point where half our volunteers had to think really hard to remember my name. Most of the close friends I've made through fandom refer to me as "synecdochic" or "syne". I feel desperately weird being [staff profile] denise on Dreamwidth.) Many of the people who caused zero problems at all were operating under a self-chosen name that had no bearing on the name assigned to them at birth.

Facebook, which has an (inconsistently-enforced) "real name" policy, has to have an abuse staff that's probably larger than their programmer staff. Dreamwidth, which lets you call yourself whatever you want, gets one or two abuse complaints a month, if that. (And before anyone starts to say it has to do with the size of the service, I'm freely willing to admit that has something to do with it. I still know that, for instance, DW has fewer abuse complaints than LJ did, when it was the same size, by at least two orders of magnitude; I was there for both. I would love to see an industry-wide analysis of "instances of abuse complaints" vs "number of staff members dedicated to handling complaints" vs "site-wide anti-abuse policies", indexed by whether or not the service has a real name requirement. If we were making more money I'd fund one.)

The argument advanced by proponents of a "real" name policy, if I'm following correctly, is that people displaying their "real" name will think carefully about their behavior, for fear of accumulating negative reputation. What this argument fails to take into account is that "real" names are not unique identifiers -- I'm not the only Denise Paolucci in the world (and I feel sorry for the other ones out there, because their Google results are suffering from the same harassment as mine are and I feel obliquely guilty over that). When [staff profile] mark started working in the LJ office, at a time when there were only six employees in-office, not a single one of his three names (first, middle, family) was unique enough to be called by in casual office conversation. I, personally, don't feel much real emotional attachment to the reputation juice of "Denise Paolucci", because that's not me. When a bunch of disgruntled griefers took exception to me doing my job and decided to Googlebomb my name and try to destroy my professional reputation, I was annoyed, but I wasn't enraged. When people start fucking with the online reputation of "rahaeli", that's when I get furious.

And, of course, none of this is getting into the disproportionate chilling effect a "real name" policy has on vulnerable populations, nor the times when anonymity can literally be a condition of life or death, nor the fact that anonymity alone is not synonymous with abuse, nor the fact that "real names" are more complicated than most programmers think, nor the fact that enforcement of a "real name" policy disproportionately causes grief for anyone who isn't an upper-class, White, Westerner whose name can be rendered in ISO-8859-1 encoding. All of these considerations are important to keep in mind, and all of them are excellent reasons not to adopt a "real names" policy for your system.

But the first and foremost reason to avoid a "real name" policy is, and continues to be, that it is worthless for the purposes people try to use it for. The amount of abuse on your service has nothing to do with whether or not people are using their real names. It has to do with the community norms, the standard that people hold each other to, the tools you give your users to manage reputation and abuses, and the clearly-communicated expectations of the service. There's a reason we have our Diversity Statement and Guiding Principles linked on the bottom of every site page: it tells you the standard that we hold ourselves to, and implicitly challenges you all to live up to the same standards in your dealings with each other. And you know what? It's working.

I am disappointed in Google for taking such a simplistic, reductionist approach to the problem of online abuse, harassment, and reputation. They can do better.
snark: (Default)

[personal profile] snark 2011-08-03 09:16 pm (UTC)(link)
The entire staff I supervised at LJ, both volunteer and paid employee, called me "rahaeli" or "rah" in a professional context, to the point where half our volunteers had to think really hard to remember my name.

Dude, I have NO IDEA what you are talking about -- nope, no idea what that's like.

jumpuphigh: Text "Snark is My Fandom" with snark punctuation in background. (snark)

[personal profile] jumpuphigh 2011-08-04 12:29 am (UTC)(link)
Heee Your name!

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liv: Stylised sheep with blue, purple, pink horizontal stripes, and teacup brand, dreams of Dreamwidth (sheeeep)

[personal profile] liv 2011-08-03 09:26 pm (UTC)(link)
Thanks for this really awesome post! Now, the question is, should I link it from my Google+ page? I never thought I'd say this about Google, but I am a bit concerned about spite suspensions of people who criticize Google+ and I really don't want to lose access to Gmail.
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[personal profile] matgb 2011-08-03 09:49 pm (UTC)(link)
Link--I've seen several people openly critical of them that're still active. They're being idiots, but they're not actively censoring (muting employees, yes, but not censoring).

And they've specifically promised that G+ stuff isn't going to affect Gmail &c. I haven't linked yet as I haven't figured out a bookmarklet and I'm not keen on switching to Chrome just to make G+ better.

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[personal profile] musyc 2011-08-03 10:17 pm (UTC)(link)
*two thumbs up* Indeed. I don't use my legal name online, and have made tremendous efforts to ensure that name is nonexistent on the internet whenever possible. I won't even let my family link, friend, or tag me on FB, and that account is primarily falsified. The only thing you'll find with my legal name is public record information. This name is the "real" me, and has fifteen years of history behind it. As far as I'm concerned, this is me. Legal Name is the alias.
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[personal profile] ravan 2011-08-03 10:33 pm (UTC)(link)
Rah, Denise, I love you for this.

I have used this pseudonym for nearly 30 years, in person and on the net. There are people who do not know my legal name, but who have known me for years, even shared a room at a con.

I have fought the pseudonym battle, with all the asshole argument against it, on the net since 1994. It's still the same old BS, all wrapped up in privilege and arrogance.
vilakins: Vila in a space helmet (safe)

[personal profile] vilakins 2011-08-04 12:02 am (UTC)(link)
I totally agree. Even though it's very easy to find my real name from links on my journals, I'm wondering whether I'd bother with Google Plus and what it would offer anything I'd need anyway.

Facebook has the same problem. I'm there under my real name (though I hardly use FB) but a friend wasn't allowed to use her online pseud (an item of food) as her surname when she started working at a prison and was told to change her FB name to avoid stalking. She translated the food item in German and had it accepted as her surname. I see no reason why she couldn't have had it in English as she's well known under that.

There are very good reasons a person may not want to use their real name.
lassarina: I'm not coming out until the stupid people have gone away.  ....I can wait all day. (Default)

[personal profile] lassarina 2011-08-04 02:45 am (UTC)(link)
This this this, all of this. I've been Lassarina for over a decade. I turn around when I hear "Rina!" on the street. Why do I behave myself online? Well, because that's what I was taught. I treat people online the exact same as I do in meatspace. Yes, some people abuse anonymity, but: is the misbehaviour of a few enough to strip so many protections from so many groups who need it for their safety? Fuck. No. Never.
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[personal profile] shyfoxling 2011-08-04 04:30 am (UTC)(link)
Off topic, just curious: Is your username an Anglicization of Lasairfhiona?

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[personal profile] norabombay 2011-08-04 03:40 am (UTC)(link)
At this point "Nora Bombay" is my real name. I sometimes think I need a new middle name to go with it, just to complete the picture. It isn't all that hard to figure out who I 'actually' am- I'm certainly not trying to hide it in person.

But I have a job that involves working with member populations. I'm _ambitious_ and I have a job that involves running membership groups. And while I will not lie if asked directly, I have no desire for the first google keywords that come up with my actual name to be "Britney Spears Gay Porn".

You know?
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[personal profile] jjhunter 2011-08-04 03:46 am (UTC)(link)
Some initial thoughts & reactions (& a signal-boost of this post) at my personal journal here.
I think of names as synecdoche for identity. Part for the whole, shorthand for reputation...Names frame how we know each other; change the name and you shift the self that shows.

Anyway, I've been periodically rereading your words throughout the day today, and I keep coming back to the intersections between names & communities & the way particular communities are encouraging of or intolerant of autonymity. The differences between G+ and DW, between Pottermore and AO3, between the names we are given and the names we choose ourselves. If my brain doesn't melt from overload & lack of sleep in the next few days I'll probably have more coherent things to say. In the meantime, thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences so eloquently; you type truth and it rings in my sight.
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[personal profile] shyfoxling 2011-08-04 04:28 am (UTC)(link)
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[personal profile] luminosity 2011-08-04 04:36 am (UTC)(link)
Thank you. I've been Luminosity since the 80's, and I'm more readily known by that name than my given name. I answer to it; I identify with it, and I cherish its singular reputation across the board.
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[personal profile] order_of_chaos 2011-08-04 09:15 am (UTC)(link)
My main reaction to being asked to use my "real" name on the internet is "You are trying to make me be other than who I am. Argh." With a faint hint of "the bars are closing in, creepy and cagelike, please let no-one powerful to partially succeed get it into their head that the internet needs policing."
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[personal profile] shandrew 2011-08-04 10:03 am (UTC)(link)
Perhaps the goal is to make the community comfortable for people coming from a culture where real names are the norm.

There are lots of people like that, and most are not going to change.

For quora and facebook, communities with a "real-name culture", a sufficient percentage of real-looking names is sufficient.

People on sites like DW and LJ need to realize that they are advanced, experienced users, but most of the internet users in the world are not.
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[personal profile] rike_tikki_tavi 2011-08-04 02:34 pm (UTC)(link)
So in order to make a community comfortable for one kind of people, we have to make it uncomfortable for another? Why can't we have both, "real names" and pseuds side by side?

After all, isn't one of the nice things about the internet, that you get to meet new people, who sometimes are from different cultural backgrounds.

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[personal profile] alitalf 2011-08-04 11:01 am (UTC)(link)
I completely agree.

Do you know\know of Teddy? That is his legal name. He changed it by deed poll. Yes, computer forms do choke on it <grin>

(As a point of reference he was one of the people who worked on making and modelling the costume set that won best in show at the Worldcon 1995 masquerade. I met him because I designed and built the tech.)
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[personal profile] altivo 2011-08-04 11:04 am (UTC)(link)
Brava! You obviously get it. Google, for all their money and high tech, obviously does not. I predict the same demise for Google+ as for all their previous attempts at social networking, just because the truth is, they are so nerdy that they don't understand the social concept at all.

I am quite familiar with your point about being known by something other than a birth name. My own birth certificate name is so common that there are often two or three of me in the phone book wherever I live. When I moved to Chicago back in the 70s, I quickly learned that one of me was a deadbeat who was on a lot of collection agency lists. When I bought a house in the 80s, I was informed that one of me was wanted for armed robbery and interstate flight. Before that, in Michigan, one of me was apparently a well-known drug dealer (this got me a lot of unwanted late night phone calls, of course.)

Shakespeare understood this ("What's in a name?") and so did Gertrude Stein ("A rose is a rose is a rose.") Unfortunately, the Google-nerds are so enwrapped in technology that they lack a background in the arts and literature, let along social grounding.

As an author, I write fiction under a pseudonym. My readers know me by that name and look for me by that name. Under Google's rules, I am not entitled to use it. Too bad for you, Google.
Edited 2011-08-04 11:06 (UTC)

[identity profile] 2011-08-04 11:25 am (UTC)(link)
Google+ has made a business decision to have a real names policy because it wants to be as big as Facebook, rather than as big as Dreamwidth.
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[personal profile] phoebe_zeitgeist 2011-08-04 03:24 pm (UTC)(link)
Yawn. Of course it does. But Facebook has already fully occupied the ecological niche for natural users of Facebook. To make it work, Google+ needs to offer something materially better, or else something materially different and complementary to it. This policy seems to be at odds with both potential strategies.

It's their company, of course; they can do what they like. It will be interesting to see whether this approach works for them; I suppose it might, but they haven't shown themselves to be all that perceptive about social media in previous attempts at it, and I'm not holding my breath on this one.

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[personal profile] beanpot 2011-08-04 04:30 pm (UTC)(link)
I am on Facebook under my real name and have been for years. I am also not searchable and everything is locked down to my friends. I have a G+ account but I am actually more disturbed by their privacy issues than Facebook. It certainly could be an issue of the devil you know, but I was not at all happy that my G+ linked automatically to my gmail based picsa albums. I wasn't happy that I couldn't block people from searching for me. There was a great deal that was private that suddenly wasn't and that bugs the hell out of me. I expected more from Google and that might have been the problem in the first place.
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[personal profile] mab_browne 2011-08-04 07:33 pm (UTC)(link)
My 'real name' is unique, and I've grown increasingly nervous over the last few years as to what sort of footprint I'm leaving whenever I use it - at Amazon for example. Anywhere I leave my real name, it would take someone about five seconds to take that name and figure out exactly where I live, and while my name might be unique, it's not intrinsically unusual or 'weird'. So yeah - I'm not inclined to leap into any service that might require my real name, even though I suspect that from an advertisers pov I am prime material because of our family income. People who want my real name had better be offering me something that I really, really want, and Google+ isn't looking like that something.
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[personal profile] helens78 2011-08-04 08:45 pm (UTC)(link)
...this times eleventy.

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[personal profile] helens78 2011-08-04 08:55 pm (UTC)(link)
It's like people who insist on "real names" and "one true account" don't get that people specialize. It's not about anonymity or not being accountable for stuff, it's about having a signifier that this identity interacts with these people and places in this way. It's the reason that well-known authors who want to jump genres will use a different name -- to make it clear that they're engaging with a new audience.

I think Google has the weird idea that their innovative, totally unique, not seen anywhere before on the Internet "circles" (ow, I hurt myself with my own sarcasm) gives people enough ability to specialize, so that they can simply add everyone at once -- work, parents' groups, church, family, friends, acquaintances -- and use the circles to create those boundaries. But most Internet-savvy people have already created our own boundaries, and it would be nice to have those boundaries respected and accounted for.
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[personal profile] hilarytamar 2011-08-04 11:04 pm (UTC)(link)
It's like people who insist on "real names" and "one true account" don't get that people specialize.

This, absolutely this! I've got two internet identities for two entirely different circles. Neither one is a sock puppet for the other, I use them both honorably (I hope), and I'm very attached to both of them – and both are entirely legitimate, 'real', identities. They aren't different versions of me, they're both me. (And as it happens, neither of them is the legal me.) People who insist on not just 'real names' but a real name apparently forget that they can be "little Billy" to their grandparents, "William Henry" to their parents, and "Bubba" to their frat brothers without inciting worldwide flamefests and anarchy.

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[personal profile] flick 2011-08-04 09:30 pm (UTC)(link)
Comment that does not address the point of your post:

I always wondered who you were. I'd never heard of Denise. Now I know!
barakta: (Default)

[personal profile] barakta 2011-08-05 12:08 am (UTC)(link)
Yes, I have heard great things about and of both Rahaeli and Synecdochic and didn't realise Denise was the same human :)
barakta: (Default)

[personal profile] barakta 2011-08-05 12:05 am (UTC)(link)
Thank you for this. Barakta is just as much a part of my identity as my legal forename - which I changed a bit because I wanted to and in the UK that's easy.

Names are important, how people choose to use them in situations of their choice are important.

I love how Dreamwidth has thought these things through and I absolutely agree about how the framework is designed affects the shape of the community it can and will become.
eunice: (coffee)

[personal profile] eunice 2011-08-05 07:23 am (UTC)(link)
I used to have an online name, but I've recently decided to go back to my real name. The change happened after my mother died at the end of last year. It suddenly became more important to me to be, well, me. So I'm no longer Seren and I've reclaimed my real name, Eunice.

But, I can't see anything wrong with anyone going by a name that was not given to them by their parents. Now I know I was right not to take up on google plus!

[personal profile] shanghaied 2011-08-05 06:44 pm (UTC)(link)
Applause! Applesauce! Marry meeee, 'k?

~is very impressed~
franzeska: (Default)

[personal profile] franzeska 2011-08-06 09:11 pm (UTC)(link)
The abuse reports at AO3 and (anecdotally) every other fandom site I've ever seen have supported your interpretation: Some people have a billion socks and are clever about their stalking. Other people openly carry their grudges and feuds from site to site to site regardless of the social consequences. If they'll do it with the same screen name for years, they'd do it with real names. If they're making all those plausibly-named socks, they'll do it no matter what the naming policies are.

In my experience, the amount of trouble admins have to deal with is mostly related to how much the real TOS match the perceived social norms among site users. If there's something people think would obviously be allowed or ought to be allowed, they'll do it. If it isn't actually allowed, other people will grudge-report them for it. That goes for ffn or ao3 or G- or Prohibition or anything else.
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[personal profile] beatrice_otter 2011-08-06 11:21 pm (UTC)(link)
There is, of course, a Biblical mandate for a more inclusive 'real name' policy. "Peter" was not Saint Peter's "real name." Peter's real name was Simon bar Jonah. "Peter" (Petros in Latin, Κηφᾶς (Cephas) in Greek) is a nickname given to him by Jesus, and it means 'rock'. Yet that nickname--not his real name!--is what he's been primarily known as for the last 2,000 years. If it's good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for Google, I say. ;P
Edited 2011-08-06 23:22 (UTC)

[identity profile] 2011-08-07 11:53 pm (UTC)(link)
I love this:

1. People’s names are assigned at birth.
2. OK, maybe not at birth, but at least pretty close to birth.
3. Alright, alright, within a year or so of birth.
4. Five years?
5. You’re kidding me, right?

Anyway, great post with solid insights. Thanks!

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