“Real Names” Policies Are an Abuse of Power http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2011/08/04/real-names.html
Everyone’s abuzz with the “nymwars,” mostly in response to Google Plus’ decision to enforce its “real names” policy. At first, Google Plus went on a deleting spree, killing off accounts that violated its policy. When the community reacted with outrage, Google Plus leaders tried to calm the anger by detailing their “new and improved” mechanism to enforce “real names” (without killing off accounts). This only sparked increased discussion about the value of pseudonymity. Dozens of blog posts have popped up with people expressing their support for pseudonymity and explaining their reasons.
And here’s another one!
In the original blog post, immediately following the above paragraph is a 12 item list of reasons people give for wanting to use pseudonyms on the internet. 8 cite fear of stalking or violence. 5 cite the desire to protect the author or the author’s family from repercussions related to the author expressing minority or eccentric positions on the internet. (I am aware that 8+5=13, one item had both reasons.) Following this list Diana Boyd writes:
One of the things that became patently clear to me in my fieldwork is that countless teens who signed up to Facebook late into the game chose to use pseudonyms or nicknames. What’s even more noticeable in my data is that an extremely high percentage of people of color used pseudonyms as compared to the white teens that I interviewed. Of course, this would make sense… The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalized by systems of power.
I love Boyd’s post, that is why I am writing about it. I also think it trivializes my reason for wanting to use pseudonyms. Later (my italics):
Personally, I’m ecstatic to see this much outrage. And I’m really really glad to see seriously privileged people take up the issue, because while they are the least likely to actually be harmed by “real names” policies, they have the authority to be able to speak truth to power. And across the web, I’m seeing people highlight that this issue has more depth to it than fun names…. What’s at stake is people’s right to protect themselves, their right to actually maintain a form of control that gives them safety.
Boyd’s argument is perfectly American. Her scenario has Real Names policies (1) potentially causing physical or financial harm (4 of the 5 items that cite the author’s desire to protect the himself or his family from repercussions related to his expressing minority or eccentric positions on the internet specifically mention that harm could come in the form of being fired from work); (2) suppressing free speech or, more broadly, promoting the tyranny-of-the-majority. The first item speaks to our civil law conventions. People and individuals who take actions known to possibly cause harm have to pay when that harm comes about! When some lady is killed by her ex-husband after he tracks her down on Google+, the newspaper and her heirs’ attorney are going to take this line of argument. The second item speaks to our political philosophical heritage:
…the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. … We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.
That’s from Chapter 2 of On Liberty by J.S. Mill. Let’s stop now and take a moment of silence to shed a little tear of joy at having had read Mill as an unhappy teenager. [______________] Ok, done. So Boyd’s argument is very wonderful, very airtight: ‘Dear Google+, your RN policy is tantamount to murdering one of your users, plus it is un-american, un-scientific, counter utopian, and ……. fascist. Yes, I did that, I called you a Fascist.’ But it’s dull and old fashioned and incomplete.
I’m going to talk about myself now. I’ve heard that young children are very literal. You shouldn’t tell them they can be ‘anything [they] want when they grow up.’ When adults asked 3 year old bjweedman about her career goals (a weird conversation in any case), they got answers like, “a man,” “a car,” “named william.” (I had heard of someone ‘being a dishwasher,’ and we had a dishwasher, so I thought people could grow up to be machines.) I also looked into becoming a half animal/ half person, a shapeshifter. There are people working on turning themselves into some of the things I wanted to be, but at some expense and risk. I generally settled on being different types of humans by often changing my clothes. In 1993 when my dad got us a computer, I naturally went nuts assuming different identities. Primarily I was free of the conceptual analogue of my physical body: my government name. Fastforward to now: I take a number of names on the internet and change them frequently. They are all my real name. They really title something I find meaningful. And by meaningful I usually mean hilarious. But my commitment to having avatars has nothing to do with either of Boyd’s arguments. I’m not in hiding and, in fact, I probably do myself professional harm by having nicknames on line. The only place Boyd’s essay allows me to fit my motivation is in the category of shallow fun. This seems quite wrong.
Boyd apparently has data supporting her assertion that people most likely to use pseudonyms are also those “most marginalized by systems of power.” Power is a relative of violence, but it’s not the same kind of violence Boyd references in other parts of the essay. Two thirds of the reasons in her itemized list were about fear of physical, personal violence from individuals, not the diffuse power-violence from the system. The remaining third did cite fear of the system, but they explicitly claim to author controversial writing. But Boyd’s data are from black teenagers on facebook. The audience for your facebook page are people you already know. For the most part these are not women running from stalkers or ex-husbands. They are male and female teenagers flirting and generally being awesome. In addition, they are not for the most part posting controversial political tracts, they are posting about parties they have been to, or are going to, or lyrics from rap songs, or taunts about how slutty your sister is. So neither of the all-american arguments from above seem relevant to this data.
A glorious detail of the blog-o-sphere conversation on RN policies is the occasional use of the term “government name,” which is a slightly less inflammatory version of “slave name.” A commenter uses it in Boyd’s blog, and it turns up in maybe one of twenty (total guess) posts on the advocacy site Boyd links to: http://my.nameis.me/ The first time I heard these terms was from my casual, sometime foster older brother Eugene/ Saleem. When he was in his 20s, and I was nearly ten, he converted to Islam and rejected his slave name. I encountered it again when I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X: “The Muslim’s ‘X’ symbolized the true African family name that he never could know. For me, my ‘X’ replaced the white slavemaster name of ‘Little’ which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears.”. How can this history, combined with the “extremely high percentage of people of color us[ing] pseudonyms as compared to the white teens that [Boyd] interviewed,” land in the miscellaneous category of ‘shallow fun’? This is deep fun.
Clearly, using pseudonyms is part of an effort to take control of one’s identity. Therefore I would expect to see more pseudonyms amongst people whose assigned identity is poorly received by society. These could be members of the classic minorities: blacks, transsexuals, or they could be individuals of any type who are unhappy with the reality they were born into, for any reason. Or they could be individuals who happen to be inspired by the radical promise of the internet. Presumably this explains the commitment of early adopters to their handles, which Boyd notes. I don’t think I should have to claim I fear physical or financial harm to justify my dedication to fake names. Letting that be the argument in favor of anonymity strikes me as unambitious, and believing it is the better argument makes me think Boyd doesn’t understand that the internet can be the wonderland where participants leave behind everything they don’t love about their physical worlds. In short, what I hate about Real Names policies is that they are anti-utopian, not in the old fashioned Millian sense, but that they turn a potentially new world into a replication of the old world (yes I called Google+ Fascist, I did do that).
I just remembered what this reminds me of: Walking from Egypt to Cannan should not have taken 40 years. It’s not that far, but God led the Israelites through the desert for that amount of time. Why? The answer I got was that the generation born slaves had to die before the jews could rule themselves. Slaves don’t know how to be free.
Keep using your slave names on the internet. Suckers.