Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Google Plus & Why Pseudonymity Really Really Matters

I will try to make this brief. Google Plus (still in beta) wants users to use their “real” names and has already closed a number of accounts whose names it considers pseudonymous. A lot has been written about this, but I cannot rest until I've stuck my oar in.

Pseudonymity is absolutely essential for all kinds of on-line interaction. Why? Five reasons.

1. Gender affects everything. The first and single most useful thing I learnt about pseudonymity on-line, when I was sixteen years old, was the joy of not being immediately identified as a woman. You learn an awful lot when you allow others to assume that you are a man (something I touched on in our review of Catfish). Quite apart from your every opinion being judged in the context on your gender, sexual harassment is an enormous issue for women on-line. The Feminist Philosophers blog were onto the fact that gender is the first thing Google Plus asks, some weeks ago, suggesting that we all say "Other". Randall Munroe (as in xkcd) has also written about this matter. But obviously, for most of us, selecting other makes no odds if we're forced to use our “real” gendered names.

2. In meat-space, you can talk to people and enter into discussion without giving your name and certainly without giving your surname. It is normal to get to know people very well by a nickname or first-name without having a clue about their last-name, let alone have a casual conversation with them. If a screen-name requires a first and second name, you become more exposed on-line than you ordinarily are off-line.

3. (a) The internet has historically allowed much greater freedom both from and to your various identities. It is possible to come out on-line when you're in the off-line closet, it is also possible to interact on-line without other people being aware of your physical appearance, gender, sexuality, disability status, race, religion etc.. This is a very good thing. It creates an environment where others are forced to be more open-minded in their response to you than they otherwise would be. It also allows us to explore identities and talk about experiences when it would be impossible to do this with our nearest and dearest looking on. It's not about pretending to be someone else. Using a pseudonym on-line is like going to a different part of town. This is especially important for young people who find themselves marginalised, isolated and bullied – without pseudonyms, their bullies can follow them everywhere.

(b) Lots of people – like Bug Girl - have jobs where they cannot express certain views under their professional name (usually their legally-recognised name). These views don't need to be extreme or kinky or anything others would disapprove of, but some companies and especially governmental organisations just don't want anyone talking sex, politics or religion in contexts where they can be identified as their employees. Sometimes a "real" name is enough for such identification.

The possibility of multiple identities is not just a new liberating effect of the internet – it's what people have always done, the internet just makes it better. I don't tell lies or make any effort to conceal anything about me, but I am a slightly different person in different contexts. I use slightly different language and discuss different subjects when talking to my nephew or my Granny or my doctor or this friend or that friend. The only difference on-line is that I have to use different names in order to carry this off because this world is made of searchable text.

4. Names are massively important to us. Both the names we have been given and the names which we choose. The ability to call yourself by a name you feel at home in is not a universal privilege. We know this very well in British History, having seen both the coerced Anglicisation and later attempts to de-Anglicise Irish, Scottish and Welsh names. My own surname is a product of this process.

Outside English, there are completely different ways of coping with names which don't fit into the neat Given-name Family-name, with no special characters model and can't really be fit into it. Urycon has a great post about this and Chally has touched on this matter here. The removal of flexibility with names not only effects one's ability to use a chosen name, it can also effect one's ability to be known by the name given to you by your family.

What's more, chosen names are not themselves disposable – as Skud, who has had her Google Plus account suspended wrote last month here:
“People sometimes speak as if pseudonymity is the same as anonymity, or suggest that pseudonymity is nothing more than a way to avoid accountability for one’s words. It’s not. Persistent pseudonyms (those used over many years and perhaps across multiple sites) can accrue social capital and respect just as “real” names can, and be subject to the same social pressures towards civil behaviour if the community has a strong culture of respect. Without a culture of respect, real names won’t help. With it, real names won’t matter."
I am quite proud of being the Goldfish. Some of you know my real name, but this is the authentic me too. I am the Goldfish. Coo coo catchu.

5. If there is any evidence that forcing people to use “real” names reduces abuse, it doesn't seem to be very forthcoming. Geek Feminism has posted the brilliant Anti-Pseudonym Bingo and a request for such evidence. My experience is that scoundrels are more than happy to be scoundrels in their own names – it's far more subtle and powerful social pressure that inhibits verbal abuse, harassment and so forth. And that pressure can only exist where everyone feels comfortable being themselves, whichever version of themselves they choose.

There's an on-line petition asking Google to allow pseudonymity on Google Plus here. I have probably missed other important posts, I've got limited on-line time at the moment and generally feel rather out of the loop.


Peter said...

I have had my identity compromised stolen or merged by Public Servants either incompetently handling information or desperate to meet Key performance indicators or just out to get me for raising issues and needing to punish me completely for daring to question their actions and whats more be right.

A cynical one may suggest among this there have been 4 attempts to kill me off to hide all the above.

The only reply they give to questions about the changed id is at some time two files were merged and found to be the same one was destroyed.

Most records before 1998 have been destroyed by them

This experience has taught me that a fixed id is of no importance what so ever and easily compromised and we should be able to use whatever id we desire.

Peter said...


I am hoping this decision regarding being out of time to complain helps me to
On Thursday, the Supreme Court gave the veterans the go-ahead to appeal against a lower court ruling that the cases were brought too long after the events to be heard.

Their solicitor Neil Sampson told reporters after the hearing: "This is a significant step forward but it is by no means the end of the road."

Ruth Madison said...

I went to sign the petition, but it requires me to put in my name, email, and street address. For someone who needs to maintain anonymity on the Internet, this is an ironic problem!

The Goldfish said...

Dad - that looks like good news, I hope it is.

Ruth - yes, it is ironic - sorry about that!