Why Facebook and Google's Concept of 'Real Names' Is Revolutionary

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The primary version of identity online is a radical departure from what we expect in real life

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Should you have to use your real name online? It's an issue that's long simmered among social media critics and supporters alike. On one end of the spectrum, there's 4chan, where everything is anonymous. On the other, there are Facebook and Google Plus. Both have drawn fire from for categorically preventing people from using pseudonyms. This week, a new site, My Name Is Me, launched to make the case to allow anyone to use any name they choose.

This has seemed like a niche battle to me: a tiny group of activists complaining about some edge cases while the real-name policies benefited most people by raising the civility of online discourse. On a strictly utilitarian basis, it seemed like their arguments could be ignored.

But this week's discussions have made me rethink my intuition about names on social networks. My instincts had strongly pointed to requiring real names; my experience in the comment trenches of different websites has led me to believe that pure anonymity online creates a short-circuiting of our social software. It seemed natural to believe that attaching a persistent, real name to one's online identity more accurately modeled our real-world social space.

I've changed my mind. The kind of naming policy that Facebook and Google Plus have is actually a radical departure from the way identity and speech interact in the real world. They attach identity more strongly to every act of online speech than almost any real world situation does.

I want to walk you through how I've come to this understanding. Because I've been obsessively listening to Philosophy Bites podcasts, I'm going to use a thought experiment.

Imagine you're walking down the street and you say out loud, "Down with the government!" For all non-megastars, the vast majority of people within earshot will have no idea who you are. They won't have access to your employment history or your social network or any of the other things that a Google search allows one to find. The only information they really have about you is your physical characteristics and mode of dress, which are data-rich but which cannot be directly or easily connected to your actual identity. In my case, bystanders would know that a 5'9", 165 pound probably Caucasian male with half a beard said, "Down with the government!" Neither my speech or the context in which it occurred is preserved. And as soon as I leave the immediate vicinity, no one can definitively prove that I said, "Down with the government!"

In your head, adjust the settings for this thought experiment (you say it at work or your hometown or on television) or what you say (something racist, something intensely valuable, something criminal) or who you are (child, celebrity, politician) or who is listening (reporters, no one, coworkers, family). What I think you'll find is that we have different expectations for the publicness and persistence of a statement depending on a variety of factors. There is a continuum of publicness and persistence and anonymity. But in real life, we expect very few statements to be public, persistent, and attached to your real identity. Basically, only people talking on television or to the media can expect such treatment. And even then, the vast majority of their statements don't become part of the searchable Internet.

Online, Google and Facebook require an inversion of this assumed norm. Every statement you make on Google Plus or Facebook is persistent and strongly attached to your real identity through your name. Both services allow you to change settings to make your statements more or less public, which solves some problems. However, participating in public life on the services requires attaching your name to your statements. On the boulevards and town squares of Facebook, you can't just say, "Down with the government," with the knowledge that only a small percentage of the people who hear you could connect your statement to you.  But the information is still being recorded, presumably in perpetuity. That means that if a government or human resources researcher or plain old enemy wants to get a hold of it, it is possible.

The pseudonym advocates note that being allowed to pick and choose a different name solves some of these problems. One can choose to tightly couple one's real-world identity and online identity... or not. One can choose to have multiple identities for separate networks. In the language we were using earlier, pseudonyms allow statements to be public and persistent, but not attached to one's real identity.

I can understand why Google and Facebook don't want this to happen. It's bad for their marketing teams. It generates social problems when people don't act responsibly under the cloak of their assumed identity. It messes up the clarity and coherence of their data. And maybe those costs do outweigh the benefits pseudonymity brings to social networks.

But then let's have that conversation. Let's not pretend that what Google and Facebook are doing has long-established precedents and therefore these companies are only doing what they're doing to mimic real life. They are creating tighter links between people's behavior and their identities than has previously existed in the modern world.

Image: Lois Parshley/The Atlantic. Manipulation by Alexis Madrigal.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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