Following on the heels of Monday’s post about suicide prevention as it intersects with anonymous social media, I thought it might be helpful to have an overview of some anonymous social media apps, and the current state of the conversation around their risks and benefits. One of the reasons this seems to keep coming up is the NYMWARS (or, as Danah Boyd puts it, The politics of “real names”). While this issue arose originally in 2011, it never seems to really go away. Today’s Twitter feed for the hashtag #nymwars gives evidence of this.
There is a lot more where that came from. Danah described the issue as being one of power and control.
“When people are expected to lead with their names, their power to control a social situation is undermined. Power shifts. The observer, armed with a search engine and identifiable information, has greater control over the social situation than the person presenting information about themselves. The loss of control is precisely why such situations feel so public. Yet, ironically, the sites that promise privacy and control are often those that demand users to reveal their names.” Comm ACM 2012 55(8):29-31.
There are many who believe that requiring transparency (as in ‘real name’, as in the name on your birth certificate) of all users helps to protect the community from bullying and rudeness and other uncivil behavior. This is debatable, and there is supporting evidence on both sides of the debate. At the same time, forced transparency endangers others in the community (anyone at risk or in a marginalized population) at the same time it undermines identifying anyone who uses a pseudonym as their primary identity.
Facebook is enforcing its “real names” policy, insidiously outing a disproportionate number of gay, trans and adult performers — placing them at risk for attacks, stalking, privacy violations and more. Facebook is strong-arming LGBT and adult performers to use their legal names, telling these at-risk populations that it is to “keep our community safe.” Facebook nymwars: Disproportionately outing LGBT performers, users furious
While there is an acknowledged emphasis in the current fuss over Facebook names on excluding LGBT persons, the problem is much broader, and also effects many people with unusual real names. Chase Nahooikaikakeolamauloaokalani Silva is one recent example, but it is so common that Facebook has a section of their help site devoted to these incidents.
Facebook says my name is fake. It is real. https://www.facebook.com/help/community/question/?id=10151790248568209
Unfortunately, when this happens to people, Facebook will only consider correcting the problem when supplied with a copy of a legal government ID, such as a passport, drivers license, or birth certificate. Sometimes, those aren’t good enough, which REALLY annoys people. If it was me, I would not be happy or feel safe supplying a copy of my government ID to Facebook or via electronic means. That entire approach is not only an invasion of privacy, but a strategy that would seem to place the victim at risk of identity theft. It just makes me really nervous. When this arose back in 2011, the Electronic Frontier Foundation distilled the concept of NYMWARS as an important trend for that year.
EFF immediately advocated for the right of users to choose their own names on social networking sites, whether they’re women or minorities concerned about their privacy, activists in authoritarian regimes who want to speak out without the threat of government harassment, or users with persistent nicknames or pseudonyms they’d used online for years…. EFF had been loudly opposed to Facebook’s “real names” policy for years, pointing out that community policing of real names silences some of the people who need this protection the most—people with unpopular opinions—because opponents can easily have their accounts suspended by reporting them as pseudonymous. 2011 in Review: Nymwars.
My favorite piece, and the best short distillation I’ve seen was posted to Facebook a little over a week ago by one of my favorite people in healthcare social media, @DrSnit. It is substantially excerpted here with permission.
Requiring a “legal name” is problematic for the following: 1) counselors and therapists avoiding a stalking client 2) physicians avoiding patients seeking medical advice 3) Attorneys dealing with angry criminals with a vendetta 4) women (like me) dealing with abusive partners & leaving abusive relationships. Those people who are being stalked or have been stalked WHO DO NOT WISH TO BE FOUND BY THEIR EX’S OR EX’S FAMILY & FRIENDS 5) Gender queer people, butch lesbians, and trans people who use different names than the names they were given at birth. 6) Stage performers, writers, artists who use different names for their art and their family / friends 7) People who use their middle names or nick names from birth or derivatives from birth. (This is off the top of my head – not exhaustive list).
Legal names are good for: stalkers, abusers, ADVERTISERS
FB claims it is to keep stalkers and abusers from taking fake names to harm people – but stalkers are REALLY GOOD at what they do and use nefarious methods to deal their damage. FB isn’t protecting anyone. They are harming people who CHOOSE to use different names because because it messes with their advertising analytics. Don’t let them. You don’t NEED FB bad enough to be harmed by their policy. If anyone you know has been hurt or stalked – let FB know and if they don’t change their policy – use other social media that is more women and safety friendly.
Let me repeat the most important line.
Legal names are good for: stalkers, abusers, ADVERTISERS
So, with that as context, perhaps the explosion of anonymous social networks may be, at least in part, a reaction to the forced transparency of other social networks. I have friends who have always used a “fake” name on Facebook. It is their real identity, and it sounds and looks like a normal name, and Facebook has never given them any trouble about it. I also know of those who are using their legal name, and getting hassled about it. The upshot is that anonymous networks are a justifiable response, but they carry their own risks, and their own benefits. Let’s take a quick look at some of these.
There are a lot of nasty words tossed around about the bad side of anonymous online services. The big ones seem to be that (1) they are not really anonymous; (2) people are mean (bullying & more); (3) you can be victimized in many different ways. Here are some of the types of words used in articles that describe the risks of anonymous social media and social networks.
BENEFITS / OPPORTUNITIES
Safe spaces for persons who need anonymity to be safe or to be treated equitably, such as
– Battered wives,
– Persons who are part of a marginalized or abused community,
– Political minorities,
– Political dissidents,
– Crime witnesses.
Suicide prevention & outreach.
Therapeutic benefits of engaging for those with social anxiety.
Reaching out to those who suffer from shame.
Free speech on unpopular issues without fear of reprisal
Domestic violence support groups or outreach
Advice channels / threads / tags
Therapeutic channels / threads / tags
BEST PRACTICES FOR ENGAGING (MAYBE)
Don’t ask / Don’t tell (personal information).
Don’t identify yourself.
Don’t use your name.
Don’t use a known pseudonym.
Don’t use a friend’s name.
Don’t ask others to identify themselves.
Don’t describe your location, appearance, or other identifiable characteristics.
Don’t give your email address, street address, phone number, or other direct contact information.
Ask others you trust if they’ve had good or bad experiences there.
Post harmless stuff while testing.
TEST IT OUT!!
(1995) Rigby, Karina. Anonymity on the Internet Must be Protected. http://groups.csail.mit.edu/mac/classes/6.805/student-papers/fall95-papers/rigby-anonymity.html
(2002) Dvorjak, John C. Pros and cons of anonymity. http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,801688,00.asp
(2011) Bayley, Alex Skud. Preliminary results of my survey of suspended Google+ accounts. http://infotrope.net/2011/07/25/preliminary-results-of-my-survey-of-suspended-google-accounts/
(2011) McElroy, Wendy. In Defense of Internet Anonymity. http://mises.org/daily/5541/
(2011-2014) Geek Feminism Wiki. Who is harmed by a “Real Names” policy? http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Who_is_harmed_by_a_”Real_Names”_policy
(2013) Santana, Arthur D. Virtuous or Vitriolic: The effect of anonymity on civility in online newspaper reader comment boards. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17512786.2013.813194