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.
erik: A headshot of me! (Default)

[personal profile] erik 2011-08-03 05:22 pm (UTC)(link)
I believe Google's stated reasons for insisting on this may be different from their actual reasons. Google isn't doing this to protect their users, they're doing it to protect their revenue.

Google Plus is a "free" service. Which inevitably means that the users are the product being sold to advertisers and others. And a user's legal name—which can be linked easily enough to their address, etc—is a very valuable asset indeed.

So all the arguments in the world refuting their stated reasons are not going to make even a tiny dent in their policies.
princessofgeeks: (Default)

[personal profile] princessofgeeks 2011-08-03 05:36 pm (UTC)(link)
i think you're onto something here. so many things about the commercial internet are about marketing.
muck_a_luck: (Outer Banks)

[personal profile] muck_a_luck 2011-08-03 06:37 pm (UTC)(link)
I think this is exactly the source of trying to pin down who users "really" are. The advertizing economy is super-creepy to me, everybody trying to make money by telling people about something someone else is doing, as efficiently as possible. Maybe I'm naive, but I feel like the internet's advertising-driven economy, with it's ability to track and target activity, has just blown this whole sector completley out of control.
turlough: Frank Iero in Mouse hat looking grumpy, March 2009 ((mcr) frank stays brutal)

[personal profile] turlough 2011-08-03 06:51 pm (UTC)(link)
Yeah, this is what I believe too.

Incidentally it's also the reason why I've always stayed as far away from Google as is possible in today's online world. If they offered paid gmail or gdocs accounts I would maybe get one, but as long as they're only trying to get me to use their services because they want to get their hands on as much information about me as possible I'm never going get one. Sorry for the rant! I might feel a bit strongly about this :-)
matgb: Artwork of 19th century upper class anarchist, text: MatGB (Default)

[personal profile] matgb 2011-08-03 07:08 pm (UTC)(link)
If they offered paid gmail or gdocs accounts I would maybe get one

Actually, they do, and ad free as well:

Business online messaging and collaboration applications – Google Apps

It's marketed for Business, but it's a per user pricing so if you want to pay £3.30 per month you can. I've considered it more than once but I'd worry about periods of financial instability.
turlough: dreamsheep, My Chemical Romance logo from Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge ((dw) dreaming of music)

[personal profile] turlough 2011-08-03 07:17 pm (UTC)(link)
Interesting! I'd never heard of it but since it's marketed towards businesses I guess it's not something "ordinary" users are much aware of.

I'm mostly interested in getting a Gdocs account since a lot of my friends use them and it gets a bit tiring always having to tell them that no, I don't have a Gdocs account so I can't look at their latest effort without them making it public.

I need to think about it properly but thank you so much for telling me about it!
matgb: Artwork of 19th century upper class anarchist, text: MatGB (Default)

[personal profile] matgb 2011-08-03 07:21 pm (UTC)(link)
De nada, I have worries about ads and similar myself, but I really like stability of service--all my essential documents are both in DropBox and GDocs, which has been very helpful when I've had a virus infection on one machine and a catastrophic hardware failure on the backup machine in the same week.

Gdocs is actually quite good and very useful, but it's not the only solution if you want to pay. I'm ambivalent about Plus, but I'm keeping my Gmail and Docs, despite the ads, which I barely notice anyway.
turlough: dreamsheep, My Chemical Romance logo from Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge ((dw) dreaming of music)

[personal profile] turlough 2011-08-03 07:43 pm (UTC)(link)
I think I understand why not so many people are talking about using the paid variety of Google. You must have your own domain to be able to sign up. I do myself but not many of the people I know do.
sofiaviolet: drawing of three violets and three leaves (Default)

[personal profile] sofiaviolet 2011-08-04 05:25 pm (UTC)(link)
Yeah, I wound up with the free version of their "bring your own domain" services because I wanted nice familiar webmail. The domain came first.
floatboth: (Default)

[personal profile] floatboth 2011-08-03 07:03 pm (UTC)(link)
yeah, "don't be evil" is bullshit. Personally targeted ads are evil, because 1) they need information some might consider private and 2) they're targeted wrong. I never click on Google ads, but always on Fusion/Deck/Carbon/BuySellAds/etc which don't know anything more than I'm on a site about design/development so I must be a developer or a designer, but still much more useful.

I'm so happy we have people like Denise, Maciej and Colin who make services like Dreamwidth, Pinboard (for bookmarking) and Tarsnap (for backups) and using services from big corporations like Google who see eyeballs and clicks instead of people isn't the only option.
jlh: Chibi of me in an apron with a cocktail glass and shaker. (Clio Chibi)

[personal profile] jlh 2011-08-03 08:44 pm (UTC)(link)
Actually the legal name isn't that valuable unless it's (1) on a list that someone can actually use (that is, some kind of opt-in mechanism) and (2) is linked to some sort of behavior that someone wants to market against, and that has to be specific enough to be worthwhile getting the names (like, say, having a specific medical condition that a drug company is marketing to) rather than just something that can be done much more cheaply through broadcast means (like, being in the market for a new car). When people talk about marketers mostly just wanting demographics, that isn't bullshit--that's the currency.

That said, I'll be happy when marketers move away from demos because they're a crutch. A very blunt instrument. But that will happen when TV stops leading the way folks think about marketing.

This isn't to say that the naming policy isn't linked to marketing, just, I don't think they're trying to sell lists of names here, because I'm not sure what their value would actually be.
liv: cartoon of me with long plait, teapot and purple outfit (mini-me)

[personal profile] liv 2011-08-03 09:23 pm (UTC)(link)
I have also come to this conclusion. I think Google is planning not only on selling directories of names to advertisers, but selling a vague sense of trust associated with being around friendly people. That is, they're looking at a marketing demographic who will feel vaguely reassured by seeing "standard", Anglo-American names. They will see adverts in proximity to lists of names similar to those of their friends, and feel more inclined to buy the products being sold. That's why Google are suspending accounts on the basis of really crude pattern matching, even though they must know perfectly that, y'know, some people are Asian American or Hong Kong Chinese or have names that sound like common English nouns...
jeshyr: Blessed are the broken. Harry Potter. (Default)

[personal profile] jeshyr 2011-08-07 01:02 am (UTC)(link)
Ohhhh, this actually makes a lot of sense!

Because I know the stuff people have said above about actual names not being super useful to advertising in many cases, and also I know Google people are not totally stupid, so that didn't totally make sense. That they're selling the ... well, I guess the idea of names ... that actually makes more sense to me. It would be like the advertising equivalent of security theatre!
naath: (Default)

[personal profile] naath 2011-08-03 09:34 pm (UTC)(link)
Ah, but Google are doing NOTHING (other than writing a crappy policy) to enforce the use of your actual "real" name. You could be "John Smith" and they would in all likelihood never even NOTICE (the downside to you is, of course, that people who know you are looking for "sparkleMonster" or at a PUSH "Janet Jones" but certainly not for "John Smith"... that could be an upside too of course if what you want is real anonymity, and you can always tell the people you care about through some other channel).

And at the same time they are banning people whose actual, honest-to-god, on-their-passport "real" names don't fit into Google's notion of what a "real" name is allowed to look like (I know numerous people with such names, and my social circle isn't even all that diverse).

My provisional conclusion is that Google are either damn stupid, or their real desire is something entirely other.
cpolk: (Default)

[personal profile] cpolk 2011-08-03 09:48 pm (UTC)(link)
But this is colossally stupid.

the site where I spend the most of my internet dollars - by miles and miles - is a free website/database where there is no real name requirement. I don't spend a lot of money online, but of what i do spend, this site gets the overwhelming more than 95% of my money every month funneling through it.

What site? Ravelry. I buy patterns, I buy yarn, I buy fiber, and I buy spindles. I spend more of my yarn and knitting money on ravelry than I do in brick and mortar yarn stores. And ravelry has no trouble at all convincing me to pony up regardless of my name. They don't need my name. They just need me to claim that sock yarn doesn't count as stash.
copracat: Mozzie from White Collar (white collar - mozzie)

[personal profile] copracat 2011-08-04 07:44 am (UTC)(link)
Hold on! Sock yarn doesn't count as stash? Hmm...

But yes, what you said.
erik: A headshot of me! (Default)

Sock yarn doesn't count as stash?!

[personal profile] erik 2011-08-04 07:34 pm (UTC)(link)
The deuce you say! My stash is a lot smaller than I thought, then. Who makes these rules? The Ravelry Cabal? What gives them the right!?

*shakes fist*
cpolk: (Default)

Re: Sock yarn doesn't count as stash?!

[personal profile] cpolk 2011-08-04 10:05 pm (UTC)(link)
all those skeins of sock yarn? Don't count. My stash doesn't need "dieting!" I've only got rewound balls of Black Sheep Shephard Spun! I need Yarn! Those three drawers of handpainted sock yarn I bought through ravelry ads don't count! *justifies madly*
mecurtin: uppity pirate woman, with gun (uppity)

Is DW the only actual social network?

[personal profile] mecurtin 2011-08-04 05:31 pm (UTC)(link)
YES. This is *exactly* what I have been saying:

the users are the product

We are not the clients or customers for the service Google+ offers. Their "social network" is not the service, it is *bait*. The service is targetted advertising.

When people ask why I prefer Dreamwidth, I don't talk about the great people, the clear code, the features. I say: "the business plan. At DW, *I* am the customer." AFAIK, this makes DW different from all the major "social networks", all of which are in the advertising business. Or, in the case of e.g. Twitter, they get their business plan from the Underpants Gnomes.
erik: A headshot of me! (Default)

Re: Is DW the only actual social network?

[personal profile] erik 2011-08-04 07:36 pm (UTC)(link)
Not the only one, to be sure. I'm still active on a BBS, for pity's sake. But certainly one of few. Very few indeed.