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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.
phoebe_zeitgeist: (Default)

[personal profile] phoebe_zeitgeist 2011-08-03 04:12 pm (UTC)(link)
What [personal profile] kass said. But also, while I certainly don't mean to minimize the importance of the safety issues around pseudonymity, one other issue that's often overlooked is that a robust culture of pseudonymity can improve the quality of discussion, and often does. Where no one can be sure of the (logically irrelevant) RL privileges that the person behind a persistent pseud might bring to a debate, participants have to focus on what was said, and come to grips with that, rather than dismiss some speakers as being unworthy of their full notice and consideration.

Which, I often think, is why authoritarians and those with authoritarian tendencies hate it. And reason enough to support it right there -- even if you don't go quite so far as I do, and find yourself instantly and automatically losing all respect for anyone who argues in favor of mandatory use of RL names.

[personal profile] indywind 2011-08-03 05:25 pm (UTC)(link)
Where no one can be sure of the (logically irrelevant) RL privileges that the person behind a persistent pseud might bring to a debate, participants have to focus on what was said, and come to grips with that, rather than dismiss some speakers as being unworthy of their full notice and consideration.

Or else question or assert about privilege instead/in addition to the topic being debated, and thus indicate (at best)that they find that context relevant or (at worst) they aren't capable of debating ideas on their own merits without playing on privilege dynamics.

[personal profile] phoebe_zeitgeist, that's a great point.

You might consider adding it to the Geek feminism Wiki list of who is harmed by a Real Name policy -- the link from "vulnerable populations" in Syne's post points there.

phoebe_zeitgeist: (Default)

[personal profile] phoebe_zeitgeist 2011-08-03 05:51 pm (UTC)(link)
Thanks. I'll check out the Wiki list. I'm actually working on a long-ish post about this aspect of the problem, which you'd think the mainstream would have jumped on immediately -- it's not as if the value of not knowing RL identities isn't well established in other contexts. The example I keep using is that of orchestras and auditions: all respectable orchestras now audition musicians with a screen in place, because long experience has shown that even the best-trained listeners are incapable of evaluating a performance without subconsciously factoring in the player's gender, race, physical attractiveness, et cetera if they have that information in front of them. And once the screened audition was established as a standard practice, why, it was amazing how nonwhite, nonmale musicians were suddenly being hired.

If you actually believe any of the U.S. civic religion around the marketplace of ideas and meritocracy and respect for all individuals of whatever background, a healthy appreciation for persistent pseuds ought to be a no-brainer. I realize that by no means all of us are either U.S. types or ideologically aligned with that set of ideals, and I don't mean to suggest that others should buy into that particular speech paradigm. It's just, since it is my country's officially-approved, dominant-paradigm model you'd think we'd see more support for it from the mainstream.

-- Although what a real name policy is good for is buying and selling, so maybe not. What's good for the wheels of commerce isn't always what's good for discourse, and I suppose it's easy for corporations and a lot of the mainstream in general to forget that it's a good idea to support both goals of life online, and not to privilege one so far that you harm the other.
jlh: Alexander Hamilton, with a banner that says "Federalist" (gents: Alexander Hamilton)

[personal profile] jlh 2011-08-03 08:36 pm (UTC)(link)
If you actually believe any of the U.S. civic religion around the marketplace of ideas and meritocracy and respect for all individuals of whatever background, a healthy appreciation for persistent pseuds ought to be a no-brainer.

Especially as a good deal of the conversation that started that very civic religion was done under pseuds! *cough*Federalist Papers*cough* It's why the Federalist period mostly resembles an ongoing internet imbroglio with GW as the biggest, nonwankiest BNF ever.
phoebe_zeitgeist: (Default)

[personal profile] phoebe_zeitgeist 2011-08-03 09:34 pm (UTC)(link)
Yes indeed.

The only reason I didn't start off with the citation to the Federalist is that I've found readers too often take it, ironically, as an argument from authority and tradition, rather than a good solid case study. Which makes me want to rant and storm and go around muttering What do they teach them in these schools?, so I try to resist.

But it makes me very happy when somebody else does it.
matgb: Artwork of 19th century upper class anarchist, text: MatGB (Default)

[personal profile] matgb 2011-08-03 09:51 pm (UTC)(link)
Publius is one of my frequently cited example when I encounter the "use real names" thing with clients--a lot of politicians find it really offputting that constituents use nicknames/pseuds to contact them, but politicians are overwhelmingly people who need to trade by their real name everywhere.
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[personal profile] azurelunatic 2013-10-01 05:43 am (UTC)(link)
(dropping back into the party very late)

And even eBay now encourages people to adopt a unique pseudonym to discourage identity theft now.
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[personal profile] tiferet 2011-08-03 08:37 pm (UTC)(link)
Where no one can be sure of the (logically irrelevant) RL privileges that the person behind a persistent pseud might bring to a debate, participants have to focus on what was said, and come to grips with that, rather than dismiss some speakers as being unworthy of their full notice and consideration.

Not necessarily. I've more than once had people assume I was a member of a given privileged group whether I was or wasn't.

The most annoying example was when, in a discussion, one person's words confused me and another person's words made sense. Someone then said, "there's an example of how white people only believe each other!"

I am in fact white. I didn't know what colour either of the other two were and still don't. I didn't assume either of them was or wasn't white, either; I was in a community where I knew there were many white people and many POC and anyone you talked to could be either.

I'm also not sure how anyone divined I was white (well, technically probably mixed, but raised by white people as a white person). I wasn't using an icon with anyone's face on it and nobody there knew me.
Edited 2011-08-03 20:38 (UTC)
phoebe_zeitgeist: (Default)

[personal profile] phoebe_zeitgeist 2011-08-03 09:29 pm (UTC)(link)
At the risk of being ungenerous, I am going to admit that it doesn't strike me as at all certain that anyone did divine that you were white. Someone made an assumption that happened to be at least semi-correct, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a pure accident that her assumption was right. One of the patterns I've seen over and over again in this past year is that very assumption that a speaker is white, followed by the revelation that no, the person being told she sounds white is very much not.

And it's precisely this sort of thing that makes me cheer for the masks the Internet allows us to wear. Yes, there are situations where it's useful and important to be able to tell people in a conversation where you're coming from -- but for every situation like that I think there's probably one where not knowing, and the very experience of making wrong assumptions and having them corrected, is enlightening and invaluable. It's one thing to hear "[Group A] is not a monolith," and quite another to run up against undeniable evidence that no, others in your position do not always share your opinions, and may have good reasons why they do not.

As you say, it does rather overstate matters for me to assert that pseudonymity forces people to focus their thoughts on the substance of what participants say. There are many people who'll do their best to drag a discussion back to questions of who the speaker is, rather than the content of the speech, no matter how pseudonymous everyone is. But pseudonymity at least makes that difficult, and as a structural matter makes it almost impossible for them to take over a conversation in the face of other participants' resistance.
lanterne_rouee: glowing multicolored lantern (Default)

[personal profile] lanterne_rouee 2011-08-05 10:42 pm (UTC)(link)
To me, that was always the beauty of this whole www internet idea in the first place: to allow humans the opportunity to communicate without being able to categorize each other ahead of time. A medium allowing for an endless stream of pure conversation, spirit to spirit, mind to mind...

Once it started becoming another marketplace, things took an irreversible turn for the worse. Just the phrase 'social networking' still rubs me the wrong way at times.