On Pseudonymity

My friend Skud (yes, Skud) recently had her Google+ account suspended, apparently for not using her ‘real’ name. The section of Google’s privacy policy dealing with the issue of names says only this:

To help fight spam and prevent fake profiles, use the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you. For example, if your full legal name is Charles Jones Jr. but you normally use Chuck Jones or Junior Jones, either of those would be acceptable.

Audrey Watters at ReadWriteWeb got a little further clarification from a Google spokesperson concerning Google Profiles and the use of real names:

“We are not requiring people to use their ‘real name’, but rather they need their Google profile to include the name they commonly go by in daily life. I know that sounds like the same thing, but there are some differences. For a hypothetical example, Samuel Clemens could choose to be known as ‘Mark Twain,’ although we wouldn’t allow him to go by Authordude88. And for a real life example, 50 Cent is using Google+, after we verified that this is the name he is commonly referred to. More details can be found here.

That page goes on to say that your name should use your first and last names, avoid ‘unusual’ characters (more about this below) and that your profile should represent only one person.

There are numerous problems with this policy which, taken together, make it impossible to implement it consistently or, indeed, objectively. Arguably, this policy would have disallowed some or all of the following:

Jesus Christ
‘Christ’ is an title, not an actual name
It’s really a title, and it’s only one word
Pol Pot, Lenin & Stalin
All noms de guerre, associated with illegal and subversive activities at some point in history.
The Apostle Paul
He was ‘really’ Saul
What, no last name?
Ellery Queen
‘He’ is actually a ‘they‘.
Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell
The Bronte sisters, who hid their identities (and location) to avoid scandal in their community
George Eliot and George Sand
Just a couple of the most notable women who could only be taken seriously after assuming a male identity

I could go on at great length, but suffice it to say that there are problems. You’ll note, by the way, that many of the names listed above refer to individuals who were guilty of subversive and often illegal activities. In many cases, too, there was a point in time where these names were not commonly known, or were disputed (even proscribed) by large segments of society, or by the powers that be.

Let me try to make these apparently silly examples clearer. It’s easy, with the benefit of hindsight to say, “Dude, that’s JESUS. Everybody knows he’s the Christ.” Well, that may be true now, but what about when he was some misfit wandering from town to town, pissing off a lot of Pharisees in the process? And yes, knowing what we know now, maybe we wouldn’t want to give a voice to Pol Pot, Lenin or Stalin. But how would we have felt about them in the early years of the 20th Century?

My question is: Are we on the side of the Pharisees, the Tsars and the Cambodian despots? Because that’s who we’re helping here, metaphorically speaking.

I’m not advocating taking a particular side. I’m suggesting exactly the opposite – not taking sides. That’s why I deliberately included some decidedly contentious figures in the list. (I could just as easily have included the authors of the Federalist Papers.) I just want to know that there’s room in our society for gadflies like Socrates, that it’s okay for some as-yet-unknown literary genius to speak freely and loud.

(And that, yes, even the soon-to-be villains can be captured in the public dialogue. There’s actually an argument to be made for listening to nuts like bin Laden and Breivik, in order that we better understand – and engage – our enemy.)

There are technical problems with any set of rules applying to names. As Patrick McKenzie eloquently demonstrates, just about any rule you think might apply to names actually doesn’t. Furthermore, the rationale that disallowing pseudonyms would have any effect whatsoever on spam and/or civility in public discourse, let alone that it will ‘help people know who they’re talking to,’ is entirely unproven.

But the issue is bigger than just technical. Skud writes that disallowing pseudonymity can be discriminatory and downright dangerous. The fact that her argument isn’t comprehensive makes it all the more compelling.

Throughout history, and for countless reasons, the use of pseudonyms and the appropriation of unofficial names are common, reputable and widely accepted practices,

One of the most common responses to these (and other) objections can be stated succinctly enough: Google’s Service – Google’s Rules. Fair enough, but let’s consider the implications of this. If we as a society allow ourselves to be utterly circumscribed by corporate policies over which we have no control (and which, as here, are pretty much arbitrary in nature), we’re in effect voting ourselves back into feudalism, where the rule of law becomes meaningless – or rather, indistinguishable from fiat.

I know some of you are writhing in your chairs right now, waiting to shout, “Oh come on, Crumb! Lighten up. This is a bloody social network we’re talking about, not some proletarian revolutionary struggle.” Well, no. This is a social network, and if it wants to reflect society then it needs to bloody well reflect it. In many parts of the world, just hanging out with your buddies on a service like this can get you into a lot of trouble.

Identity matters, for political, economical, social and philosophical reasons. The ability to define one’s identity freely is a fundamental human right. Google’s aim is to reduce bad behaviour, and that’s laudable. But if they want to do it right, they should focus on behaviour, not practices that are only tangentially linked to the problem.

If Google really wants their network to reflect society rather than deform it, they need to back off the name issue and look at fostering a culture of respect and civility instead.