On Pseudonymity, Privacy and Responsibility on Google+

[This was originally posted on Google+ (https://plus.google.com/117903011098040166012/posts/asuDWWmaFcq) where it went viral for a while. It’s still my most popular post. Since then of course Google finally gave up on their “real names” policy. Turns out it didn’t actually improve the quality of discussion at all–and it hurt people. Facebook, OTOH, still deletes accounts using pseudonyms, and it continues to be a tool of attackers to shut down victims.]

Google has said that they plan to “address” the issue of pseudonymity in the near future. I hope that these thoughts and experiences may help inform that decision.

Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical, minority views . . . Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.
———— 1995 Supreme Court ruling in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission

This whole persona/pseudonym argument may seem like a tempest in a teapot, but the fact is, the forum for public discourse is no longer the town hall, or newspaper, or fliers on the street. It is here on the Internet, and it is happening in communities like this, hosted by private sector companies. Freedom of speech is not guaranteed in these places. As +Lawrence Lessig once said,“the code is the law.” The code that Google applies, the rules they set up now in the software, are going to influence our right to speak out now and in the future. It is imperative that we impress upon Google the importance of providing users with the same rights (and responsibilities) as exist in the society that nurtured Google and brought about its success.

I’m going to try to summarize the discussion as I’ve seen it over the past few weeks. Since this is a long post (tl;dr), here’s a description of what’s coming so if you want, you can skip to the section that you’re interested in.

First I’m going to address some red herrings; arguments that actually have no bearing on pseudonyms. I will explain why I think we should be having this discussion about a company’s product. I’ll explain, through painful personal disclosure, the experience of close friends, and other examples, why someone might want to use a pseudonym. Then I will address the arguments I have heard against pseudonyms (and some of them are quite valid), and what some alternatives might be.

I apologize for the length of this post, I know it could be trimmed.

What is Twitter For? The Message is the Medium.

The other evening I added a few new people to the list of folks I was following on Twitter. It was one of those typical social networking things; checking your “friends” to see who they were tracking, and then adding the ones that looked interesting.

The result, oddly enough, was a late night conversation on the pros and cons of Welfare. It felt very much like those late night conversations I used to have in college; when everyone was full of ideas and eager to explore them. It was really quite enjoyable. And it certainly created a bump in my Twitter usage.

People who don’t use Twitter often ask just what it’s for. Why would you want to broadcast what you’re doing to the world. That’s partially the fault of the Twitter folks themselves, for that “What are you doing?” prompt. A better prompt might be “What do you want to do?” (although perhaps a bit too reminiscent of Babylon V :-). Adam Engst once called Twitter “iChat on shuffle,” and it certainly can feel that way when you’re carrying on several conversations at once. But Twitter isn’t so much a piece of software that does something, as a medium through which software can do things. When the Telegraph and Phone were introduced, people certainly wondered why you’d want one, but people found interesting things to do with them, many of which had never been anticipated by their inventors. That’s Twitter.

What’s interesting to me is the relative pluses and minuses of having this type of discussion in Twitter. Andy Ihnatko recently pointed out the rather obvious (sorry Andy) fact that trying to express complete thoughts to their conclusion in 140 characters is rather difficult. You can of course just post a second message to finish the thought, but the delays in Twitter make it less natural to do so than it might be in a chat program. The performance of Twitter reinforces that 140 character limit, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, because keeping points brief and concise may have the effect of equalizing the conversation. Nobody can dominate with a long exposition on a particular topic. Ratholes on side topics tend to be limited to pointers to URLs, not long conversations. You can use Twitter to espouse and justify an idea, but not to explain it in detail. But that’s fine. We have other media that are better suited to that. That’s not to say Twitter is perfect, separating incoming messages into categories (a New York Times news blast in the middle of a conversation is a bit distracting) and threading conversations (particularly when you aren’t following all the participants) would be big pluses. But those are things that Twitter clients can do, they aren’t necessarily drawbacks of Twitter itself.

Twitter’s limitations might make it seem superficial and trivial. But that’s like saying chatting around the water cooler is superficial. It can be, but it can also be a catalyst for new ideas that are followed up elsewhere. Andy’s Twitter posting was the catalyst for my writing this blog posting. The discussion on Welfare was the catalyst for making new connections on other networks. Social interaction takes place on many different levels, all of which are necessary. What we are seeing online is people taking new tools and adapting them, consciously or unconsciously, to fit the interactions they feel they need in a virtual world. The companies that are succeeding in the social networking sphere are those that either identify those needs, or more likely, have the flexibility to be molded by their users. Flickr, FaceBook, Twitter… none of those companies are necessarily doing what they started out to do, but they were able to adapt to the way people used them. In Social Networking, you achieve success when you stop being an application and become a transparent part of people’s interactions.

But enough of that. I need to go fix the Welfare System!

P.S. I’ve suddenly become very self-conscious about the fact that I seem to be very fond of semi-colons.