Are you a Facebook snitch?

Facebook tests prompt asking you to snitch on your friends who aren’t using their real name

This article has slowly been making the rounds, complete with a validating screenshot. The premise: you are surfing around on Facebook, and suddenly the site prompts you with a window displaying a picture of your friend and asking “Is this their real name?” You’re presented with several options, including the “I don’t want to answer” opt-out. Which do you choose?

To illustrate one of the reasons I dislike this entire practice, I will share a story from my past. Years ago when I was helping organize raves, one of the key lessons I learned was that if or when the police come to ask what’s going on, there are a few words you never mention, including “permit.” When you mention a specific word or phrase, it can trigger reactions and disrupt a set of assumptions someone might have been making. With the rave example, the natural response to “And of course we have our permits” might be “Why wouldn’t you have permits?” whereas before you mentioned that word, the police weren’t even thinking about that. In a sense, you have just taken two concepts which might not have been linked (“the rave” and “permits”) and created a relationship.

Jumping back to the Facebook example, I believe that when random Facebook users see a construct like this over and over again, not only does it create a relationship between “real names” (I call them “legal names”) and your ability to maintain a presence on their system, but it also sets up a dangerous Prisoner’s Dilemma like dynamic. As a Facebook user, not only are you forcefully introduced to the idea of a “real name” (as well as the obvious fact that everyone has a first and last name), then convinced this concept is totally valid, but you are also asked to join the forces of good in helping police people who are not “with it.” While this construct remains opt-in for now, it makes me start to wonder two things: will there be an eventual cost for people who refuse to play the game, and what is the likelihood that a friend will “rat you out” regardless of whether your name is, to them, “real” or not?

Given that there has been at least one study showing that forcibly linking someone’s online profile on a website to the name approved to them by their government has little to no impact on the “quality” of data produced, it should make people begin to wonder not only who Facebook’s customers (not users) are and why they might be insisting on standards like these, but what lengths Facebook is willing to go to to ensure they meet their standards.

A rumination on identity

This post is more a collection of recent ruminations than anything else, but I feel they are worth sharing. For the last year and change, I have been studying two primary concepts: where we get our notion of identity from, and how trust plays into this.

As many of you know, I was suspended from my Google+ account in July 2011 for violating their “real names” policy. The challenge was, Google didn’t seem to really know what a “real” name was, nor how to differentiate it from their other internal phrasing, “common” name. After leading a rather public fight insisting that “aestetix” is indeed a common name, they reinstated my account, then suspended it again two weeks later. This left me with two questions I am still trying to answer:

  1. Why did getting suspended from Google over this policy upset me so much?
  2. Where do people get the notion of what a “real” name is?
    There is actually a third question that is much less obvious, but a personal realization I’ve had after running into these battles:
  3. Why aren’t we allowed to use multiple names on most computing systems?

The first question is personal, and one I feel is very valuable. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of people whom I have met that were using “handles” gradually drop the use of their handles, often connected with other events: graduation, getting a job, and other integrations with the “real” world. I sense there is a lot of social pressure on people to avoid things they are told are “immature” or “gimmicky.” And in all fairness, I agree that if you’re doing something immature or gimmicky, perhaps you might change, although I’d suggest first asking *why* you consider it so. I think there is a fine line between shallow imitation of an art and practicing of it, and when someone is exploring new ideas, I feel it is important to encourage them. I covered this somewhat in my HOPE9 talk when I introduced my linking of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” to eventual maturation of a hacker handle. In the same way that we don different behaviors and skillsets based on clothes we wear, titles we hold, I think operating under various names has a similar continence.

The second question is much more broad, and one I think everyone might try asking themselves. When I see or hear a word, how do I know it is a name? And following that, how do I know it is “real” or “fake”? Eva Galperin of the EFF used the phrase “name-shaped names,” which I really like. It seems that we all have a sort of internal lexicon of vocabulary, and each new phrase or word we hear gets compared to what we already know. Where that lexicon comes from is extremely fascinating to me. Is it a sense of familiarity? If I grow up with a friend named “Bob” I will probably consider “Bob” a normal name, but what if later on in life I meet someone who has a name I’ve never heard before, or it’s pronounced in a funny way? Why does it seem funny to me? What should my reaction be?

The other element that is fascinating is why we seem at times to be incapable of recognizing or at risk of developing fears of names that are unfamiliar. If we have a set outlook on the way the world works, which includes knowing what seems “legitimate,” do we then ascribe something outside of that frame as “illegitimate”? Or when we’re uncertain, do we fall back onto an established procedure or policy, disdaining any notion of personal agency to the perceived authority of the matter? Why do we fear this so much? Is it simply a fear of the unknown, an arena unlabeled by our waking Conscious to fit within the identified or identifiable? Naturally, these are difficult questions.

My final thesis question is very applicable to computer systems, especially as sites like Facebook and Google push to make the world more global. What are the downsides of forcing people to use the names on an ID as the one displayed on your online profile? First, I would suggest that creating an implied link between an ID and an independent company is dangerous, leading users (not citizens) to the false belief that it is not only ok but required to hand over data to the companies. Second, it empowers the company with authority one normally gives to the government, but without the restraints provided in the Constitution. Third, it overly empowers the purpose and importance of the government issued ID to begin with. Are we then to assume that the name granted to you by a government is somehow more important and more “real” than the one you are known by? Fourth, it empowers a system which requires you to maintain trackability and relegation to the government in the first place. I have more reasons, but these hopefully start to demonstrate why I feel relying either on a website profile or a government ID reduces personal autonomy.