Yesterday Google started encouraging YouTube commenters to use their Google+ accounts. Google claims that this will make YouTube commenters use their real names and, therefore, not act like such assholes all the time.
I think it's more to do with Google desperately trying to get people to use Google+ after everybody tried it for a month and then went back to Facebook. But the notion of "realname enforcement" as a deterrent to trolls is a pipe dream and it's been pretty roundly torn apart already. So, I present to you this post, a reworked version of something I wrote last October.
John Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory posits that ordinary people, given anonymity and an audience, turn into total fuckwads. I agree with this assessment wholeheartedly.
Which is why the suggestion that removing people's anonymity so they've got to stand by their words is so appealing: at least some people would be a little less obnoxious on the Internet if they had their real name attached to everything they said, right?
Which would probably be true if it could actually be implemented, but it can't. This argument essentially mirrors the DRM argument: intelligent, tech-savvy people understand that it doesn't fucking work, but idiots continue to support it because it sounds like something that should work. So we wind up with something that does fuck-all to stop people who are misbehaving, while managing to create an obnoxious inconvenience for people who have done nothing wrong.
To wit: All "realname enforcement" means is that a troll has to use a plausible-sounding name like "John Smith". Meanwhile, people who have actual unusual names get hassled and held up, as noted in the Washington Post article Offbeat Name? Then Facebook's No Friend. (Some people really are named "Batman" or "Yoda"!)
All that aside, there are legitimate reasons to use a pseudonym on the Internet. Fortune gets it; danah boyd (no relation) really gets it.
Another site has popped up called "My Name Is Me" where people vocalize their support for pseudonyms. What's most striking is the list of people who are affected by "real names" policies, including abuse survivors, activists, LGBT people, women, and young people.
Over and over again, people keep pointing to Facebook as an example where "real names" policies work. This makes me laugh hysterically. 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. "Real names" policies aren't empowering; they're an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people.
I use my real name online -- but I'm a straight, middle-class white boy between the ages of 18 and 35. Worst thing that's going to happen to me is somebody asks me about my political opinions in a job interview, or posts satellite pictures of addresses you can find if you run a whois on my website.
Charlie Stross has a wonderful analysis of everything that's wrong with realname enforcement under the title Why I'm not on Google Plus; notably, it quotes Patrick McKenzie's Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names. I'm going to follow Charlie's lead and quote Patrick's list of falsehoods in its entirety:
- People have exactly one canonical full name.
- People have exactly one full name which they go by.
- People have, at this point in time, exactly one canonical full name.
- People have, at this point in time, one full name which they go by.
- People have exactly N names, for any value of N.
- People’s names fit within a certain defined amount of space.
- People’s names do not change.
- People’s names change, but only at a certain enumerated set of events.
- People’s names are written in ASCII.
- People’s names are written in any single character set.
- People’s names are all mapped in Unicode code points.
- People’s names are case sensitive.
- People’s names are case insensitive.
- People’s names sometimes have prefixes or suffixes, but you can safely ignore those.
- People’s names do not contain numbers.
- People’s names are not written in ALL CAPS.
- People’s names are not written in all lower case letters.
- People’s names have an order to them. Picking any ordering scheme will automatically result in consistent ordering among all systems, as long as both use the same ordering scheme for the same name.
- People’s first names and last names are, by necessity, different.
- People have last names, family names, or anything else which is shared by folks recognized as their relatives.
- People’s names are globally unique.
- People’s names are almost globally unique.
- Alright alright but surely people’s names are diverse enough such that no million people share the same name.
- My system will never have to deal with names from China.
- Or Japan.
- Or Korea.
- Or Ireland, the United Kingdom, the United States, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Russia, Sweden, Botswana, South Africa, Trinidad, Haiti, France, or the Klingon Empire, all of which have "weird" naming schemes in common use.
- That Klingon Empire thing was a joke, right?
- Confound your cultural relativism! People in my society, at least, agree on one commonly accepted standard for names.
- There exists an algorithm which transforms names and can be reversed losslessly. (Yes, yes, you can do it if your algorithm returns the input. You get a gold star.)
- I can safely assume that this dictionary of bad words contains no people’s names in it.
- People’s names are assigned at birth.
- OK, maybe not at birth, but at least pretty close to birth.
- Alright, alright, within a year or so of birth.
- Five years?
- You’re kidding me, right?
- Two different systems containing data about the same person will use the same name for that person.
- Two different data entry operators, given a person’s name, will by necessity enter bitwise equivalent strings on any single system, if the system is well-designed.
- People whose names break my system are weird outliers. They should have had solid, acceptable names, like 田中太郎.
- People have names.
Now, it's true that Internet Fuckwads use pseudonyms to behave in a way that they probably wouldn't if they were forced to use their real names.
However, any potential benefit of such realname enforcement is negated by the fact that -- and those of you familiar with my opinions on swear filters and DRM may notice a trend here -- realname enforcement doesn't fucking work.
Stross also links a Gary Walker piece, A Firsthand Examination of the Google+ Profile Reporting Process, which pretty much takes a wrecking ball to any notion that Google+'s realname enforcement is, well, even slightly competent.
He set up a second Gary Walker account, and used the same avatar -- which isn't personally identifying, just a Lolcat.
Then he reported the second account as an impersonator. To file such a report, he had to prove his original account was the "real" Gary Walker. To do this, he Photoshopped a crooked scan of his picture onto the McLovin ID from Superbad, and replaced "McLovin" with his own name, in a different font from the rest of the ID.
Google accepted this as a valid ID, and temporarily blocked the second Gary Walker account.
To prove his identity, Gary responded from the second account, taking the same fake ID and Shopping a picture of Jared fucking Loughner on it.
The account was reinstated.
In short, in a revelation that should surprise absolutely fucking nobody, realname enforcement doesn't stop anybody from using pseudonyms -- it just forces them to use pseudonyms that sound, plausibly, like real names.
Meanwhile, both honest people who want to use pseudonyms and people with unusual real names are penalized.
So yeah, I think the comparison to DRM and swear filters is apt: legitimate users get fucked, abusive ones don't even have to break stride.
That was where my original post ended. The rest of the thread is well worth reading; a number of the guys on the board note that as far as they're concerned, their handles are their real names at this point. Forumgoer Kayin, creator of cult gaming hit I Wanna Be the Guy, is best known on the Internet as Kayin; nobody knows who the fuck Michael O'Reilly is. (And, as I note, even O'Reilly tends to fuck with "realname" parsers, due to the apostrophe.) I've met some of these guys and still didn't address them by their real names; Kazz will always be Kazz. Sei won't even tell us his real name.
(Hell, I've been mostly-using my real name online since 1990, but there are still some people out there who think "X" is actually my middle initial. I used to know a guy who always addressed me, in person, as Thad "X" Boyd. As in "Hi, Thad 'X' Boyd. How are things, Thad 'X' Boyd?")
Google+ did add support for pseudonyms a few months after the criticism started, so that, say, Madonna can sign up as Madonna, but it still requires that the pseudonyms be "established" -- as vaguely defined by some guy in an office somewhere. Kazz and Sei, presumably, don't qualify. I guess Kayin might, but I doubt it, and to my knowledge he hasn't tested it -- last I heard he'd deleted his Google+ account.
Anyway. If all that's not enough to convince you that realname enforcement doesn't work, consider this: do you generally think of Facebook as a place where people are polite and don't say offensive or insulting things?
And consider this: I post under my real name, and have been for over twenty years -- and it hasn't stopped me from posting things with titles like Nintendo President Still a Fucking Idiot, Experts Say.