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Google+ and the Internet Pseudonym Debate

Published on August 4, 2011
Tags: Internet Communication

You will no doubt be aware by now of the massive influence of social networking sites on the lives of millions of people: Facebook has somewhere in the region of half a billion users; Twitter has around 200 million; the recently-launched Google+ clocked up 20 million users in a little over three weeks.

This is clearly a big business and one that looks certain to stay around for a good long while yet, but there is a growing debate over the issue of names. More specifically, why do so many social networks insist that you register using your real name?

This issue was perhaps best highlighted by the recent news that Google+ has been closing down the accounts of people who registered under a pseudonym. Many people received an email from Google informing them that there account was being suspended because it didn’t comply with the network’s guidelines. The reasons given for this by Google were that in order to keep the social networks running efficiently, people need to be able to search for other people by their real names so that they can find and add them with minimal fuss.

This is similar to policies employed by other networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook; one of Facebook’s initial achievements was seen to be its success in getting people to use their real names when they signed up. All of this, however, has provoked an angry reaction among some users, especially those who have had their accounts suspended by Google+ for using fake names.

One reason for this disgruntlement is that a lot of people put a lot of effort into their online persona. Many people are well-known by the persona they have created for themselves, such as on forums and networking sites that don’t always require you to use your real name (such as Twitter). Some people suggest that this helps them to create more distinct boundaries between their ‘real’ and ‘online’ lives and it helps to separate what they do in real life from anything that happens online.

This, naturally, works well for some people and there are people who have made careers out of being something of a mystery online (case in point: the famous blogger Belle du Jour). One concern, however, is the belief among some researchers and other professionals that if people have fake identities to hide behind while they are online, they are more likely to be disruptive and cause trouble than if they were forced to register for sites using their real names.

Theoretically, this is because using your real name on social networking sites means that the things you write are more obviously attributable to you; in a world where increasing numbers of employers are investigating their potential employees’ internet presence before hiring them, it certainly makes sense to keep anything under your real name professional and entirely above board. Using a pseudonym, however, supposedly makes some people more likely to act up because they feel they have a barrier to hide behind.

Using an online moniker apparently makes some people feel fearless and liberated; as though they can say what they want. There is undoubtedly some truth in this – you only have to visit an online message board and scroll through the comment threads for a couple of minutes before you find evidence of what’s known as ‘trolling’ or nasty comments that people would never say in real life.

There is even a famous theory to explain this phenomenon of internet anger. It’s called Godwin’s Law, or Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies. Godwin’s law states that the longer an internet ‘debate’ goes on, the probability of a comparison being made involving the Nazis and/or Hitler approaches 1. That is to say, it becomes a 100% guarantee. The same could probably be said of many topics. After all, if a conversation thread goes on long enough it could conceivably touch on any topic imaginable.

But Godwin’s point certainly stands. Most people can probably either imagine or will have seen a situation just like this on internet message boards, most likely made by people hiding behind online personas, effectively censoring their identities while making comments that would generally be censored in ordinary life.

This isn’t a debate with a clear conclusion: there is an argument to be made for people using their real names on social networking sites. This can be linked to the old adage of ‘if you’ve got nothing to hide then you’ve got nothing to worry about’; if you aren’t planning to do anything suspect online, why should it bother you to use your real name? There is also, though, a good argument to be made for allowing people to use whatever pseudonym they want online. People have a right to privacy and the vast majority of people are perfectly innocent and just want to have a good time; why should a few internet trolls ruin that for the rest?

One thing seems certain and that is that the debate over whether Google+ was right to suspect accounts is going to continue. It also feeds in to the issue of how much information people should post online when it is so obviously easily accessible by so many people – including friends, family, employers, spammers and others. But that is a topic for another day. For now, it seems safe to say that social networks aren’t going anywhere any time soon, but neither is the tension over how separate we should keep our lives online from the lives we live in reality.

By Chelsey Evans

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