the name game

Is It Possible to Be Both Nice and Anonymous Online?

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Earlier this week, the Times reported that Facebook is at work on a new kind of app: one that would allow users to communicate without using their real names. The paper billed the move as a “a different, experimental take on Facebook’s long-established approach to identity.” But really, it was a 180. For nearly a decade, Mark Zuckerberg has been the standard-bearer for the real-name movement on the internet and has always insisted that Facebook would preserve an emphasis on real identities even as apps like Whisper, Yik Yak, and Snapchat allowed for greater freedom in naming. (“Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,” he once told an interviewer.)

But Facebook’s move isn’t a surprise to people who have watched the rise of those pseudonymous services or observed the way users of real-name platforms are forced to skirt the rules to preserve their privacy and communicate more freely. In fact, despite the recent dust-up over drag queens being forced to use their legal names, Facebook has been a quasi-pseudonymous site for years. (Just ask a teen applying to college or a medical student applying for residencies — fake names on Facebook are as common as baby photos.)

The Times used the word anonymous to describe the operative mode of Facebook’s new project. But more likely is that it will be pseudonymous. There’s a big difference between the two — anonymous communities are an identification free-for-all, whereas systems involving pseudonymity allow people who don’t want to use their real names to establish consistent I.D.s and use them over time. (Think of Reddit or Twitter, where popular accounts have tweeted for years under the same handle.)

Nobody knows better than Facebook that product design shapes behavior, both on the social network itself and outside of it. People using their real names are more likely to be kind and responsible; anonymous and pseudonymous systems remove accountability and can encourage misbehavior. Which is part of the reason Mark Zuckerberg took a hard-line stance on the real-name question from the beginning.

But times and tastes change, and the growth of pseudonymous and anonymous apps and networks have turned Facebook onto the fact that the real-name backlash isn’t just about wanting to troll and harass from the safety of a veil. These modes of identification are important for people with nontraditional identities, people with privacy worries, or simply people who don’t want their bosses or parents seeing their activity online.

We know, from decades of social-science research, that platforms are never neutral, and that the design of a system or a prompt can change how people use it. (One prosaic but well-known example is in political polling: Ask a question about “reproductive rights,” and you’ll get a very different answer than if you asked an equivalent question about late-term abortion.) In 2009, when Twitter changed its status prompt from “What are you doing?” to “What’s happening?,” users began to share more news stories and musings on current events and fewer updates on their lunches and commutes. Twitter became a broadcast tool rather than a social sharing platform.

One question about Facebook’s pseudonymity experiment is how it will preserve its business imperative. Advertisers don’t pay Facebook for nothing; they want data about the network’s users; the more specific, the better. If users of a Facebook service aren’t giving up private information in order to maximize the service’s usefulness, do they become less valuable?

The bigger question, though, is whether social networks like Facebook can nudge users toward niceness without resorting to real names. After all, pseudonymous and anonymous apps are naturally more prone to indecent behavior. (Just observe how Yik Yak has become a hotbed of bullying, shaming, and violent threats among students. Whisper has some of the same issues, but has put in place an aggressive system to ward off abuse.) The threat of real-world consequences is one surefire way to scale back the risk of internet abuse; we don’t know for sure that other methods are nearly as effective.

Facebook’s Josh Miller, who is leading the team building the new app, thinks there are ways to improve the quality of interactions without resorting to real names:

Miller is correct that there are plenty of product decisions Facebook could make to encourage more open sharing without opening the floodgates. It could store a user’s Facebook credentials on the backend while allowing anonymity on the front end, so that abusers could be reported and punished the way they are now. It could create a type of group discussion page where individual identities are shielded. (So you’d know that your friend Joe was in the chat, for example, but you wouldn’t know which of a dozen users he was.)

Both of these solutions raise questions of their own. (If Facebook knew a user’s real identity but other users didn’t, would that constitute true pseudonymity? Would users feel safer?)

But Facebook knows it needs to grapple with these questions, if only to avoid losing the next generation of privacy-conscious users. And my hope is that with its new app, it will do the right thing by its users, rather than focus on preserving its relationships with advertisers. Real names are useful online, but so is the freedom of expression and the safety anonymity gives to marginalized groups. Facebook’s attempt to experiment with anonymity and pseudonymity means it’s realizing that the old name-badge system doesn’t work for everyone.

Is It Possible to Be Nice and Anonymous Online?