On confusing the use of real names with accountability



Or: Why I don’t trust Google and neither should you

Just in case you don’t know yet, Google has recently opened to the public a social networking tool called Google+. In terms of the social networking aspect itself, what I’ve read has been overwhelmingly positive… except that Google (who, ironically, did not apparently do any Googling to see what previous reactions to the kinds of policies they are trying to implement were) decided that they were going to create a “civil” community by forcing people to use “real” names. What Google, and a lot of other companies/people, need to learn is that using one’s “real” (presumed legal, in practice anything that looks “normal”) name does not automatically mean they will be held accountable for their actions and therefore act accordingly.

The thing is, as popular as Penny Arcade’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory is, it’s wrong. Anyone who knows the name Will Shetterly has firsthand knowledge about how people don’t need to be anonymous to believe that they are free from any consequences of their actions (see ABW’s Why The Argument That People Using “Real Names” Are Better Behaved Online Rings False for more information).

Not to mention that psuedonyms aren’t always readily distinguishable from “real” names. Amina Arraf and Paula Brooks (pseudonyms of two hetero men who created fake lesbian identities and deceived a bunch of people) could have had a Google+ account with any problems, but Skud gets hers suspended. Where’s the accountability?

Here’s the thing, while it’s easy to want to believe that “real” names are a magic wand that can fix your community’s problem, it’s simply not true. The only way to make sure your community is a civil, friendly, and safe place to be is to DO IT YOURSELF. Yes, that means devoting time, people, and money to moderate the space. I know, in our capitalist society most companies see that as a “waste” of resources, but is it really more profitable to shut out a sizable portion of your potential consumer base because of an unsupported belief that “real” names equal accountability? And, if so, do you really want to present your company as an entity that privileges profits over the safety of its (potential) customers?

In an online space the name I am most accountable to is tekanji. If I were to use Google+, this would be the name I would want to be known as. Maybe I would put my “real” name (or, at least, the one I go by online in English speaking environments; the truth is that I have multiple “real” names and this is not at all uncommon). Maybe I wouldn’t. But Google+, as the community standards are being enforced right now (which is not what is stated in the User Content and Conduct Policy, which states: “…use the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you.” Yet another reason not to trust Google: they neither know how to write clear codes of conduct nor know how to enforce them properly.) I would not be able to go by my most common and accountable online name.

This does not make me feel that the service/company would hold me, or anyone else, accountable for our actions. Indeed, unless the policies are seriously revised and a push is done to uphold them properly, I foresee Google+ being YouTube with “real” names. Google could not have done anything to make Google+ feel MORE unsafe to me than to enforce a “real” name policy, especially when such a policy is NOT required by their User Content & Conduct Policy.

There is a deeper problem exposed here that, one that I have been a part of in the past. I am an INTP. I’m a technocrat. I believe in systems and systems engineering. And as such, I look for ways to accomplish things automagically, with no manual effort. I prefer to live in the realm of ideas, and I don’t like touching the physical world. That’s why I’m in software and not hardware.

There are many people like me. We tend to be philosophers, mathematicians, linguists, or computer scientists. We also tend to be libertarians for whom society is something to be engineered. The left-brained rational atheist is a common trope because it exists. And living where I do, in the Boston, MA, USA area, surrounded by Harvard and MIT, it’s extremely common here.

A lot of us work at places like Google. I would venture to guess that computer science and software engineering is dominated by people like us.

The problem is that these libertarian principles don’t survive first contact with the real world. For example, there is faith in the invisible hand of the free market. But the operating parameters of free market competition are so narrow as to be nonexistent. There’s also a faith in engineering the perfect constitution. But no constitution is useful without enforcement, and it’s human beings that do the enforcement.

And there is faith in transparency. Transparency does work, but not to fight oppression. It works to enforce normativity, good or bad. If you’re surrounded by racists, and you say racist things with your name attached, there will be positive consequences for your actions. If you’re queer and you live somewhere oppressively anti-queer, then there will be negative consequences.

So when we take this issue to Google, we have to explain in terms an INTP would understand. Explain that transparency does work, but not to mitigate anti-social behavior or harassment. Transparency only enforces normativity, and if the dominant micro-culture that a particular person lives in is one of bullying, then you will still get online bullying. In fact, that behavior will be rewarded by that person’s peers.

Long before online communities and identities were a thing, when I was a wee babe in the woods, I actually believed that transparency and loss of anonymity would fix everything. (I was so proud I came up with this on my own!) After all, everyone has skeletons, and if we could only see each other’s skeletons, then we would all hug, because we would all be allergic to hypocrisy. What naive bullshit. Not all skeletons are created equal, nor is all hypocrisy. That’s what Google needs to understand.

Reblogged for commentary, and also to show y’all why amaevis is one of my favorite Tumblr people. :)

(via amaevis-deactivated20140216)