Myths of the benefit of ‘real names’ (‘real’ names: part 3)

Myth 1: Using a ‘real name’ reduces problematic behavior.

This myth is a myth because it makes having a ‘name that looks like a real name’ equivalent with ‘name associated with a history that the poster cares about’. The problem is, these are not necessarily the same thing. (And thinking they are won’t solve your problems.)

Reality: There’s nothing to stop someone making up a name that looks ‘real’. Unless, of course, you start requiring things like linking it to a credit card (which is not appropriate for many uses and has significant security concerns if you don’t want there to be major risk of identity theft. More understandable if you’re Amazon.com, but not so good for small sites.

Reality: It’s also not solely the legal name that prevents harassment – instead, it’s the link to an identity that someone cares about. Someone using a persistent pseudonym often cares about its reputation. Someone using their legal name may not for whatever reason (no matter how foolish that might end up being for them in the long run.)

Truth: Realistically, people who really want to harass will find ways to do it. For most circumstances, your average reader is not going to check out that Jane Doe is actually Jane Doe. What they’re going to care about is whether Jane Doe is interesting, thoughtful – and consistent with Jane Doe’s past history. Those things don’t require the name. They do benefit from history.

There’s also the problem of verifying the ‘real name’. There are ways this can work – Amazon’s process, which uses the name on the credit/debit card you have on file with them. But even there, there are problems, and in other settings, it gets even more complicated. For example, looking at Blizzard, many teens have accounts under their parent’s name – so the verifiable name on the account would be the parent, not the person (theoretically posting.)

Myth 2: Anything worth saying can be said using a legal identity.
Well, no. Really not.

If you force people to use a legal name, what you tend to hear are things that are socially acceptable to say. But there’s a lot that goes unsaid. People who are in the minority in that community will be less inclined to speak up (whether that’s due to gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, relationship preferences, background, or whatever else.)

People with health issues (their own, or their family’s) may not be willing to share useful information with others – for fear that employers or health insurers will take their comments out of context. People who have good reason to avoid being identified (those with stalkers, violent exes, etc.) won’t comment either.

While hurtful and trolling anonymous comments (those meant solely to disrupt a conversation) are a problem, I tend to think that not hearing all those other voices is even more of one. And there are other good and thoughtful ways to reduce the problematic comments, while allowing people to select a name that represents them – but that doesn’t reveal more than they’re comfortable with.

Myth 3: You can stay out of trouble online, just avoid saying anything that causes offense.

When you figure out what that topic is, please share. Pretty much anything can cause offense to someone, somewhere.

Plus, you’re assuming that all people out there are reasonable. Many people *are* reasonable. But there are people out there who aren’t – people who for whatever reason can fixate on someone (or something – it can be a topic) and be anywhere from extremely bothersome and disruptive to dangerous.

Myth 4: Privacy (and related settings) can fix the above concerns just fine.

Not so. Too many sites have gone along with one set of privacy settings only to change them fairly rapidly (and not always with advance notice to users) to make this one believable anymore. A site can’t share information it doesn’t have. It might share what you did. (So our internet history tells us, and we all know the line about those who don’t know their history being doomed to repeat it…)

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1 comment to Myths of the benefit of ‘real names’ (‘real’ names: part 3)

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Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Information Technology Librarian at the University of Maine at Farmington, the small liberal arts college model campus in the University of Maine system.

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