Countdown to the 2011 Name of the Year: Runner Up #2

Dec 12th 2011

Our first runner-up for Name of the Year was a fashion phenom. Our second is a phenomenon of a very different sort:

Mark Zuckerberg.

No, not Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg the name. The name that got Mark Zuckerberg, a bankruptcy attorney from Indianapolis, kicked off of Facebook.

This name stands as a symbol of the year's biggest ongoing name story, the growing tension between online and "real world" identities. Some 2011 highlights:

May: Indiana Attorney Mark Zuckerberg finds his Facebook account has been shut down. He's done nothing wrong, he's using his real identity and photo, but his name alone made him persona non grata in the social network. He already jumped through special hoops just to open the account, providing Facebook with legal documentation proving his name. But it seems that in the world of Facebook and Mark Zuckerbergs, There Can Be Only One.

May & August: Politicians get caught behaving badly, under the presumed protection of anonymous Twitter handles. In May, Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner, flipping between Twitter accounts, slips up and posts a revealing photo under his real name. In August, a top Republican political consultant working for the Senatorial campaign of Scott Brown is found to be behind an anonymous Twitter account dedicated to whipping up nasty personal sentiment against Brown's Democratic rival.

July: Facebook marketing director Randi Zuckerberg (sister of Mark) says "anonymity on the Internet has to go away."

July: New social media entrant Google+ attempts to police its "real names" policy by freezing the accounts of many users whom its review flags as pseudonymous. These include people using well-established nicknames and professional handles. Users revolt, and the ensuing controversy and debate over online pseudonyms is dubbed the "nymwars." Google apologizes and adjusts its policy.

August: A Vermont man is accused of using the wealth of personal information that a teenage girl posted on Facebook to stalk and threaten her in real life. This is one in a year-long series of cases where sexual predators took advantage of users' trust in the privacy and veracity of Facebook's "real names" environment to target young victims.

August: A former staffer for Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign claims that Gingrich's huge Twitter following is fake, comprised mostly of dummy users bought through specialized PR agencies. An outside review confirms that 92% of the followers appear to be fakes. Subsequent reviews of other politicians' followings show that many of them have similarly taken advantage of the ease of creating Twitter accounts to create a false impression of popularity and influence.

October: A Google executive announces future plans to formally support pseudonyms in Google+.

November: Facebook suspends the account of world-famous novelist Salman Rushdie for the sin of going by his middle name Salman, as he has all his life. They subsequently reinstate the account under his "real" name Ahmed. In a moment of pure zeitgeist, Rushdie whips up a public furor over the forced Facebook renaming...on Twitter.

These identity issues break down into two broad types, abuse of aliases and control over real names. This reflects the two kinds of social media name environments. In "handle" systems, like Twitter (and the comments on this website), users may adopt any kind of name they like with no expectation of it matching their driver's license. In "real name" systems like Facebook and Google+, each account is expected to be an accurate online representation of a real person, real name included.

Media theorists and technologists have hotly debated the merits of the two approaches. Advocates on each side make persuasive arguments about safety, reliability, and community. For instance, real-name systems are a safeguard against bullying and oppression, because would-be attackers can't hide behind anonymous handles. And handle systems are a safeguard against bullying and oppression, because vulnerable individuals don't have to expose themselves to real-world repurcussions in order to share their experiences or connect with others in similar situations.

It seems obvious to me that each approach has its place. You want real names for purposes like coordinating a high school reunion; you want handles for purposes like protesting against a dictatorship. Real names can establish trust; handles can establish a theme or purpose to your communications, or even serve as an art form. (It would be a shame if Twitter threatened to shut down @LochNess4Ever unless she could provide government I.D. proving she's the real Loch Ness Monster.)

The trick to real name social networks is the unique practical challenges they pose in implementation. For such a network to work, users have to be able to rely on other users' stated identities. That means the network has to establish standards of what counts as a real name, and some means of enforcing those standards. And make no mistake, no real "real name" network currently exists.

It takes only the most cursory search to reveal that Facebook is brimming over with fake identities. When I was researching my post on international translations of Bob the Builder, I kept running into hordes of Facebook accounts with names like "Puuha-Pete." But perhaps "fake" is too loaded a term for these identities. While some online pseudonyms represent scammers, many more are simply standard nicknames and alter egos. Most of us have multiple ways of presenting ourselves. My Twitter handle is @BabyNameWizard, which is not my legal name but is still an honest identifier. And as I discussed last week, fewer and fewer politicians run for office under their driver's licence names. They choose what they want to be called.

Handles can also protect privacy. Researcher danah boyd has reported that pseudonymous Facebook handles are routine for groups like black and Latino teenagers. She suggests that the notion of Facebook as a "real name" environment is a polite fiction by and for people in positions of power and privilege, who have the least to lose by expressing their views in public.

The power dynamic is what makes Mark Zuckerberg the perfect name emblem of this ongoing debate. As I wrote when the story first broke, Facebook grants unique privileges and protection to names of certain prominent people. (Certain prominent people, but not others, in a seemingly capricious distinction.) That means that according to the policies of the uber-powerful network, its founder literally has more rights to his own name than any other Mark Zuckerberg has.

What's more, any definition of real name comes down to telling people what they may and may not be named. How can anybody tell Salman Rushdie that he isn't allowed to be Salman Rushdie? Your right to your own name is a deep and powerful right. In the real world, the United Nations treats forced renaming as a human rights abuse. As more and more of life is lived online, the nymwars increasingly become a debate over the nature of our own identities.

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