Nym Wars: Where Personal Identity and Private Enterprise Clash



A new war has emerged on the Internet. Its battleground is our increasingly precious and oft-used social network platforms. And the weapon used on either side is your identity. Welcome to the Nym Wars.


At the end of July Google began disappearing profiles on its new-ish social network service, Google+, for violations of what is called its “common name policy.” Profiles were there one day and then erased the next because users were not using their legal names for their profiles. This, of course, caused quite a stir. (Now, users are given four days to correct a name violation.)


The short explanation is that platforms like Facebook and Google “require” their users to use their real names. Now, the word require is in quotes because, per Facebook, policing hundreds of millions of profiles, making sure they’re accurate with government names and the like, is impossible. Click around Facebook long enough and you’ll find pets with hundreds of friends and just-a-minute-ago wall postings. From a Google+ standpoint, the profile for Lady Gaga, for example, is fine (not her real name) but an ex-Google employee (nick)named Skud was booted off for not using her “wallet name.” Anger was sure to follow.


One side of this debate is now famously represented by Randi Zuckerberg, ex-Facebook Marketing Director and sister of CEO Mark, when she had this to say: “I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away. People behave a lot better when they have their real names down… I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want.”


So not only pseudonyms, but anonymity in general should not be allowed on the Internet. You have to wonder if something like what the world witnessed in North Africa and the Middle East at the beginning of this year would have happened if Randi had her way.


Many well-meaning individuals and groups have responded to this, probably best shown by the website My Name Is Me—which supports “your freedom to choose the name you use on social networks and other online services.” Online anonymity, in my humble opinion, is part and parcel of the online experience. Even a Facebook page is not ME, or YOU. It’s not “your” profile—it’s Facebook’s profile of you. But more importantly and with the big picture in mind, pseudonymity “makes it possible for the most marginalized people in our community to communicate,” helps people from being judged out of context, ensures a good level of privacy, and allows the user a degree of safety s/he can control, to name a few.


You cannot overlook the timing of all this:


Riots in London accelerated and loosely coordinated using mobile and social networks.A U.S. House of Representatives committee recently approved legislation that requires Internet providers to keep logs of customers’ activities for one year in case the authorities want to see them.The Indian government stepping up it’s monitoring of Twitter and Facebook.The New York police department’s newest “juvenile justice unit” that will track people who discuss criminal activities on social networking sites.San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), in trying to stifle a possible protest over the shooting of a homeless man by BART police, disrupted cellphone service for three hours, effectively muffling free speech.South Korea is beginning to phase out their real-name policy, after suffering the “worst online security breach that compromised the personal information of over two-thirds of the population.”


The bare-faced Big Brother genie seems out of the bottle at this point. Maybe now the use (or at least the option) of “fake names” as a check against this new digital-tracking infrastructure is beginning to make sense.


But while the anger and frustration at Google and Facebook is understandable, since it was these companies and their services that so dearly want to mimic the real world of social interaction, why these “Nym Wars” have flared up is, sadly, much less emotionally charged. To Google and Facebook, this isn’t about privacy, or the quality of social interactions. It’s cold and calculated and simple: these companies are only as valuable as their data, and they have a huge interest in the furthering online transactions.


To start, Facebook and Google make a large amount of their revenue from selling advertisers access to you, or more specifically to your data. As my friend and colleague Sean Costigan says, “When it’s free from a commercial source, you are the product.” They have your data, advertisers want to reach you, so a deal is done and targeted ads appear everywhere. These companies are not so much against anonymity as much as they want their data (which “we” provide) to be as accurate as it can be. Real Name Policies are about taking Internet commerce to the next step via vetted, authenticated online profiles.


From there, we’re seeing more and more transactions happening online, and increasingly on the move via smartphone. Buying a plane ticket, renting a car, looking for an apartment to rent—all of these interactions in the past had their own closed-in destination online. Now, with the data Google/Facebook has, these transactions can all be streamlined with other data (financial, bio-metric, location, etc.) and a user just has to log in. But most importantly for these companies, you’ll never have to leave their service. You plug in more data like purchasing history, travel itineraries, bank accounts, and your online self is completely facilitated through these companies’ platforms. You’ll think it’s free, they’ll think it’s money in the bank—aka, even more accurate user data to algorithm-ize.


So don’t expect the fight between online identity and online commerce to fizzle out anytime soon. It’s good to see people organize online to fight these naming policies galvanized by a personal sense of privacy/safety and freedom. But a fair amount of privacy and freedom are instantly given up once you sign up for these services. You play by their rules, or you don’t play. That said, as increasingly important as these social sites are becoming, to opt out would greatly damage someone’s online experience, interactions, and discourse. So the war rages on.



Google, International Conflict, internet, Social Networks