What’s in a Name?

York_36.4_twain Jillian York makes a case for pseudonyms in Boston Review:

Pseudonymous speech has played a critical role throughout history as well. From the literary efforts of George Eliot and Mark Twain to the explicitly political advocacy of Publius in the Federalist Papers or Junius' letters to the Public Advertiser in 18th century London, people have contributed strongly to public debate under pseudonyms and continue to do so to this day.

A new debate around pseudonymity on online platforms has arisen as a result of the identification policy of Google+, which requires users to identify by “the name your friends, family, or co-workers usually call you.” This policy is similar to that of Facebook’s which requires users to “provide their real names and information.” Google’s policy has in a few short weeks attracted significant attention both within the community and outside of it, sparking debate as to whether a social platform should place limits on identity. A considerable number of Google+ users have already experienced account deactivation as a result of the policy, which Kirrily “Skud” Robert, a former Google employee kicked off the service for identifying as “Skud,” has closely documented.

Those in favor of the use of “real names” on social platforms have presented a number of arguments: that real names improve user behavior and create a more civil environment; that real names help prevent against stalking and harassment by making it easier to go after offenders; that a policy requiring real names prevents law enforcement agents from “sneaking in” to the service to spy on users; that real names make users accountable for their actions.

While these arguments are not entirely without merit, they misframe the problem. It is not incumbent upon strict real-name policy advocates to show that policies insisting on the use of real names have an upside. It is incumbent upon them to demonstrate that these benefits outweigh some very serious drawbacks.