Friday, September 30, 2011

Pseudonyms lead to uncivil forums?

I am late to realize, but apparently, Google Plus is requiring a real names only. They go so far as to shut down accounts that are using a name they are suspicious of, and they're doing a lot of collateral damage to people with legal names that happen to sound funny.

The battle for "real names" is one that I have a hard time understanding. Partially this is because it is impossible to indicate which names are "real". Is it ones on legal papers? On a credit card or bank account? Ones people call you all the time? Partially it is that I started using forums at an impressionable age. Online forums are filled with pseudonyms and they work just fine. Hobbit and Ghostcrawler are the real names of real people in my world. It's all so normal and good that I have a hard time understanding why someone would want to shut it down.

Let me take a try at it, though, because I think it's important that pseudonymity thrive on the Internet.

The most common defense I hear for a real-names policy is that it improves the quality of posts in a forum. That's the reason Blizzard used when they announced they would require real names only on their official forums. As far as I can understand, the idea is that a "real name" gives some sort of accountability that a pseudonym does not.

There is much to say on this, but often a simple counter-example is the strongest evidence. Here are the first four Warcraft guilds I could find, by searching around on Google, that have online forums viewable by the public.

Feel free to peruse them and see what a forum is like without real names. At a glance, I don't see a single real name. Everyone is posting using names like Brophy, Porcupinez, and Nytetia. As well, after skimming a few dozen posts, I didn't find a single one that is uncivil. In fact, the overall impression I get is one of friendliness. Camaraderie. Just plain fun.

The tone of these forums is not surprising if you think about the relationship the members of a guild have with each other. This is just the sort of thing you see over and over again if you participate in Internet forums. It is just the kind of thing that will be shut down under a real names policy.

1 comment:

Ray said...

I think it depends on the audience. Subject-specific forums tend to be less noise driven. Even forums where people tend to get overheated in arguments (programming languages, games, hardware), the signal is still at a tolerable level.

On the other hand, a site with no actual focus, frequented by the general public, tends to produce hit-and-run nasty hater posts. (e.g. YouTube)

It is hard to develop a community around a single YouTube video that would bring social forces to bear. There's no tit-for-tat, no downside to being a douchebag in the comments because the poster is likely to never return.

I'm not sure how this plays out on Google+ where being a douchebag in one thread can stick with you.

I think pseudonymity is fine, but there probably has to be some minimum cost to creating new pseudonyms, otherwise spammers and other idiots can avoid any bad behavior on their record just by creating new nyms everytime.

And this would tend to make anyone suspicious of a new nym with no history, which would make the initial adoption process of new users very unfriendly as no one would want to talk to them.