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.

Links of interest: June 18, 2010

First in a series of collected links of interest, of posts I’ve found particularly intriguing over the last week or so:

The myth of browsing (an article from American Libraries, the journal of the American Library Association) takes on the idea that being able to browse a collection is essential for scholarly knowledge. I’m of two minds: I adore browsing for the sheer joy of it, the things I find that are also of interest to me, outside of my research in a particular focused topic. But I do agree with the issues of storage and practicality, and the point that a browseable collection of 20,000 volumes might do very well in almost all circumstances.

I’m a huge fan of danah boyd’s writing, and particularly liked her recent post on How COPPA fails parents, educators, youth for a clear explanation of why all these websites require you to be older than 13 – and why it’s not as helpful as you’d think.

For people who love both libraries and lists (via Jessamyn at comes an article from American Libraries about a new book by George Eberhart called The Librarian’s Book of Lists. Check out the lists article for a few samples.

Starting accounts on various sites can be complex, but so can leaving them. A nice round-up of the steps and relative complexity of deleting accounts on a whole bunch of commonly used sites is a handy thing to have around. (I like their explanation of why you can’t delete accounts on some sites, and what you can do instead, too.)

And, in the realm of ‘being better humans helps everyone’, a link came across my line of sight that’s been making me think ever since: it’s about how sick systems develop, how to recognise them, and ways to remove yourself from them. Most people I know have been in such a system at one point or another in their life (whether that’s in a relationship, family of origin, work, or some other commitment), but I found the description and analysis here particularly clear and of potential use. Check out How to keep someone with you forever .

Recommended reads

One of the things about finishing work for the school year is that people ask you what you’re reading and looking forward to reading over the summer – so here are a few recent reads I recommend (and a couple I’m looking forward to…)

Recent reads that made me think:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
This is about the life, death, and lasting influence of Henrietta Lacks, who died of cancer in Baltimore in the 1950s. Her cells were used to create the HeLa cell culture, which has gone on to be amazingly prolific and of huge scientific benefit (among other things, it was the cell culture used to grow the polio vaccine for distribution). However, Henrietta herself – and her family – didn’t understand what was being done, and this book is both a provoking and sensitive look at the issues of medical ethics, historical legacies, and issues of race, class, and education and their intersection with ‘informed consent’. It’s also very readable, and has some truly great moments of beauty and compassion.

(read more at Rebecca’s site over here , and there’s a great brief story from the magazine Popular Science about Five Reasons Henrietta Lacks Is The Most Important Woman In History).

A Conspiracy of Kings : Megan Whalen Turner
This would be a series where I keep going “Why did I not discover this sooner?” Set in a pseduo-Ancient-Greece, this is a fantastic four book series dealing with the relationships between the powers of neighboring realms, who are at the same time very human and able to fail at doing the best thing all the time. It’s hard to talk about the books beyond that without giving spoilers (and if you go browse the earlier editions, even the cover blurbs and information give spoilers), but I highly recommend these for a thoughtful but fast read.

(Megan’s site is over here.)

Soulless by Gail Carriger
Ok, this one is a little less recent – I read it this spring – but delightful. It’s a Victorian-era steampunk vampires and werewolves romance novel. If you enjoy dramatic moments, wonderful culture and clothing descriptions, and one of the best on-screen Queen Victoria moments I’ve ever seen in a work of fiction, you’ll probably like this. (And this did make me think about the assumptions we have in interacting with others, among other things.)

(Check out Gail’s website and play with the dress-up doll and videos of the cover design.)

Books I’m looking forward to reading:

(These are, of course, only some, but they’re ones I anticipate getting to in the next couple of weeks…)

I’m currently reading The Stepsister Scheme by Jim C. Hines, which I picked up in part because I was impressed by a range of blog posts he’s made over the last couple of months. (I’m enjoying it so far, and expect to finish it in the next day or two, when I’ve got the sequel waiting.)

  • The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm by Juliet Nicholson
  • Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
  • Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
  • Candor by Pam Bachorz

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 Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

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