Real names is real sly

In a favorite West Wing episode, the press secretary advises VP running mate Leo McGarry that he doesn’t have to “accept the premise of the question”. Let’s remember this when engaging with the self-appointed social scientists and public policy makers at Google, Facebook et al who insist we use “real names” on the Internet.

It’s terrific that Google’s Real Names policy has been soundly rebutted so widely, with earnest and worthy defences of the right to anonymity. I especially like the posts by Identity Woman, Dana Boyd, and Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic who compellingly relates how his own position shifted on the questions as he thought them through.

But at the same time I am disappointed so many defenders of freedom have been drawn into arguing the pros and cons of “transparency”. The Namesake infographic (which dates from May, before the Real Names furore broke out, and was reprised by Mashable last week) dumbs down the debate by accepting it as a fight between extremes. Frustratingly, it grants legitimacy to Zuckerberg’s mad ideas that having two identities shows a lack of integrity.

As an aside, using the label “transparency” sub-textually reframes identity with a pro-Real Names bias, especially when juxtaposed against “anonymity” which sounds shady. Is it really fair to call it “transparency” when forcing people to reveal more than is necessary about themselves when they’re socialising?

This issue is really not about transparency at all. Let’s say loud and clear: the Real Names policies of Facebook and Google+ are self-serving commercial tactics intended to maximise the commercial value of their networked stores of Personal Information.

Obviously these informopolies add more value to their network data when they can index it with precision. The use of multiple personae disaggregates the metadata held by OSNs and reduces its value to advertisers and all other PI pirates. In fact reserving the right for individuals to disaggregate their PI is one of the cornerstones of information privacy. Thus in Australia we forbid businesses from reusing government-issued identifiers like Medicare numbers and driver license numbers.

We should not accept the premise that a Real Names policy serves any user-positive purpose, like “transparency”, or that it forces better integrity in how people conduct themselves socially. The idea that bloggers are less than honest when not named is, ironically, utterly devoid of social nuance. At every turn, we instinctively compartmentalise our personae, revealing what matters when we interact in different circles – home, work, social, medical – and instinctively holding back what doesn’t.

“Online Social Networks” should not seek to change the way we socialise.

We must not allow gurus like Zuckerberg get away with self-serving philosophies like ‘we all have one true identity’. He really has no deep insights into the human condition. What he has is a mind-boggling personal fortune based entirely on knowledge about people he has harvested on largely false pretences, and which is diluted when those people are allowed to name themselves socially as they do in real life.