Online identity matters: Facebook, Ello, and the right to pseudonyms


Internet scholars and activists gathered at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard on Tuesday to discuss the right to choose how identity is presented online. The discussion was led by aestetix, an activist for pseudonymity on the Web.

Aestetix himself was suspended from Google+ twice for logging on under his pseudonym. “We were using names that weren’t looking ‘name-shaped’,” he said.

This discussion is particularly timely. This month, several members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a drag and community service group who are active on Facebook, found their accounts suspended. Recently, Facebook became more vigilant in enforcing its real name policy, and closing down the accounts of performers who went by stage names.

Several companies, including Facebook, have run into trouble for enforcing “legal name” policies in the past. Like the time Facebook forced Salman Rushdie to go by “Ahmed.” Then there was the time Google+ didn’t believe William Shatner was William Shatner, and briefly suspended his account.

This latest incident fueled a high-profile exodus Facebook to a new competing, invite-only social network called Ello that is ad-free (at least for now), and crucially, lets you register with any name you choose.

Facebook’s claim is that requiring real names “helps keep our community safe.” But people who study this stuff argue otherwise.

The requirement hurts people in the LGBTQ community, scholars at the Electronic Frontier Foundation argued, when Facebook’s account shutdowns began:

Being able to connect a legal name with an online LGBTQ identity makes it much easier for not just stalkers and harassers, but dangerous abusers, to find people offline. And the loss of ability to identify using one’s chosen identity makes it more likely that an individual will simply leave social media, thereby losing an essential source of community and information.

Back when Google+ was shutting down accounts with pseudonyms (it later reversed its stance) Internet scholar danah boyd wrote:

The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalized by systems of power. “Real names” policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people

In her work observing teens online, she observed that “an extremely high percentage of people of color used pseudonyms,” compared to the white teens she spoke to.

With Facebook and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the cycle of outrage seems to be repeating itself. In the meanwhile, as Berkman fellow and attendee Sara Watson reminded the audience, Facebook’s relaunched its advertising tool, Atlas, to leverage your personal information and show you ads outside the social network.

Of course, it’s not just your name that companies are looking for these days. With fitness and health trackers collecting biological information and recognizing you by breathing patterns or heartbeats, it’s likely that soon, your real name may not matter.

Image of masked person via Shutterstock

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at [email protected]
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