Nymwars and Culture Clashes

Walking home from the downtown Oakland BART station a couple weeks ago I passed a young man standing on a street corner next to his bike. He was dressed all in black, and wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. Kind of like this guy:

Image of protester wearing Guy Fawkes mask

Occupy PDX Anonymous ~ Image in public domain

I was freaked out and even vaguely offended by the mask, which seemed a bit hypocritical of me. I’m a big supporter of masks [1] of a sort online: the use of pseudonyms, multiple identities, and some forms of anonymity — and here was a guy wearing a mask linked to a group actually called Anonymous. So why was his  ‘real life’ mask disturbing? In a chapter from Communities in Cyberspace, Judith Donath observes:

In the physical world there is an inherent unity to the self, for the body provides a compelling and convenient definition of identity. The norm is: one body, one identity. Though the self may be complex and mutable over time and circumstance, the body provides a stabilizing anchor… The virtual world is different. [2]

Maybe I was freaked out by an implicit violation of the body as “stabilizing anchor” in the physical world?

But there are so many forms of media that extend people beyond their bodies. People write books (sometimes under pseudonyms), circulate tales through oral traditions, and are captured on audio and video and in photographs.

There’s something unsettling about not being able to see someone’s face, though.

My reaction to the guy in the mask reminded of Google+ Chief Architect Yonatan Zunger’s recent comments on a change in Google+’s policy on pseudonyms. Following several months of backlash (#nymwars) against the lockout of  G+ users suspected of using names they aren’t commonly addressed by in the “real” world, the policy was modified to prohibit names that aren’t “name-shaped”. Pseudonyms are acceptable, but the nym has to look like a “real name” (or “wallet name,” i.e., a name on official identification in your wallet) to Google [3].

Yunger explained this policy as an attempt to avoid “culture clashes,” writing:

Generally, if you know at least one person who has an unusual name, you’re likely to know a lot of such people; i.e., people with unusual names travel in tightly-connected clusters. That’s largely because these names tend to be tied to particular subcultures. The problem we’re really encountering here is of culture clashes: people from one culture absolutely freak out when they encounter people from a very alien culture.

In this incarnation, the G+ name policy is not about the behavior of people using pseudonyms:

We thought this was going to be a huge deal: that people would behave very differently when they were and weren’t going by their real names. After watching the system for a while, we realized that this was not, in fact, the case. (And in particular, bastards are still bastards under their own names.)

Instead, the policy is about how people who don’t use pseudonyms react to those who do:

I don’t have data which I’m at liberty to share, but we got very strong feedback about this one, especially from less technical users, and also very disproportionately across genders: women liked handles a lot less than men. (This is somewhat reflected in the populations which have the highest density of handles: e.g., people who are old-time Internet users and whose handles date back to usernames).

Would like to see that data. The Geek Feminism wiki on Who Is Harmed By a “Real Names” Policy points out several ways in which relatively marginalized groups, including women, can be harmed by real name mandates. But maybe some women, or subgroups of women who tend to use G+ accounts, dislike being circled by people using handles?

In any case, by squashing one kind of cultural expression, Zunger’s justification posits wallet names (or rather what Google thinks wallet names look like) as mainstream, and other kinds of names as marginal practices that Weird People should stop freaking out the Normals with.

Contemplating the freak out factor in both the real world and online brings to mind a couple things.

One is that context — that thing ethnography is always insisting on — matters. For example, in a post on Jezebel about people posting youtube videos seeking feedback on their looks, a few commenters mentioned online “anonymity” as the driving force behind commenting cesspools (youtube). But nearly everyone on Jezebel and throughout the Gawkerverse uses pseudonyms. Just to make things a little messier, someone who commented negatively on anonymity also nostalgically recalled childhood prohibitions on using his/her own real name online. Maybe the issues at play here can’t be reduced to whether one likes handles or not.

And with that mask thing — a small child in a Halloween costume would have elicited a different reaction. But in downtown Oakland, a person dressed in black and wearing a Guy Fawkes mask signals alignment with the black bloc faction of Occupy Oakland, and black bloc has some negative associations.  Not unusual to see some people dressed similarly during a protest, but a little jarring in isolation.

Part of the motivation for the uniform clothes and masks is to avoid being singled out by police both in person or on camera. Maybe we should all be wearing masks actually. We’re surrounded by cameras, facial recognition can work reasonably well, and we’re all swimming in tons of imminently linkable data. When I talk to my relatives in person, my colleagues at work can’t overhear me, but if we have the conversation online in a publicly searchable space, then my colleagues could overhear. So no matter what I do with my name, the norms of disembodied interaction don’t fit within the norms of embodied interaction.

And although there’s a lot of talk about how people online should use their real names just like they do in real life, when I interact with someone in a store or on a sidewalk, I’m not wearing a name tag, and I don’t expect the person I interact with to be able to surface all my other interactions in the material world — but if more of the data I’m shedding all over the place becomes available and linkable, that could be different.

If the body is an anchor that unifies an individual’s varied self presentations, only the person inside that body has full access to all of its performed identities — unless one lives under constant surveillance.


[1] Check out Masks: Exploring Identity in Virtual Spaces, by Heather Ford & Alex Smolen

[2] Donath, J. S. (1999). Identity and deception in the virtual community. Communities in cyberspace, 29–59.

[3] Practically speaking, this does not seem any different from the old policy, right? Oh well.

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2 Responses to “Nymwars and Culture Clashes”

  1. Anon4fun
    March 2, 2012 at 5:28 pm #

    “If the body is an anchor that unifies an individual’s varied self presentations, only the person inside that body has full access to all of its performed identities — unless one lives under constant surveillance.”

    Or unless one is a slave.

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