Or: A Personal Reflection on the Past, Present, and Future of Names on the Internet
I got my first email address in 1991. I was a freshman at UC Santa Cruz and a friend took me to a basement office where you had to fill out a paper form to get your ucsc.edu email account. In the box labeled “User-name” I started to write “Derek.” My friend stopped me. “Nobody uses their real name.” He said it like he was talking to a child.
So that’s how I became email@example.com. (Yes, I used to listen to a lot of Pink Floyd. I was in college!) I was “Floyd” on every email system I used for the next decade. Outside of some early flirtations with identity deception, I never pretended I wasn’t Derek in those places. Having “floyd” as my username was just, as Grandpa Simpson says, the style at the time.
When I launched fray.com in 1996, hacker culture was still going strong and the masses were not yet online. Back then, it was normal to have a pseudonym or “handle” that you went by. Most communication online was hidden behind handles, which it reinforced the idea that the internet was not “real” in the same way real life was. People treated everything online like a game. It was “cyberspace,” not reality.
Fray was about true stories from real life, so it made sense to use real names. I required that our authors use their real names. (We made only one or two exceptions when it was necessary.) It changed what they wrote. They stopped pretending to be something they weren’t. They became real.
(We were so naive back then, we even showed our actual email addresses on comment pages. Email addresses right there on the page for all to crawl! Those were innocent times.)
At some point I started to use “Fraying” for most of my accounts, mostly because I listened to less Pink Floyd and “Fray” was usually taken. I still use “Fraying” for most usernames, but nobody really calls me that. Every time I consider using “Derek” or “Powazek” for account names, I still see that look on my friend’s face 20 years ago.
The idea that the internet is a place that’s separate from reality has faded. People generally have online identities that map to who they really are. Outside of a few legitimate edge cases and the occasional sci-fi fantasy, who we are online is simply who we are.
Facebook has done more to influence this than any other site, and I’m glad for it. When someone in the mainstream media quotes a tweet from “SexxxyDude3030” it only reinforces the idea that people online are idiots you only talk to when you’re covering the latest dumb trend story.
Recently Google launched a Facebook competitor called Google+ (a name I hate writing so much, I’m going to just call it “Plus”). And they made two interesting decisions on names.
First, there are no usernames, no handles. Who you are is simply who you are. I think that’s a bold move, and I’m interested to see how it plays out. Facebook also started this way, but later had to introduce usernames to allow people to create unique URLs (like mine, facebook.com/fraying). Without unique usernames, Google Plus has had to use nonsensical strings of characters (like mine, plus.google.com/100817955763300677682). Clearly the named URLs are better, but it also introduces a land-grab mentality, and when you start a service that plans to host millions of people, having all the good names taken is a real concern.
Second, Google is asking people to use their real names. The official policy is to “use the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you” which is entirely reasonable. Unfortunately, the policy has been enforced in a manner that could charitably be called “error-prone.” When people have to start reverse engineering the rules, you know things have gone sideways.
In any new community system, it’s up to the founders to set the rules they think are best. It’s then up to us to decide whether to participate or not. And while I believe both of these decisions (no usernames, only real names) were made with good intentions and an honest desire to create a better community experience, the combination results in a few sticky wickets:
The member’s real name has to hold the entirety of their identity. So if someone only knows me as “fraying” I may be difficult to find, and I may not feel that my profile really represents me.
The real name you enter into your Plus profile isn’t just used for Plus – it’s used for all of Google’s services. Change your name to “Bob” in your Plus profile, and then send a mail from Gmail, and it will go out from Bob. This is very confusing for people who are used to maintaining different names in different places, and it places additional pressure on Plus.
If, for whatever reason, I am someone that cannot use my real name online, it means I cannot use Plus at all. If I do, I might accidentally reveal my name when I didn’t mean to. And if I use a fake name, I could get my account yanked.
It’s worth acknowledging that Google’s got a uniquely hard job here. Usually a community startup has a period of slow growth where they can work out their tools and policies. People forget that both Twitter and Facebook had years of obscurity to grow organically before they became household names. Anything Google does is immediately front page news. It’s impossible to get a community system right on your first try. People are just too unpredictable in groups.
Fortunately, I think there are some easy solutions for Google.
They could use the same privacy widget for real name that they use for almost every other piece of data on your profile. The widget allows you to set who sees what, and it’s the best of breed I’ve seen in any social network. (That they didn’t use it for real name shows how important they think that information is.) There’s a chance this could happen. The widget is already on the real name field, it’s just stuck on the global setting. At launch, Google Plus also had the gender field stuck on global, and they changed it after getting a lot of negative feedback. Maybe they could use it here, for the last name at least.
They should allow the Plus profile to be independent of your greater Google account identity, at least for now. In a conversation with Tim O’Reilly today, Bradley Horowitz, VP Product for Google Plus, repeated that Plus is in “limited field trial” and asked for patience, which is absolutely fair. But if the service is limited, then the information I enter there should also be limited. Take the pressure off Plus by letting their profiles be separate from the rest of my established Google identities.
For the love of all that is good and holy, hire a community manager and empower them to speak frankly to the community and to the company about what’s going on. Community management is a specialized skill, different from product management and engineering. Your members are freaked out, and when they’re freaked out, they can believe any craziness they read. It needs to be someone’s job to say, in a soft pleasing tone of voice, “No, Google is not breaking into your house to scan your passport.” The communication with the larger community has been atrocious, which is unforgivable when you’re building a communication platform.
I’m sure there are people at Google who have thought of all these things already. It’s always easier to sit outside a giant community system and say “this is how it should be” without knowing the specifics. Community management is the process of making decisions with good intentions and then cleaning up after the explosion. Google has smart people who have thought deeply about this, and they’ve shown a willingness (albeit a quiet one) to make changes. I hope they continue to.
I think we’re witnessing a fascinating shift in online culture. The era of hacker handles is over. We’ve grown out of it the same way I grew out of Pink Floyd. (Even though I still listen to Animals occasionally. It’s the sheep.) The internet is not a second life anymore, it’s your first one. You don’t slip into a pseudonym when you use the phone, why should you be someone else online? Hacker handles were training wheels, and they’re off the bike now whether you like it or not.
This doesn’t mean that there will be no anonymous or pseudonymous conversation on the internet. There will always be a need for anonymous speech, just as there’ll always be a need to pay in cash. It’s just not up to giant multinational corporations to provide that for us, nor should we trust them to do so.
There’s no denying that this has huge implications for how we live our lives, the data trails we leave, and the privacy systems we’ll need in the future. But that future is coming no matter what rules Google decides to implement for Plus. I’d like to see us spend more of our collective energy building that future, and less beating up on Google for their mistakes.
It’s important to remember that, as big and powerful as Google is, the internet is bigger and more powerful. It’s still a big web out there, and every community that feels unwelcome in Plus is a potential audience for someone else’s startup. Don’t like the rules of their playground? Go build your own. The web still gives everyone the opportunity to build something great, using whatever name they want, whenever they want. No one is stopping you.
If you have an hour to kill, watch the video conversation between Tim O’Reilly and Bradley Horowitz about Google Plus I mentioned earlier. There are some great ideas in it, especially in the latter half.
Jillian C. York from the EFF makes a convincing case for pseudonyms which I mostly agree with. Pseudonymous speech is important and there’s lots of it on the internet. Whether Google and Facebook implement it is up to them.
A thought I wasn’t able to work in above: The de facto standard for most current online community systems is that there’s a first name field and a last name field and members can put whatever they want in them, and they only get reviewed if someone complains. It seems to me that this can and should be done better. At least Google is trying something here. Even if it fails, it’s still an interesting experiment and I appreciate that.
Because someone’s sure to ask: Comments are currently disabled on powazek.com. Here’s why. I encourage you to post your thoughts on your own site. Don’t have one? Get one. That’s kind of the point.
UPDATE: A fellow alum tweeted me to point out that UCSC no longer allows students to choose their own email usernames. Now they’re just assigned one that’s their first initial, middle initial, and last name. Another nail in the hacker handle coffin.
Derek Powazek has been designing and building community systems online since 1995. He is the author of Design for Community: The Art of Connecting Real People in Virtual Places. The views expressed here do not reflect his company, Fertile Medium, or its clients. Just his. And he’s not entire sure about them, either.
The news that Google may be retiring the Blogger identity prompted me to go through my archives to find the original Blogger designs I did for Pyra in 1999. This is all I could find. It’s like looking through a window into an alternate universe.
Because I’m a media dork, I’ve listened to NPR’s On The Media since its debut. It’s the first podcast I listen to when it’s new. I became a paying member of WNYC to support it. The show’s cohosts, Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone, are two of my media heroes.
But I’ve noticed over the years a vibe on the show, especially from Bob. Whenever the subject turned to the net, the tone became dismissive at best, outright hostile at worst. I’ve observed this problem in many journalists who got their start before the rise of the web, and struggle with the idea that the audience can talk back. Most of them came around eventually. And Bob has, too, a bit. He went from mocking Twitter to posting to his own Twitter account, albeit infrequently. Still, I cringe when I hear the words “Brooke Gladstone is away this week” at the top of the show, because it means no one’s going to counter Bob’s anti-internet tone.
This week’s show was no better or worse than the last few, but the combination of lamenting the speed modern news travels, the continuing refusal to understand that a tweet is not a news story, the mocking of the internet archeologists, the “see, I told you!” subtext of the interview with Brewster Kahle, and then the complete flashback of covering Second Life four years after it became a punchline for no other reason than to gawk at the people who spend all their time there … well, I lost it.
I tweeted this.
It was a joke. Like all jokes, it contained a bit of truth and a bit of exaggeration. I thought the exasperation of “Bad! Terribly bad!” made that obvious.
So imagine my surprise when Bob Garfield responded with, essentially, “nu-unh.”
I tried to clarify my point – an impossible task in tweet-length.
And then I did what anyone would do when they get caught criticizing someone they respect – I backpedaled. I thought if anyone would understand someone criticizing because they care, it’d be a critic.
At this point, I still thought I might be able to engage with him in a real discussion. Does he hate the internet? Maybe he’d be interested to hear that he was coming off that way from someone who’s been listening intently for a decade. Sadly, no.
So, let’s review.
My “feelings” deserve quotes. Are they not my real feelings? Perhaps Bob knows me better than I know myself.
I’m “demonstrably wrong.” Bob always uses the word “demonstrably” when he’s criticized, as if there’s only one way to interpret his body of work.
I’m “annoying to put up with.” Dude, my wife has to put up with me – you do not. You know how to block people on Twitter, right?
And then there’s this: “for crying out loud, use your head, not just your mouth.” Assuming that someone is not thinking because you disagree with them is arrogant in the extreme, but it is a great way to avoid considering their point.
After that, I followed Bob on Twitter, but regretted it when he direct messaged me something that I won’t screenshot out of respect for the assumed privacy of a DM. Let’s just say it wasn’t a peace offering.
This is a case study in what happens when traditional journalists come face to face with the the immediacy of the current media landscape and just can’t handle it. It’s especially ironic because, in the most recent OTM, traditional journalism’s inability to handle Twitter was discussed for ten minutes!
This is also a great example of how to turn a fan into an enemy in under 140 characters. I’m not going to go all Joker to Bob’s Batman because of a single insulting tweet, but I probably wouldn’t have started this site if he’d responded in any sort of reasonable way.
I tell our clients this all the time: there is something worse than getting criticized online – total silence. People criticize when they care, and that’s good. Every criticism is an opportunity to turn a critic into a lifelong believer by simply responding with respect and showing that you’re listening.
You’d think that someone who once penned a manifesto called “Listenomics” would take the time to, yaknow, listen. But Bob has made his hatred of online comments quite clear. So to him, I’m not a loyal listener, or a valued member, or even a published author with a long history of running newspapers, magazines, and websites. I’m just another online troll, spewing vitriol because that’s what people do online.
That he didn’t take the time to see who he’s talking to, hear what I was saying, or even calm down enough to disagree without insult, makes me sad. Not just to lose a personal hero, but also because it shows how much work we all have yet to do before we can really fulfill the promise of the great networked world we’re building.
Still, I should thank Bob for giving me the inspiration to start a new project. I’m also going to use his words in the future, when a client asks for advice on how to handle criticism online: “use your head, not just your mouth.”
I’m thinking about starting a podcast or something called “On The Network” to counter all the idiocy I hear in traditional media about the internet. If I did, here’s the beta version of the 10 principles that would guide it.
The internet is neutral. It is neither good nor bad. People have motivations, the internet does not.
We change the internet more than it changes us. Human motivations may change, but they change very slowly.
People are messy. The technology we invent is messy, too. Deal with it.
The internet is not in opposition to traditional media, it’s just more media. All media works better when it works together.
All reality is virtual. Thought is and has always been virtual. The internet enables us to think together.
Technology is not the opposite of humanity. Inventing and using technology is one of the defining characteristics of being human.
The internet can be used for good or bad, but it is a net positive force in the world, because it connects us to each other.
More information is better than less. Freedom to connect to others is a fundamental human right.
Access to the internet broadens horizons. Hearing other people’s stories makes us more empathetic, smarter.
People make the internet what it is. If you don’t like it, make it better.
When I was a kid and learned about the political assassinations in the ’60s, I was shocked. I asked my dad, “How could this happen?” He said, “It was a different time.” I interpreted that to mean everyone was crazy back then. However terrible American politics were, at least we weren’t assassinating politicians anymore. I was slightly proud of that.
Today I added that pride to the pile of other childish things I’ve had to let go of. Today our broken, ineffective, poisonous, acrimonious political system became a broken, ineffective, poisonous, acrimonious, murderous political system when Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head during a meeting with the public. Twelve people were wounded or killed, including an Arizona federal court judge, John Roll, and a nine year-old girl.
The suspected shooter is named Jared Lee Loughner and all we know about him so far is that he may have posted some weird You Tube videos. But we do know a few things for certain:
We know that the murder weapon was a 9mm Glock 19 handgun with a 30-round magazine.
We know that, even if Giffords survives the attack, her political career is over.
We know that, as of this writing, six people were murdered today.
We know that Giffords’ name appeared on an image distributed by Sarah Palin, along with a gunsight’s crosshairs over Arizona and the text “It’s time to take a stand.”
Those are the things we know. Here are some things I’d be willing to bet will happen in the next few days and weeks:
Arizona politicians and political pundits will find a way to blame this on immigration and violence from Mexico, even though the suspect is a twenty-something white kid.
The NRA and pro-gun advocates will find a way to imply that all of this could have been avoided if we’d just had less gun regulation, even though it was an atrocity committed with one of their weapons.
Sarah Palin and her supporters will find a way to blame this on Obama instead of taking responsibility for their “don’t retreat, reload” rhetoric.
What happened today won’t change a damn thing, even though it should. In two weeks, it will be completely gone from the mainstream media discourse.
But today is a bad day for all of that. Today is a bad day for political arguments that just go in circles forever. Today should just be a day for grief and shame.
I am ashamed. I’m ashamed it came to this. I’m ashamed to be an American today. I’m ashamed that we all spent so much time pointing and laughing as Palin and her ilk spread like cancer in the body politic. I’m ashamed that it takes something this awful to wake us up, if we wake up at all.
And grieve for what we’ve lost as a country. I grieve because our elected government worked so hard to give us a landmark healthcare program, and we’re all too selfish and stupid to accept it. Instead of working together to continue to improve the lives of the American people, newly-elected Republicans have made it their mandate to undo the last two years of progress. And now their hateful “take back our country” rhetoric has resulted in a politician getting shot in the head.
Someday, when your kid asks you why they can’t get healthcare when they’re sick, why no one did anything when Palin and her pals dismantled America, and how it could have gotten so bad so fast, I hope you can come up with a better answer than “It was a different time.”
Because I can’t.
Here’s Giffords talking about being a target on Palin’s crosshairs ad back in March: “When people do that, they’ve gotta realize that there’s consequences.”
One of the side effects of being in the business I’m in is that I hear certain phrases a lot. I’ve learned to let go of the terminology and focus on the meaning, but every once in a while a term’s actual meaning belies a fundamental misunderstanding that deserves to be examined. So let’s talk about the term “social media” for a moment.
When people say “social media,” they usually mean things experienced on computers, specifically blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc. This stands in contrast to all the other media that is presumably not social, like TV, radio, and print. But here’s the thing: all media is social. The new stuff just moves faster.
Let’s put aside the fact that media is, in actuality, lifeless and cannot be truly social. Humans are social, the stuff we make is a byproduct of that activity.
I ran a newspaper in the early 90s, and everything about it was social. The articles came out of meetings between real people, reported by people in social situations. When the paper was published, it was consumed by people in the community, and their responses were impossible to miss. When we pissed people off, we knew it. This was before mainstream email adoption, so we got actual letters, postcards, and phone calls.
Often that feedback made it into the next issue, which, in turn, created another round of feedback. It was a kind of slow-moving conversation, and it was entirely social.
This is true of all media. Radio has call-in shows, TV has audience feedback mechanisms (reviews, Nielsen’s). These older forms of media aren’t simply consumed and then forgotten – they are digested, discussed, and used to create the next generation of media. It’s social, it’s just slow.
Fast-forward to now. The very same process happens on blogs, Twitter streams, and Facebook walls. The only difference is time. The newspaper conversation happened in sets of biweekly bursts of activity. Now it happens in an intense real-time never-ending stream of updates, replies, and mentions.
I’m not saying this is good or bad, because it doesn’t matter. It’s simply happening. But I’m entirely sure that there’s no going back. I agree with Douglas Coupland, who recently said: “In the same way you can never go backward to a slower computer, you can never go backward to a lessened state of connectedness.”
All media is social because human beings are social. The only difference is that it happens much, much, much faster now. We’ve sped up the refresh rate in our mediated conversations so much that the previous version looks like it’s not moving at all.
If we’ve sped up the social experience around media this much in a decade or two, just imagine the amphetamine-fast hyper-social media the next decade will bring.
* The grammarian in me knows that it should be “All Media Are Social” but that just sounds too weird. “Media” has become singular in the same way “data” has.
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of performing at Muni Diaries Live, an evening of personal storytelling about the crazy things that happen on San Francisco’s Muni. As much as I loathe hearing my own voice, I really like the story, so here’s a video.