Monday, August 24, 2009

Do pseudonyms make sense in Facebook?

OK, now we're getting to an issue that goes well beyond Facebook's acquisition of FriendFeed. We're about to question one of the main tenets of Facebookdom.

In part one of this post, I recounted three suggestions that I had previously advanced to make the Facebook experience more like the FriendFeed experience. But when I advanced those suggestions, I failed to think about whether or not they may sense.

In part two of this post, I discussed the pros and cons of my first suggestion for Facebook - bump active items to the top of the feed.

In part three of this post, I discussed the pros (I couldn't find any cons) of my second suggestion for Facebook - allow multiple RSS feeds on a Facebook page.

Now it's time for my third and final suggestion to re-create the FriendFeed experience within Facebook - allow pseudonyms in Facebook.

Yes, I suggested that. Why?

Let's start with an old story that I covered long ago, but Mathew Ingram covered it better so I'll turn to him:

As sociologist Danah Boyd has found in her research into how young people are using social networks such as MySpace , one of the freedoms that the Internet provides is the freedom to try on different personas, to pretend to be someone else, to role-play. By now, most people have probably gotten used to the idea that not everyone is who they claim to be on the Internet.

Facebook doesn’t see it that way, however. The popular social-networking site has a strict policy of not allowing users to register an account under a fake name. The site regularly deletes accounts and blocks users if they breach this rule. But those attempts to maintain a real-name-only policy are colliding ever more frequently with the natural human desire to experiment online.

A blogger calling himself Jon Swift -- after the famous English philosopher and writer -- was the most recent Facebook member to fall victim to the no-pseudonym policy, and he wrote on his blog about how his account was suddenly deleted without warning.

Facebook’s response was to cite the policy: “Fake accounts are a violation of our Terms of Use,” a spokesman said. “Facebook requires users to provide their real first and last names. Impersonating anyone or anything is prohibited. Unfortunately, we will not be able to reactivate this account for any reason. This decision is final.”

Not completely final, as it turned out. Swift’s protest was picked up by several leading bloggers, most of whom criticized Facebook for its approach, and eventually the site backed down and allowed Swift to retain his pseudonym.

The reasons for allowing Jon Swift to continue were semantic - in effect, the argument was made that Jon Swift wasn't impersonating anyone (such as the original Jon Swift) - in essence, the 21st century Jon Swift was a distinct persona (yeah, I guess "persona" is the cool kids term this month) that could be readily identified.

This raises the question - if a certain boxer from Louisville, Kentucky decided to join Facebook, would Facebook require him to register as Cassius Clay, or Muhammad Ali?

And would Facebook require that a particular personal page be registered under the name Benjamin Kubelsky, forcing the user to create a fan page called Jack Benny? (One thing for sure; he would certainly like Facebook's annual subscription fee, although he may object to entering his date of birth.)

A little over a month before Facebook's acquisition of FriendFeed, Sarah Perez looked at the issue of pseudonyms on FriendFeed, and on the entire Internet:

The pseudo-anonymity of the internet - or at the very least, the ability to write something cruel without having to face the person eye-to-eye - often leads people to express themselves in ways that are far from how they would behave in real life. In the past, this typically led people to hide behind pseudonyms and screen names so they could post whatever they wanted without fear of repercussions.

That's why I recently proposed that some communities put an end to online anonymity, thinking that if you removed the masks from people's identities, they would start behaving properly.

But as her idea continued to be discussed, Perez revised her proposal:

But as it turns out, there was a huge flaw in my reasoning in that post. I focused on whether or not someone should use their real name when posting, but that's not the issue at all. It's not really anonymity that's to blame for the troll-like behavior we're seeing in online communities, it's the lack of accountability.

That's why (some) people seem comfortable posting mean-spirited comments on sites like FriendFeed using their real name and their real identities to do so. You see, when you post on FriendFeed, your comment quickly disappears into the site's "real-time flow" of information. Someone watching the stream sees it only momentarily, before it's replaced with others. Even within the "angry mob" threads themselves, a single comment easily gets lost among hundreds of others.

However, the community sometimes ensures that a single angry comment is not lost. And while I joke about it today, there was a bit hubbub a few weeks ago over a single comment made in a FriendFeed thread when VerothicA's deviantART picture appeared on FriendFeed. The thread itself was deleted (and I can't find the image of the comments right now), but that single comment sparked a huge reaction (example here).

Perhaps Perez is right, and accountability is more important than identity. If Perez is correct, then is Facebook's semi-insistence on using real names a waste of time?

It depends upon the purpose of the network. And while I've argued that there are similarities between FriendFeed and Facebook, there are also clear differences.

The original intent of Facebook was to connect real people to people that they knew. So, for example, if Facebook had existed in 1980, I could have used Facebook to link to people that I knew at Reed College. While Facebook has gone far away from its college beginnings, it still insists on the real-life connection between your "friends" - and when Facebook refers to friends, they really mean it.

I just logged out of Facebook to take a look at the service's opening screen.

The question is - who are the people in my life?

Now I'm linked to my daughter on Facebook, and to my insurance agent, and to my pastor, and to several people in the Proposals department at work. These people are obviously in my life.

Now Eddie Awad is also a friend on Facebook. Eddie is someone that I initially met online, but I have since met him in person at Oracle OpenWorld, along with several other people, such as Jake Kuramoto, Laurent Schneider, and Marius Ciortea. These people are definitely "in my life" during the week of Oracle OpenWorld, but I don't necessarily wake up every morning and say to myself, "What is Laurent doing right now?" (Partially that is because many of the things that Laurent does are beyond my technical comprehension.)

But I have also befriended Louis Gray and Jesse Stay (among others) on Facebook. I've never met either of them. Other than the fact that I have a free SocialToo account, I have no business relationship with either of them. I don't go to the same conferences that they go to. Heck, I don't necessarily go to the same places that they do. One exception - Jesse went to Mt. Rushmore this summer, and I also paid a summer visit to Mt. Rushmore - in the summer of 2005.

But should I befriend Jon Swift on Facebook? I'll confess that I haven't read him lately, but I used to read him quite often. Or, more to the point, one of my FriendFeed friends goes by the name Cee Bee. Is Facebook going to allow Cee Bee onto FriendFeed?

Or how about a particular person who is on various social networks - including Facebook - under a pseudonym? This particular investment advisor - slash - photographer, who uses the last name of a bird, is registered on Facebook under his well-known pseudonym.

Of course, this gets into the whole question of different aspects of your persona. What do you reveal to your family? Your friends? Your co-workers? The people that you hang out with on FriendFeed? Technically I could write another post on this whole aspect myself, but instead I'm going to (for once) defer to someone who knows about the topic. I couldn't find any online writing by Jesse Stay on this topic, but I did find this post from Alison Driscoll and this one from Nick O'Neill.

So where are we?

Of the initial three recommendation that I provided, the only one that I'm still really sold on is for Facebook to allow you to add multiple feeds to a page. Regarding bumping active items, since there are arguments for preserving entries in reverse time order and arguments for showing the most active items up top, the best thing is to allow both. Regarding pseudonyms, I don't know what the best solution is yet, but requiring real names itself is no guarantee for a wonderful social media environment.

I'd like to hear your thoughts on all of these items. Feel free to post in the comments below, or comment elsewhere. Incidentally, all of these blog posts can also be found in my Empoprise-BI fan page on Facebook. It will be easy to find them, since the blog feed is the only feed on the fan page.
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