#nymwars and Your Freedom Online

16 Aug

A day late, and about $500 short!  This column was originally posted at Orange the Brave.

Have you gotten your invite for Google+ yet?  It’s the new thing in social networking!  It’s like, almost exactly like Facebook!  But it has Angry Birds, and it doesn’t have stinky Farmville, and I personally find it more visually pleasing than Facebook!  Plus CIRCLES!!!  And awesome little flash animations when you delete circles!  And awesome integration with many of the Google services I already use!  HOLY SHIT GOOGLE+ IS AMAZING!!!!!

I have all of these invites, but I’m not going to offer them to you, dear readers, even though Google+ would be a fantastic tool for me to do that whole self-promotion thing that I’m so bad at.  I’m not going to offer you invites, because Megan E. King is not my real name, and I, like many people on the internet – or, like many authors of this very blog! – do my meat-life things with my “wallet name,” and my internet life things with this name, and Google says that I cannot use Google+ with this name.  You see, Google is a jerk and has this “real name policy” (or “common name” – but they really mean the name that’s on your driver’s license) that it enforced by mass-suspending thousands of Google+ users a few short weeks ago.  Everything I’m reading is now is indicating that policies have changed so that users are notified and given a grace period before their accounts are suspended, but according to opponents of the policy, that doesn’t go far enough.

And so, #nymwars began, thanks, in large part, to Skud.  You see, Skud’s G+ account was suspended because Skud is not the name that appears on her driver’s license.  It was recently reinstated, and since then, she has been using the platform to talk about why this real names policy is bullshit.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that I’ve been intimately connected to what’s been happening with #nymwars.  I haven’t.  Truth be told, I’ve been kind of away from the internet for a couple of days.  But #nymwars is important, and it ought to be important to you, even if you do use your “wallet name” online.  The fact is that pseudonyms protect people – and you like protecting people, don’t you?  I THOUGHT SO!

It’s entirely possible that my mom was just an over-protective helicopter mommy, but do you remember all of the media scares about young girls being abducted by internet predators about ten years ago?  Have you ever seen those “To Catch a Predator” specials on Dateline?  My family was pretty broke when I was young, so the first time I had real access to the internet (besides the limited access I had through the school library) was in 2000, when my dad bought me a computer for my birthday.  And I remember that my mother was scared shitless.

I am certainly not advocating that we should all be scared of the internet, but what’s wrong with a little caution if we want to exercise it?  What about the woman who is being stalked online by an ex?  What about the woman who fears that her job would be in jeopardy if the conservative organization she worked for got wind of her super-liberal, super-queer activities on the internet?  Oh wait, that’s me.

What about people who don’t like their legal names?  What about Madonna (is my age showing?) or Lady Gaga?  What about people who have had a presence online way back when nobody used their real names (like, ten years ago – that was meant to be snarky, by the way), and people looked at you funny if you used your actual name in your email address?  I remember that, and I wasn’t even online until 2000, folks.

I promise there is a point to this post.  Bear with me.

On her newly reinstated G+ profile, Skud said in a recent post:

Google Plus is Google’s attempted answer to Facebook. They are shit-scared of Facebook’s increasing dominance of the Internet and people’s pageviews and attention and information, and want to claw back as much of that as they can.

In order for G+ to threaten Facebook, it needs to get widespread mainstream acceptance. Not just among the Internet nerds who were excited by GMail and Wave and stuff like that, but by the sort of people who type “facebook.com” into the Google search bar because they don’t know how their browser works.

Vic and his team believe that those people (shorthand: “the mainstream”) are scared off by Internet culture, pseudonyms, and the wild and wonderful diversity most of us love. When they talk about “dress codes” what they mean is “we don’t want to scare off the mainstream people”.

Skud goes on to tell us that we fix this not by quitting Google+ – we fix this by reaching the mainstream and communicating to them how important pseudonyms are.

So that’s why I’m here – signal boosting.  And that’s what you ought to be doing, too.  People ought to have a right to their anonymity or pseudonymity, if they choose to exercise that right.  So the best thing that you can do is to talk to people.  Talk to people who don’t move in geek circles and aren’t involved in #nymwars.  Talk to your friends and family about why it’s so important to be able to protect yourself online.

And because many other people have written about this much better than I have, go and read what they’ve written:

s.e. smith for Tiger Beatdown >> The Google+ Nymwars: Where Identity and Capitalism Collide

What this is really about, of course, is capitalism, which some people advocating for legal names will admit, in a sort of roundabout, weird argument. They say ‘it’s not about safety, of course, the service wants real names because then it can sell the data,’ like this somehow ends the argument and the discussion can stop now. This is actually the core of the argument, and it’s the thing that everyone should be talking about, because it has extremely serious implications for online identity, and for the way people use the Internet.

Tim Carmody for Wired.com >> Google+ Punts on Kafkaesque Name Policy

I’m a sucker for literary references, and also for concise, pithy rundowns of online phenomena.  He’s also got a suggestion that I really like:

Google+ is already something of a nerd magnet, so many people on Google+ have ideas (including full schema) on how Google should handle names. I’ve endorsed an approach I call “polynymy,” letting each user choose a range of names, nicknames, alternative names or handles that they can use within different circles.

This way, I could totally offer you all Google+ invites, and still protect my pseudonymity!

Also check out My Name Is Me, a photo and text project meant to support the continued use of pseudonyms online.

Essentially, this is not a couple of internet dorks whining because they can’t use their screen names on Google+.  This isn’t even about protecting the people who are afraid they’re going to be stalked or harassed online.  This is really about your freedom online.  This is about you being the one in charge of how much or how little information you share about yourself.  If you like personal freedom, you like pseudonymity!

Do you have other links?  Share them in the comments!

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