Fred Wilson wrote a blog post yesterday called “Real Names” in which he talked about a commenter on his blog who preferred not to comment because he didn’t want to use his real name. It’s all told through a graphic & very short so worth your having a quick read. It’s a powerful concept.
The idea of not using one’s real name is something I’ve had to come to understand better through other people providing context. It first hit me over the head when I wrote a post that inflamed many people. I wrote about Job Hoppers. I was too harsh and aggressive and the world came out and let me know.
What really forked me off was that some people wrote such nasty things about me as a person without knowing me and they did it all veiled behind fake names. They did the same over at HackerNews.
My immediate reaction was “Chicken shits! If you want to have a public debate then at least have the decency to do it using your real name! I’ve used mine.”
That was before I really understood.
I’m glad the whole incidence happened. Though the more honorable people who didn’t choose to use their real names they explained that they didn’t feel free to use their real names in public debates because they feared the reaction of their employers. I guess by 43 I’ve found myself in a situation where I worry about that a bit less and I trust myself to skate close to the line but not cross it (too often).
As I did a deeper dive reflection on the topic I started thinking I wanted: Anonymity + Authority. In other words, it’s fine to not use your real name but I wanted to know that you were an honorable person and not a troll. I was thinking it would be awesome to have systems that could help track this so more authoritative people who were anonymous could rise to the top.
All of this has become a lot more relevant lately given social networking.
Think about it. Friendster started and was the place you had to be yourself. MySpace flourished and left Friendster behind in part because they didn’t care about your identity. Some people jokingly referred to it in its early days as “Fakester” in contrast to Friendster. Turns out anonymity mattered.
Along came Facebook. They wanted to know who you were. You originally had to have a .edu email address to even join. They work hard to this day to try and filter out people they think are fake. Of course they can be duped.
And any even casual follower of the tech industry knows that Google Plus has been criticized for cracking down on anybody who wasn’t a “real person.”
Yet … Twitter doesn’t care. You can be whoever you want on Twitter. They’re fine with Fakesters.
So who’s right? Obviously neither are. It depends on the circumstances.
And my eyes really lit up today when I had a great chat over tea with Dmitry Shapiro, one of the better & more philosophical thinkers about technology that I know. He has founded a new social networking site called AnyBeat to take on this issue. I’ve played around with the beta version the past few days and am already impressed with their ability to ship technology. [no, I'm not an investor in the company]
What Dmitry told me is, “It’s not really about anonymity, it’s about pseudonymity.”
“Well, it’s not that you want to interact with ‘anonymous’ users, you actually want them to have an identity. It just turns out that often it’s better if that identity is not your real one. That way you can be yourself.”
“But I’m happy being myself. And, harrumph, do I really want to go to another fucking social network. I’m already overwhelmed. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Google+, Quora, Tumblr. My head’s going to explode!”
“Exactly. That’s because those are all efforts. They’re all work. You’re constant interacting professionally and building up your online profile. We want you to come to AnyBeat to have fun. We want it to be a place where you meet people you don’t know. Where you can talk about topics that it might not be appropriate for a VC to discuss in writing. Your views on politics, religion, the world. We want you to play games. Let your hair down.”
“Isn’t that what Wii is for? ”
“Well, think about it. You’re old enough to have established your reputation and you know right from wrong. Perhaps you’re not trying to find your true North anymore. But 22 year olds might like to be able to make their views on the world known without having it follow them around for the next 40 years. It’s scary. Social networks are like Iran. You can say anything you want, but in the morning there will be consequences.”
It hit me. He’s right. PSEUDONYMITY. You heard it here first. I think it’s a big concept. Pseudonymity is the combination of anonymity and authority. It is an alter ego name that follows you on the Internet. It allows you to interact with people in different ways.
And as we went on to debate use cases it became clearer to me that there are concrete times where you want to be yourself and where you don’t. But total anonymity is a waste. I don’t see any redeeming value relative to pseudonymity. And to make a good social network based on pseudonymity work you obviously have to have an authority / rating system built in.
1. Job Search – You’d mostly want to be yourself, thus we have LinkedIn. A place were it makes no sense to be anonymous. But you might like to start interviewing for jobs or posting on job sites without using your actual name. That can create some awkward moments with your boss.
2. Social Capital / Earned Media – For many people keeping a blog is a way to build up “social capital” or as it’s sometimes referred to as “earned media.” Other than for people like Fake Steve Jobs where the intent is parody then you’d obviously want to use your real identity.
3. Marketing – There are times where you market as an individual and times where you want to market as a brand.
4. Games – Here is where it gets more interesting. In games you may not want people to know who you are. You might not want your work colleagues to know you play World of Warcraft or Call of Duty in the evenings. Even more so if you play in the day time In an identity world like Facebook it has been hard to play MMO (massive multiplayer online) games because there isn’t a forum for hanging out with people you don’t know. Facebook is for people you do know.
5. Dating – Dating is a place where anonymity can be really important to people. They might like a chance to get to know somebody a bit better before opening up their real identity. I could also see some sites wanting to argue the opposite – we’ll only let you chat if you agree to say who you are.
6. Political Discourse or Understanding the World Around You - Want to debate gay marriage, polygamy, the death penalty, whether a country has an oppressive regime, religion – whatever. Pseudonymity.
We then went on to film an amazing 90 minute discussion afterward for This Week in Venture Capital. It hasn’t been processed yet but when it is I’ll be sure to post it here. We talked about this concept and also: online video, lawsuits with big media companies, the value or not of circles in Google Plus, the economic reasons behind the NetFlix decision, social TV startup Chill and much, much more.
Image courtesy of PhotoXpress.com. Thank you.