Google’s caught a lot of heat over its G+ real name policy. Part of it’s simply the arbitrary nature of the real name enforcement: many people using their real names — and well known nicknames — have been kicked off Plus.
But there’s a much deeper and more important conversation taking place that has to do with identity, privacy and the right to anonymity.
Danah Boyd, a researcher with Microsoft and fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center, considers real name policies an abuse of power:
I’m really really glad to see seriously privileged people take up the issue, because while they are the least likely to actually be harmed by “real names” policies, they have the authority to be able to speak truth to power. And across the web, I’m seeing people highlight that this issue has more depth to it than fun names (and is a whole lot more complicated than boiling it down to being about anonymity, as Facebook’s Randi Zuckerberg foolishly did).
What’s at stake is people’s right to protect themselves, their right to actually maintain a form of control that gives them safety. If companies like Facebook and Google are actually committed to the safety of its users, they need to take these complaints seriously. Not everyone is safer by giving out their real name. Quite the opposite; many people are far LESS safe when they are identifiable. And those who are least safe are often those who are most vulnerable.
News sites are continuously grappling with how to elevate the tone of reader comments. One chosen way is to make people use their real names in order to comment on stories. For example, some sites require you to swipe your credit card for a nominal one-time fee (say, a dollar) in order to prove you’re you.
Site’s that have done this (or found other ways to implement “real name” systems) generally report that while the overall number of comments goes down, the quality of discussion improves. That is, there’s less of an impulse to lob rhetorical bombs when people know exactly who you are.
But apply what Boyd writes here to the newspaper rather than the social network and we have the same dynamic. Namely, the paper dictating who can comment and participate, and ignoring the very real reasons why some in a community would need to anonymously contribute to a conversation about sensitive issues.
If news sites want to clean up comment sections, create a civil culture within them by having moderators, reporters and editors set the tone by actively participating in them. Otherwise, your crazies with an axe to grind will continue to ruin the roost.