net.wars: Name check

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 30 July 2011

How do you clean a database? The traditional way – which I still experience from time to time from journalist directories – is that some poor schnook sits in an office and calls everyone on the list, checking each detail. It's an immensely tedious job, I'm sure, but it's a living.

Wendy M Grossman

The new, much cheaper method is to motivate the people in the database to do it themselves. A government can pass a law and pay benefits. Amazon expects the desire to receive the goods people have paid for to be sufficient. For a social network it's a little harder, yet Facebook has managed to get 750 million users to upload varying amounts of information. Google hopes people will do the same with Google+.

The emotional connections people make on social networks obscure their basic nature as databases. When you think of them in that light, and you remember that Google's chief source of income is advertising, suddenly Google's culturally dysfunctional decision to require real names on |Google+ makes some sense. For an advertising company,a fuller, cleaner database is more valuable and functional. Google's engineers most likely do not think in terms of improving the company's ability to serve tightly targeted ads – but I'd bet the company's accountants and strategists do. The justification – that online anonymity fosters bad behavior – is likely a relatively minor consideration.

Yet it's the one getting the attention, despite the fact that many people seem confused about the difference between pseudonymity, anonymity, and throwaway identity. In the reputation-based economy the Net thrives on, this difference matters.

The best-known form of pseudonymity is the stage name, essentially a form of branding for actors, musicians, writers, and artists, who may have any of a number of motives for keeping their professional lives separate from their personal lives: privacy for themselves, their work mates, or their families, or greater marketability. More subtly, if you have a part-time artistic career and a full-time day job you may not want the two to mix: will people take you seriously as an academic psychologist if they know you're also a folksinger? All of those reasons for choosing a pseudonym apply on the Net, where everything is a somewhat public performance. Given the harassment some female bloggers report, is it any wonder they might feel safer using a pseudonym?

The important characteristic of pseudonyms, which they share with "real names", is persistence. When you first encounter someone like GrrlScientist, you have no idea whether to trust her knowledge and expertise. But after more than ten years of blogging, that name is a known quantity. As GrrlScientist writes about Google's shutting down her account, it is her "real-enough" name by any reasonable standard. What's missing is the link to a portion of her identity – the name on her tax return, or the one her mother calls her. So what?

Anonymity has long been contentious on the Net; the EU has often considered whether and how to ban it. At the moment, the driving justification seems to be accountability, in the hope that we can stop people from behaving like malicious morons, the phenomenon I like to call the Benidorm syndrome.

There is no question that people write horrible things in blog and news site comments pages, conduct flame wars, and engage in cyber bullying and harassment. But that behaviour is not limited to venues where they communicate solely with strangers; every mailing list, even among workmates, has flame wars. Studies have shown that the cyber versions of bullying and harassment, like their offline counterparts, are most often perpetrated by people you know.

The more important downside of anonymity is that it enables people to hide, not their identity but their interests. Behind the shield, a company can trash its competitors and those whose work has been criticized can make their defense look more robust by pretending to be disinterested third parties.

Against that is the upside. Anonymity protects whistleblowers acting in the public interest, and protesters defying an authoritarian regime.

We have little data to balance these competing interests. One bit we do have comes from an experiment with anonymity conducted years ago on the WELL, which otherwise has insisted on verifying every subscriber throughout its history. The lesson they learned, its conferencing manager, Gail Williams, told me once, was that many people wanted anonymity for themselves – but opposed it for others. I suspect this principle has very wide applicability, and it's why the US might, say, oppose anonymity for Bradley Manning but welcome it for Egyptian protesters.

Google is already modifying the terms of what is after all still a trial service. But the underlying concern will not go away. Google has long had a way to link Gmail addresses to behavioral data collected from those using its search engine, docs, and other services. It has always had some ability to perform traffic analysis on Gmail users' communications; now it can see explicit links between those pools of data and, increasingly, tie them to offline identities. This is potentially far more powerful than anything Facebook can currently offer. And unlike government databases, it's nice and clean, and cheap to maintain.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) (but please turn off HTML).