Background (‘real’ names online : part 1)

I’ve been watching the conversations about the new RealID additions on the Blizzard forums with some interest, because they tie into a much larger conversation about online interactions and anonymity and pseudonymity. So, in the next week or so, a few posts about first, some background, and then some specific concerns and considerations around the use of real-world identifying names online.

Why does this matter on a librarian’s blog?

Well, first, because I use the ‘Net, and I’m fascinated by how other people use it, and about how to help give people tools to make informed choices for their use of it.

But also because I think this is one of the major freedom of information issues of at least the next decade: how do we balance a desire for sincere conversation, with meaning and history and in the context of a particular community, with the reality that some people will abuse, harass, intimidate, or otherwise seek to harm others. Silencing those who have minority perspectives of whatever kind reduces the amount of information and experience we can all learn from, so finding some solution seems essential.

To start with, some history

(I’ll be getting into the problems of defining a ‘real’ name in part 2: for right now, please just bear with me.)

The question of whether to use a ‘real’ name online is one that goes far back into the distant Internet past, back to the time when online interaction was almost exclusively via access either at work or through a university, the days of Usenet, the very earliest email servers, and related things.

But as the ‘Net grew, people wanted to talk about things that they didn’t necessarily want to connect to a name their co-workers would recognise. Health issues. Relationship concerns. Religion. Hobbies that – while perfectly legal and reasonable – might not be the thing they wanted to be known for at work.  And so people started using online names that weren’t linked to their legal identities. This got a lot easier once it was common to have more than one email address, and when that email address was no longer tied to where you worked or where you went to school. (My experience was that it got a lot easier round about 1995 or so.)

There’s also the other part – the part that a number of people I know who’ve been online a while – know well enough. That using your ‘real’ name opens you up to a wide range of potential harassment. Everything from having comments disparaged for using an obviously female name to getting a phone call late at night from someone who makes it very clear they know where you live, and that they can get there quite quickly. I’m particularly familiar with it from the ‘being female’ side, but there’s all sorts of other variants.

And even when it’s not harassment in a legal sense, it can often be disruptive to the conversation. Someone who gets hassled even a tenth of the time they’re online is much less likely to be in public discussions online: they’re much more likely to spend their time and energy in smaller, more focused spaces with better control over behavior – not over names. Totally understandable, but it changes the public conversation, all those voices we then don’t hear.

Are these things common? Depends on the person, depends on their online patterns, depends on other things in their life. (Someone living in a college dorm or apartment complex with decent security is in a different setting than someone living by themselves, for example. Someone whose religious choices, relationship choices, hobby choices are very much in the mainstream is in a different position than someone whose choices aren’t.) But they’re common enough that many people – of all genders – find benefit in pseudonymity, for at least some of their online interactions.

Now, over time, various companies have tried different modes of encouraging ‘real name’ interaction. Generally – and this is the part I want to explore in the near future – they say that part of their goal is to encourage a more real and transparent interaction, to provide more authority in conversations online.

A few of these – though by no means all:

And some additional background commentary from the Geek Feminism wiki page on pseudeonymity and another page from the same wiki specifically on conversation around LaunchPad’s (a project management website used extensively for Ubuntu development) policies around names with some excellent illustrative quotes.

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17 comments to Background (‘real’ names online : part 1)

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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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