The Nymwars rage on. Over the past several weeks Google has been engaged in a very public struggle with its users over its “real names” policy on Google+, prompting blog posts and editorials debating the pros and cons of allowing pseudonymous accounts on social networking sites. But there is one person for whom insisting on the use of real names on social networking sites is not enough. Unsurprisingly, that person is Facebook’s Marketing Director, Randi Zuckerberg. Speaking last week on a panel discussion about social media hosted by Marie Claire magazine, Zuckerberg said,
I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away. People behave a lot better when they have their real names down. … I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.
Take a moment and let that sink in. Randi Zuckerberg doesn’t just think that you should be using your real name on Facebook or Google+ or LinkedIn -- she thinks pseudonyms have no place on the Internet at all. And why should we take the radical step of stripping all Internet users of the right to speak anonymously? Because of the Greater Internet F***wad Theory, or the “civility argument,” which states: If you allow people to speak anonymously online, they will froth at the mouth, go rabid, bully and stalk one another. Therefore, requiring people to use their real names online should decrease stalking and bullying and generally raise the level of discourse.
The problem with the civility argument is that it doesn’t tell the whole story. Not only is uncivil discourse alive and well in venues with real name policies (such as Facebook), the argument willfully ignores the many voices that are silenced in the name of shutting up trolls: activists living under authoritarian regimes, whistleblowers, victims of violence, abuse, and harassment, and anyone with an unpopular or dissenting point of view that can legitimately expect to be imprisoned, beat-up, or harassed for speaking out.
As a private company, Facebook is free to set its own policies. Facebook can and does choose real names over free speech and diversity of users –- that’s where the money is. If you don’t like Facebook’s rules, you can just go elsewhere, right? Now Randi Zuckerberg is advocating an Internet in which there is nowhere else to go. An Internet in which everyone has to use their real name is not necessarily going to be any more polite, but it is guaranteed to be a disaster for freedom of expression. Let’s not go there.