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What’s in a name?

Facebook and Google Plus want real names. But is that good for users? Do they even care?

BY  James Francis , 3 January 20120 comments

| cartoon: James Franciscartoon: James Francis

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A rose by any other name... so goes the Shakespearean maxim – but not if you plan to sign up for a social network. There you had better be yourself or risk being kicked from the wired world’s Rolodex. The furore only came to light this year when Google’s Plus (G+) social network declared its ‘real names’ policy: anyone caught using a pseudonym would be warned, then suspended. The outcry was loud and in a rare move, Google has backtracked somewhat. But the idea is nothing new: Facebook demanded real names since its inception.

Yet is this ‘real name’ thing really all that bad? The advantages are certainly obvious, foremost being the scourge of the troll and cyber bully. There is no denying that the snarky comments, general abuse and outright vitriol would not come so easily if people had to use their real names. When the L.A. Times  website added Facebook logins alongside its comment system, the Facebook contributions were altogether more civil and engaging. Several other sites have reported a similar effect: when people are forced to use their real name, they tend to play nice.

But it is far from foolproof.

Creating a Facebook account under a nom de plume is so simple, most who do so don’t even realise they are breaking the rules. The mere fact that users under 13 are easily gaining access shows how hard it is to maintain most policies. There is also a risk of appearing too draconian, as Google learned with G+. It is hard to deny that cases of cyber-bullying have increased substantially since social networks have arrived. Putting your real name online has real consequences. This is one of the main arguments of the anti crowd. Whereas you enjoy even some anonymity in the real world (like shouting anti-government slogans in the street, as The Atlantic’s  Alexis Madrigal puts it), online everything could be tied to your real name – every comment and activity, often with the context removed.

Many have cautioned that your social network profile could be checked by future bosses, so don’t post what they shouldn’t see. But that seems out of touch with digital lifestyles, especially among people in their 20s. It also smacks of employer imperialism, conjuring visions of Industrial-era barons.

Thus the counter-argument is whether you’d want to work for someone who doesn’t agree that humans will be humans. Some critics argue there’s a profit motive, saying that accurate information is key to the Facebook/Google advertising systems and we are signing over our right to be unknown for someone else’s profit. There are also politically-sensitive reasons for hiding your identity. The Facebook account of Michael Anti, a Chinese dissident and pro-democracy activist’s pseudonym, was recently suspended under the site’s policy. And many feel it is a matter of personal right and dignity, a theme echoed by the many testimonials on activist site my.nameis.me.

Double-edged sword

Twitter, which does not require real names, sums up both sides of the argument best: it has been instrumental in both the Arab Spring uprisings and London riots. The power of anonymity is indeed a double-edged sword.

But the pros and cons seem irrelevant when you consider the elephant in the room: what if people can’t find you? The thing that annoys Facebook users most about its name policies is how you can’t have funny ones. Cute, shortened and hard-attained versions of a multi-syllable moniker (which someone’s misguided parents thought worthy) can be rendered null and void. And good luck if your surname actually is ‘Beer’. Facebook automatically filters for such things, just in case someone tries to register I.C. Wiener. The victims of pun-happy baby namers fall between the cracks and this makes them very unhappy. It would appear we want to use our real names. We just don’t like being told to do so. After all, as Oscar Wilde wrote: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”