Real name coercion: a survey that helps ‘make Facebook better’

I just read the recent news that Facebook, apparently through various iterations over the past few months, has been asking users to confirm whether or not their friends are using real names.

This news appears to have gotten big following a Tweet on September 20 that helpfully included a screenshot. An article on talkingpointsmemo.com (TPM) outlines the story well, along with some of the concerns, and includes a few official responses from Facebook. I share the concern that it’s unclear as to what Facebook is using these survey results for, but I think there’s more to this move than direct policing by the service themselves.

First of all I wanted to address a claim that appeared in the TPM article and happens to have been adopted by others breaking the story. It ends with a paragraph stating

In general, Web users may prefer anonymity for reasons of personal safety. But Facebook is not alone in enforcing a real names policy: Google Plus provoked a backlash for employing a similar policy shortly after in launched in late June 2011, a response dubbed “Nym Wars” as in “pseudonym,” for the desire of some users to use pseudonyms. Google Plus has since backed away from this policy as well.

The final sentence suggests Google no longer enforces a real names policy. Interestingly, the first embedded link doesn’t suggest this at all. The second link discusses the eventual move by Google to finally allow pseudonyms in addition to real names within its service. Allowing the inclusion of pseudonyms does not mean it is no longer enforcing a real names policy. (I wrote about this back in January.) I think it’s dangerous to paint Google as leading the way in social media privacy; that’s not what they have achieved here.

The second issue that isn’t really being raised is that of how this may affect engagement with these systems. TPM quotes a Facebook representative as stating “This isn’t so we can go and get that person in trouble […] None of our surveys are used for any enforcement action.” The story as discussed by this and other posts appears to centre around whether or not Facebook is sincere when making such statements, but I feel this is largely irrelevant. The simple suggestion of potential enforcement can change user practices much more than any actual enforcement system – which Google and Facebook both know is extremely difficult and all too easily results in a PR nightmare.

Say you use a pseudonym on Facebook and you get one of these notices asking you to confirm whether one of your friends are using a ‘real name’ (whatever that is). Regardless of what you do next, you’re going to be a little less comfortable risking pseudonymous engagement yourself now you are aware of the possibility friends of yours could just as easily receive a similar message about your account. And if you’re not yet on Facebook and regularly read these sorts of alarmist articles, you’re going to feel even less confident signing up with a ‘fake name’.

Facebook enforces their ‘real names policy’ in a rather intelligent way. They don’t do heavy-handed bans like Google did last year; rather, they regularly publicise their stance on real names (in their official documentation, by allowing interviews with Zuckerberg, etc) to suggest an environment where there is a risk of account deactivation. All they need to do is occasionally ban accounts when they receive a complaint from an enemy (an individual, a company, a government) of that account (this is believed to be what happened to blogger Michael Anti last year), and let the low-level news coverage do the work for them.

No one wants their account to be deactivated. Even if Facebook keeps to their word and does not act on data gathered by these name surveys, which I suspect might be the case, actions and stories like these serve to scare users into compliance.

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