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Who Are You, Really? Activists Fight For Pseudonyms

Social media companies don't like people creating accounts under fake names. That's long been the case at Facebook, but over the summer, Google's new social network, Google Plus, surprised users by making a point of shutting down accounts with names that didn't look real.

Some online activists refer to Google's action as the "nym wars" — short for "pseudonym wars." They see it as part of a worrying trend to force people to use their real names online.

Trying To Weed Out 'Trolls'

It's a concern that goes beyond the social media sites themselves. More and more, social network accounts are becoming a gateway to other parts of the Internet.

"If you want to leave a comment, you have to be a Facebook user," says Jimmy Orr, managing editor of the online Los Angeles Times, one of several news sites now requiring commenters to use Facebook. He says it makes it harder for people to hide behind fake names.

"I'm impressed at Facebook's efforts at authentication. It's for real. You know, if I were just to join up on Facebook, for example, to leave a comment, and I made up a name, chances are it would not show up," Orr says.

Some of the Los Angeles Times comments sections still operate under what Orr calls the old "Wild West" system, where all you need is an email address. Those sections have more trolls — commenters who bait each other with racism or personal attacks. The sections with Facebook logins, on the other hand, are comparatively civil.

"The reason for that is trolls don't like their friends to know they are trolls," Orr says. "If you are who you are, you're less likely to leave a comment that makes you look bad."

Trolls don't like their friends to know they are trolls.

Neither Facebook nor Google would comment for this story, but over the years, their executives have expressed impatience with Internet anonymity.

"One of the errors that the Internet made a long time ago is that there was not an accurate and non-revocable identity-management service," Google chief Eric Schmidt said at the Techonomy conference last year. "And the best example of an identity-management service today that's reasonably reliable is Facebook."

There's a lot of money at stake for both companies. Social networks are in the business of collecting information about their users, and that information is worth more when it's connected to real names. Schmidt went on to suggest that the anonymity of the Internet is a historical aberration.

"You know, 200 years ago, in a small town, you couldn't sneak around if people didn't know who you were," he said.

Seeking Freedom To Express Themselves

To be clear, Schmidt was talking about the kind of technical anonymity that facilitates cybercrime. But people who use pseudonyms for more benign reasons worry that "real name" culture is spreading across the Internet, with Facebook logins required everywhere they turn.

"There's a concern about being shut out of the conversation," says a woman who blogs and tweets under the Internet pen name Garidin Winslow. To her, it's an extension of the time-honored literary tradition of pen names — someday, she hopes to write a novel under the name. She wants the freedom to express herself without offending the sensibilities of, say, her boss — or potential future bosses.

"I think it's better to err on the side of caution," Winslow says. "Your employer is going to be searching for you on the Internet — they're going to be looking for you by name."

"Real name" policies keep her off Facebook and Google Plus — but she is on Diaspora, a new social network still in the process of rolling out. At Diaspora headquarters in San Francisco, co-founder Max Salzberg says this network does not insist on real names.

"Certainly with Diaspora, it's not a requirement, and in fact it's not even something we could enforce, because Diaspora is open source," he says.

Open source means the software is open for anybody to see and rewrite as they please. Diaspora is also a distributed system, which means users can host and control their own social networking data. Some of those who worry about the "Nym wars" see Diaspora as the great hope for saving online pseudonyms. But Salzberg actually agrees with Google's Schmidt on one point.

"There is a place for people to be able to use their real name, and have some sort of verified, like — 'This is actually Max Salzberg responding to your question.' "

What big social media companies need to understand, he says, is that there's also a place for pseudonyms.

"Anonymity and pseudonyms are slightly different," Salzberg says. "A pseudonym that's well-constructed is something that that person values and wants to maintain at a certain level. It's still an authentic personality they have."

Innovations like Diaspora mean pseudonyms aren't likely to go away. But as Google Plus and Facebook increase their reach, the question is: On how much of the Internet will those pseudonyms be allowed?

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