Saturday, August 06, 2011

Google+ and Nymwars - Part 1: The debate and kinds of identities

I'm not going to go into the background of Google+ and the mighty Nymwars of 2011, as it's readily found online.  Instead I wanted to share my thoughts on the matter.  I've posted them off and on in various entries and comments on Google+ but never in a fully fleshed out blog comment (hey look, Google+ is getting me to use Blogger again!)

I'm not claiming to tread any new territory (except for one potential "solution" that I think works as some interesting form of a compromise (which I haven't heard floated yet)... it's not entirely satisfactory to me, but it might be something to think about - though that solution won't come until the end of this series). So if you've heard most of the other arguments you'll probably read them here, but I do hope I provide some sort of insight into this thing from my own perspective that may be fresh.

I plan to discuss here what I perceive to be the arguments against pseudonyms, my arguments for pseudonyms, as well as potential solutions that might be agreeable to all parties involved (ok, maybe not all). 

If it's not clear from previous paragraph, I am stating my bias up front so you know where I stand:  I am in support of pseudonymity.

For convention here, I'm going to call people who support a "real name" policy "Realites" and people who support pseudonymity "Nymmers".  Pseudonyms will be shorted to "nyms". I may also refer to pseudonymity as "nymity"

Claims for a Need for Identified/Real Name:

One of the primary rationales that Google has stated is that using an Identified Account makes it easier for people who know you in real life to find you on Google+.

See this post on the Google Public Policy Blog for their definitions of the 3 main types of accounts.  See also this posting for a fuller explanation on Google Profiles' use of Identified accounts (and thus Google+, which is linked to the Google Profiles system).

A secondary claim has been made (though I can't find an explicit reference that it was made by Google itself) that using a pseudonymous system encourages (or at least allows for) harassing behavior.  This seems to be the most common theme among the Realites in comment threads.

Claims for a Need for Pseudonymity:
An interesting overlap occurs when you look at the secondary claim above with the claim I now present on the other end of the debate: A pseudonymous system protects against harassing behavior.  Further elucidation of this and the above issues will happen below.

Clarifications by Google:

As the great clusterfuck that is the rollout of Google+ continued to progress, conflicting information came from inside Google.  The most authoritative claims from inside seemed to indicate that the names they are requiring are not a person's legal binding "birth" name, but a "common name" that is well known online.  So we have individuals who are using nyms that they've used across many services for many years who, in theory, are allowed to use these names on Google+.  This explanation seemed to calm down the initial outrage.

The Banhammer Keeps on a Droppin':

But the bannings did not stop.  People continued to get banned for using nyms.  In fact, there are individuals who have used their legal names who have been banned.  One of the most recent examples is Blake Ross, a developer most well-known for being a cofounder of the Mozilla Project.  There are, IIRC, 8 other Blake Ross's whose accounts were never banned, but for some reason this particular account was banned.  The explanation is faulty behavior from a "ban-bot".  Blake is concerned that he might be targeted because he works for Facebook.  I find that claim to stretch the bounds of credulity.  But the fact remains, that despite Google's claims for tolerating pseudonyms that have a known internet presence/identity behind them, bans continue to happen.

Confusion of Anonymity with Pseudonymity:

I have already professed my ideological support of pseudonymity and am going to profess, here, my support of anonymity, and mostly due to the same reasons:  They are powerful tools to allow the voiceless and powerless to speak up against oppression.

That said, they are also tools that allow stupidity to run amok, as evidenced by the anonymous/pseudonymous commenters on various online fora such as news-site comment sections or youtube comments.  It's a topic that XKCD frequently visits, for an example comic, see here or here.

People tend to see these comments (which are either generally annoying, stupid and at times threatening) and think that the problem lies in the given anonymity of the commenters.  There is a theory called G.I.F.T. which is short for the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory which was expounded by the guys from Penny Arcade in this comic.

On the surface, this is a true enough statement.  And I don't doubt that anonymity (and some forms of pseudonymity) can contribute to an environment full of the lowest-common denominator at best, and downright abusive at worst.  I think even the most staunch advocates of pseudonymity will grant that this is the case.

But pseudonymity in itself is not the same thing as anonymity.  When I said "some forms of pseudonymity" above, what I meant is that there are at least two kinds of pseudonymity.  I'm not certain what to call them so I'll refer to them as "Temporary Pseudonymity" and "Persistent Pseudonymity". 

Pure temporary pseudonymity is the kind you will find on sites like news-sites.  You might be able to comment with a "name" but that name is tied to nothing other than your post, there is no permanent account, no way to reach back to an original author if an email isn't provided.  That's the most temporary kind.  It's pretty much identical to an anonymous comment, because there's not an easy way for the readers of a site to trace it back to anything else. (We'll deal with IP addresses in a bit). 

Youtube comments, on the other hand have a minor form of persistent nymity.  Users have an account that is tied across the system.  There is some form of identity that now exists across the spectrum of interaction.  This interaction is limited to youtube itself...  The identity of the individual on youtube isn't necessarily tied to any other site.  It may in fact be tied to a seemingly throwaway account at an email provider like hotmail or something.

Cross-site persistent nymity is a stronger form of identification.  It is this sort of pseudonymity that Google+ seems to be desiring for pseudonymous accounts.  Google (at the very least makes the following claim (how truthful it is, I cannot say, I can only repeat what various higher-up authorities in Google are claiming)): they want to have a way for me to say that "Yes, this isn't my real name, but across the online world or at least in specific communities online, I am known as this specific nym."

That's all the mental energy I've got today for this topic...

Part 2 coming later... (man, these kinds of posts take a lot of time to write!)

Quick overview links:

Guardian Article
BetaBeat Linkage/overview
Jon at Liminal has a multi-part article
TheModerateVoice article by Kathy Gill