Online identity as part of the promise, tool, and bargain


Google+ has stirred up interest in the issue of online identity and the use of ‘real names’ – I’m seeing support for and against this policy being expressed. Of course people have always been concerned about online identity and the privacy issues around social networks, particularly massive networks like Facebook. So why is this an issue now?

  • We are thinking and learning more about the issue of privacy as more people live out their lives online.
  • We are transacting more and more online (and we are aware we leave digital footprints).
  • The role of social media in ‘government 2.0’, politics and its role in stimulating change in countries which are less open.

Google+ simply came about at the right time – it presents the oppourtunity to do things differently. Or as I like to think about it, we are re-evaluating the promise, tool, and bargain offered by these services.

For those arguing for real names, the basic argument I’m hearing is that people like the idea of creating a social network based on those real identities because it will create a better, safer and more friendly environment. And of course, why do you need to hide behind a pseudonyms anyway? A more blatently commerical view, but worthy of consideration, is the argument that if you want the benefits of transacting online in interesting and social ways then the network needs to know who you are.

Focusing on the arguments against real names:

The way I think about is that if this is to work, then people are really asking for the creation of an online identity card. This presents a useful way to engage with the issue of ‘real names’ – as a primer Wikipedia has an introduction to the pros and cons of identity cards, which I won’t repeat here. Not only would we need to enforce the use of real names, we should also consider systems to create compliance and trust in other aspects of how people present themselves online, including their profile picture and profile information.

Personally, I wouldn’t rely on that ‘real name’ that appears on the screen. Social systems (online and physical world) can be gamed and identity is only one element of trust. What we actually need to think about are circles of trust and building systems that allow us different levels of freedom and interaction using degrees of identity, just as we do in the physical world.

I mean, imagine if each and every conversation or transaction in the physical world required you to identify yourself explicitly. Even worse – if you refused to show that ID card for each conversation or transaction, you would be excluded from the community you live in.

We actually need to find a balance between the promise, tools and bargin made with social networks so that it benefits both individuals and the other users and stakeholders of the network. I’m not sure a blanket real name policy achieves that.

Credits for images used in the fake identity card: Social media icons by Nicolas Gallagher (CC BY-SA) and face by Roger Braunstein (CC BY)