The Internet Identity Crisis

To use or not to use a real name on the Web is not always a user's prerogative. But maybe it should be

With personal data a growing, multi-billion dollar business—$2 billion annually in third-party data alone, according to Forrester Research—a well-maintained dataset, with real names and demographics, is highly coveted. Advertisers, it’s believed, are better served if they can cement one person to one name. After all, real names have been a gold mine for the direct mail business for a decade.

They also help marketers track every targeted penny and let them know, says eMarketer analyst Debra Aho Williamson, the size of the audience they’re reaching. When Twitter—firmly in the no-real-names-needed camp—shares its number of users, she notes, it doesn’t disclose the number of people, because multiple accounts are allowed.

It’s also important, Williamson says, for customer relationship management, and mapping customers across different marketing touch points, which otherwise could be a “data nightmare.”

Some also argue anonymity breeds abuse. “People behave a lot better when they have their real names down,” said Facebook’s former marketing director (and Mark Zuckerberg’s sister), Randi Zuckerberg.

If Facebook were to back away from its policy, it would “absolutely” be less valuable to marketers, says Clara Shih, CEO of social media management company Hearsay Social. It “has been transformational for the online experience and, secondarily, for marketers,” she says. “Marketers work with an authentic community and that authentic community comes from having real names.”
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Real names, Shih adds, are also a prerequisite for social graphs. And that is arguably the cornerstone of Facebook’s “word-of-mouth-at-scale” grand plan, and the reason the site can offer sponsored stories with friends’ de facto recommendations.

“Transparency across many dimensions is truly important in the relationship between consumers and marketers,” says David Cohen, evp, global digital officer for Universal McCann. “The idea of hiding behind a pseudonym is the antithesis of transparency.”

Google+ was built on real names as well. But when it launched, its policy resulting in the suspension of fake name accounts set off a fury of negative articles, tweets and posts on Google+ itself. In fact, a website,, was created as a forum where people could register their complaints. The company had believed, said Google engineering svp Vic Gundotra, at a conference this past fall, that fake names (like “Captain Crunch” and “dog fart,” to name two he mentioned), would “change the atmosphere of the product.”

As it turned out, not so much. Two weeks ago, when Google+ massaged its common names policy, Yonatan Zunger, chief architect of Google+, said on his Google+ profile that “we thought … 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.)”

The new policy, however—Google+ now accepts nicknames, and pseudonyms with a “meaningful following”—has enough shades of gray that advocacy groups aren’t sure what to make of it. Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Eva Galperin, for one, says it’s a positive, but “we were really hoping for more.”

As Google moves to link properties and leverage Google Wallet and Checkout, it may view the emphasis on real names as a hedge for future opportunities as a seller of data or other roles, says David Rogers, author of The Network Is Your Customer, who teaches digital marketing at Columbia Business School. (In fact, just this past month, Google adopted a new privacy policy limiting users’ ability to opt out of data sharing between its properties.) But, in the current environment, he says, the value of real names is “far from proven.”

Recent data from commenting network Disqus, for instance, suggests that people who use pseudonyms post more comments, and of higher quality. Sixty-one percent of comments made with pseudonyms were positive, for instance, compared to 51 percent from people who used real names.

Indeed, some industry leaders feel real names are not crucial to a brand’s bottom line. At an event in September, Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter—which prohibits impersonation, but permits parody, fan and other accounts that use fake names—reportedly said, “Other services may be declaring that you have to use your real name because they think they’ll be able to monetize that better. … We’re more interested in serving our users first, and we think by [doing this], we’ll have a better platform for marketers and advertisers.”

Also, some believe while real names may make it easier for friends to find friends, online, just as in real life, people organize around shared interests and concerns. Those connections can easily be made with pseudonyms.

“The actual identity is much less important to me than the set of data that represents what they’re doing,” adds Roland Smart, senior director of product marketing for Involver. “It’s that set of data that I’m going to use to deliver relevant content to that user.”

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