Thursday, September 08, 2011

Nymwars: is Facebook getting too much of a free pass?

After Facebook went public, in 2008 it faced some issues with its requirement for "real names" that seem quite similar to the ones currently faced by Google+. Take the trouble Elmo Keep (that is her real name) had: Banned for keeps on Facebook for odd name. Or the case of V Addeman (also a legal name): Facebook rejects a man named V. There were many others.

Did complaints about this ever reach the level that they have for Google+?I don't know, but I can't find the huge outcry about it in the archives of public conversation that currently exists for Google's actions.

There are some obvious differences in the two situations of course. Facebook started out requiring real names (enforced through requiring a valid college e-mail address initially), and the culture of no pseudonyms meshed with rather than conflicted with its initial userbase.  The norm was well established and accepted among the established userbase when Facebook went public-access. This is a far cry from Google, who have tended to present themselves as sharing the cultural ideals of the early community of the Internet. In that culture pseudonyms weren't just a routine part of online life, but the preferred method of protecting personal privacy while still being able to effectively participate in public communication. Google's situation feels like a betrayal, which Facebook's position, while still problematic, never did.

Further, a mistake Google made in their handling that Facebook simply couldn't make is to ban the entire Google account of an alleged violator of the "Real Names" Google+ policy. Facebook only offered social networking. Google offered so much more, and their policy was impacting much more than their social networking site. Worse, it was affecting Google services in which a "real name" wasn't a requirement. Using Google's services have been described by some as essential  plumbing of the Internet, which, it is argued, makes their situation different to Facebook. However, it should be mentioned here that according to Zuckerberg's own claims (The Facebook Effect, p144, 159), he intends Facebook to be a "utility", the essential plumbing for Internet communication just like the way the other services have been historically, only better. So this distinction is less of a distinction than it first appears.

Facebook is also rather lacklustre in enforcing their policy. I need only traverse my "friends of friends" on Facebook a little way to find obvious fake names and identities, including a profile that is quite literally the profile of a dog (it's set up by the dog's owners, but everything, including the status updates, is written as if it was the dog itself maintaining the profile).

And of course, the other difference is Twitter. Many of the people complaining about Google+ are also avid Twitter users, which is an effective and popular platform that explicitly doesn't have a "Real Names" policy. For whatever reason - insufficient overlap between Facebook and Twitter users perhaps, or insufficient uptake of Twitter to reach the necessary critical mass in 2008 - the Facebook situation wasn't as avidly discussed and circulated among the Twitter public (and thereby through the broader Internet) as #nymwars has been (or so it seems to me - I could be wrong about this).

So the discussion of #nymwars has focused on Google+ and demands that they withdraw their "Real Names" policy.  Yet for all these distinctions between the two, isn't the current discussion of #nymwars giving Facebook way too much of a free pass?  Sure, there's some writings that say "Google and Facebook" when discussing anti-pseudonym sentiment generally, but nothing specifically directed at Facebook that I can see. If Google+ should be facing criticism and pressure for its identity policies, why shouldn't Facebook be facing the same amount, not just as an add-on to complaints about Google+?

Facebook has done the same stupid things as Google+ previously and with much less public criticism, they have the same obstinate refusal to countenance pseudonyms as useful tools for protecting privacy, so why should they avoid the level of criticism and pressure currently being applied to Google just because they're not fighting for "Real Names" very publicly right now? Facebook staff still believe in "radical transparency", and it's unlikely they'll just stop believing in it anytime soon


James Polley said...

/me posts under a real name. teh ironiez.

Facebook's policy definitely bothers me less than Google's, mostly for reasons you've mentioned:

- I expect Facebook to do evil/stupid things, their Real Name policy is just one of their minor evils. I have much higher expectations of Google.
- Facebook came first. Implementing their policy was a mistake; but for Google to have witnessed that mistake and then make the same mistake is worse.

- Facebook realise that their policy has drawbacks, particularly in places where free speech is restricted. This has led to actions such as not enforcing their policy during the Arab Spring uprisings, because they wanted to be sure that their policy couldn't be used as a tool by governments wishing to stifle dissent.
- By contrast. Google's response has been to declare that "We don't want that kind of content on our service", and to rigorously enforce their policy *with the intent to* stifle speech they consider impolite.

- And, as you mentioned, losing my Facebook account is inconvenient, but losing access to my Google account would seriously impact my life.

Anonymous said...

Facebook never embraced a slogan comparable to "Don't be evil." Anyone who uses Facebook who hasn't heard by now that the site is notorious for monetizing personal information apparently doesn't read the news.

Also, as you and another commenter mentioned, Google's services are far more essential than Facebook's.

I do not use Facebook or Google+.

K. said...

Facebook's real name policy doesn't bother me because it only affect's Facebook. The only think I use FB for is to check FB - I rarely post comments on blogs through FB.

Google Plus's real name policy is upsetting in how pervasive it is. I wouldn't mind using my real name for G+ (the same as I do for FB) but as soon as I do, suddenly that is my name for Picasa, e-mail, Google ID (which I do use to comment as an alternative to using FB) etc., and the names I've been using for years on those irreversibly services are bundled into one name, a name that is one in a million and easily found by employers. I *have* had my name searched my employers, I *have* had "customers" semi-stalk me - I don't want them to be able to Google my vacation pictures, or find some comment I made five years ago under my Google ID.

If Google gave me a choice - my Google+ becomes the name associated with all my Google products OR my Google+ name is just for Google+ and everything else stays the same - I would have NO problem with real names, just as I have no problem with FB real names.

Z said...

Some points of clarification:

1) While Facebook doesn't yet have the pervasive reach of Google on the Internet yet, they want it, and are succeeding in getting it. In Trinidad, according to ethnographic research done by Daniel Miller (Tales From Facebook, 2011), Facebook basically is the Internet at this point, and Trinis are just fine with that.

2) According to Facebook, being forced to use your real name is a good thing. I don't think the company should be given leeway for the "comparatively lesser evil" of a "Real Names" policy when they explicitly deny that the policy is actually evil. They think that not using your real name online is the evil act.

This isn't a matter of capitalism or marketing. From my reading, I genuinely believe that if Mark Zuckerberg had to choose between promoting the use of Facebook (real names policy and all) or making money, he'd prefer that Facebook exist. He believes the world should be transparent as an ideological matter, not because it lets him make money from collecting marketing data.

Google is allegedly facing an internal rebellion over this issue due to ideological differences between those promoting Google's "real names" policy and those who like the Internet as it is, Meanwhile Facebook has been capturing and transforming the Internet all this time in a way that comports with their ideology of "radical transparency. As Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Chris Kelly puts it "We've been able to build what we think is a safer, more trusted version of the Internet by holding people to the consequences of their actions and requiring them to use their real identity" (The Facebook Effect, p201)

This whole issue is an intensely political one for me. It's a question of what kind of ideology drives the evolution of the Internet. I view the requirement of "real names" online as a threat to many aspects of the Internet that are desirable, including the opportunity for identity experimentation, the ability of the disadvantaged and oppressed to participate in public life, and the promotion of the ideology that what is said in public argument is more important than who is saying it. Google's actions may currently be troublesome, but the main source of the ideology that "real names" policies are a GOOD thing is Facebook, not Google. Therefore Facebook should be the main target of criticism