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.