11 August 2011

Protecting yourself vs. owning your words

Much has been said recently about the Google+ "purge" of accounts that don't include real names and the similar Facebook policy and statements to that effect. As a PR guy and political wonk, I may have a slightly different take than many on this issue - while I certainly see the value and importance of protecting one's privacy, I think we must consider the (perhaps unintended) consequences of trumpeting the freedom of anonymity.  Specifically we have to be careful about insisting on transparency from some while preserving anonymity for others - particularly when the identity in question has the goal of influencing the behavior of others.

First, the case against the "real names" policy.  Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic says bluntly,
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.
You should read the whole thing.  The most compelling defense of anonymity or pseudonymity on the web that I found came from Danah Boyd:
The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalized by systems of power. “Real names” policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people. These ideas and issues aren’t new (and I’ve even talked about this before), but what is new is that marginalized people are banding together and speaking out loudly. And thank goodness.
Emphasis hers, and also worth a read.  So there are certainly times when masking one's identity provides a certain amount of comfort, or security, or freedom.  Mandating your identity strikes many as akin to "papers, please."

But what if the person who wants to be anonymous is actually someone working for Facebook, trying to pitch a story that criticizes Google?  Or the CEO of Whole Foods posing as someone else on the Yahoo Finance message boards to criticize a competitor (and hopefully talk down its stock price) before trying to buy it?  Or some random white American guy living in Scotland, pretending to be a lesbian blogger in Syria who gets arrested after protesting the government?  It seems to me that in these instances anonymity is, in Boyd's words, an assertion of power over vulnerable people.

Again, I'm not so comfortable with "transparency for you, anonymity for me." Because while the examples above are reasonably obvious, it's not always clear who has power and who doesn't.  I really ruffled the feathers of some anonymity advocates when I saw some bashing Darlene Cavalier's attempts to bring science mainstream:
I understand completely why some people feel the need to remain anonymous as bloggers. Sharing thoughts publicly involves some risk, and sometimes the only way you can safely get information "out there" is anonymously. This isn't unique to the science blogosphere - it happens a lot with people who write about finance. Further, some people just don't want the over-the-top abuse Darlene or people like Sheril Kirshenbaum and Chris Mooney take when they put their names to their words. I'm cool with that.
But let's get real here. Sometimes - definitely not always but sometimes - some of this anonymous posting is really about avoiding accountability. It's about sidestepping the awkward moment when you meet the person you called an "ignorant fuckwit" last month. And sometimes maybe it's writing something that benefits you personally or professionally without having to disclose that teensy little conflict of interest. Maybe some people find anonymous bloggers to be completely credible. For me, there will always be that kernel of doubt.
I felt somewhat vindicated a month later when journalist Steve Silberman said in a ScienceOnline 2011 panel discussion "you can't call bullshit if you're anonymous." He clearly meant it as a journalist, but I think he also believes "unnamed sources" often deserve a stricter level of scrutiny.

Are Google and Facebook imposing "real name" policies because they suit their commercial interests?  Of course they are. Can anonymity protect the abused from the abuser?  Of course it can, and people have a right to publish under a pseudonym.  I'm not suggesting you be required to give your real name to anyone.  Let's just remember that a certain amount of credibility comes with full disclosure and sometimes it's very, very important to know the names behind the words.


Matt Shipman said...

This is a tricky issue, with plenty of pros and cons.

Some "pros" in support of pseudonymity: whistleblowers need to protect their identities, and social media serve as valuable platforms to highlight corporate or governmental wrongdoing. Also, some people (e.g., Bug Girl, Scicurious) have their own reasons for identity protection, and have developed successful professional identities using their pseudonyms.

But the cons are substantial. The biggest drawback, in my opinion, is that many people feel free to engage in inappropriate behavior when they can do so anonymously. That means rude and crass behavior/comments, of course, but it can also mean hate speech, death threats and other threats of violence. Sadly, it's all too common (ask almost any prominent female blogger).

The question now becomes: can G+, and other platforms, find a solution that addresses both sets of issues.

Annie @ PhD in Parenting said...

Interesting post.

The ability to have multiple online identities has allowed me to become engaged and respected in online communities that I would otherwise have had to observe from the outside in order to protect my professional life and my family's privacy.

I understand that there are risks that come with anonymity and I am willing to accept those risks in order to maintain the freedom that I currently have.

Indian Pharmacy said...

well definitely you are right, in this days is to important to keep your information well stored, do you know how many person suffer a fraud or a trick because this? many.

India Pharmacy said...

One of the reasons why I like visiting your blog so much is because it has become a daily reference I can use in order to learn new nice stuff. It's like a curiosities box that surprises you over and over again.