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

In 1971, journalist Don Hoefler coined the name Silicon Valley. And just like every other 40-year-old Gen Xer, Silicon Valley is now having an identity crisis—about identity no less. The question: How should people name themselves online?

For Facebook and Google, as well as other sites with real-name policies, the mandate is real names should be used online, and they should follow us across the Web. Out in the world, after all, names turn strangers into acquaintances and friends, and (mostly) hold us accountable for our actions. It’s why we wear name tags at conferences and news articles carry bylines.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made this policy a central tenet of his company, positioning himself, no less, on moral grounds. “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,” Zuckerberg told The Facebook Effect author David Kirkpatrick. “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly.”

On the other side are those who believe real names can deny users freedom of expression and limit individual liberties. At the extreme, they say, it puts political activists, marginalized communities, abuse survivors and others at great risk.

Arguing that Facebook and Google “do identity wrong,” Christopher Poole, founder of anonymous message board 4Chan and image-sharing site Canvas, said at a conference last fall that “identity is prismatic. There are many lenses through which people view you. … Google and Facebook would have you believe that you’re a mirror, [but] in fact, we’re more like diamonds.”

The debate between real names and pseudonyms—known as the “nymwars”—came to a head last summer when Google+ launched with a real name policy and suspended accounts for those who didn’t fall in line. Then, last fall, Facebook and Salman Rushdie came to blows when the company changed the name of his profile page to the name on his passport. (Facebook reversed course. Who wants a public brawl about identity with an award-winning writer who went into hiding with a fatwa on his head? But the company didn’t make any policy changes as a result.)

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The topic has heated up again thanks to muddy changes Google+ made for account holders last month: It now accepts some pseudonyms on its site.

But as the arguments continue to make headlines and blog posts, an important issue for marketers is often overlooked: Are real names better for online advertising?

Before Facebook, pseudonyms were the status quo. They still exist in significant pockets of the Web—among hackers, gamers, health-related message boards and other communities—but, largely thanks to Zuckerberg, hundreds of millions of people who use the social Web now do so with their real names. (It’s enough, the company believes, that users can deliver different messages to different audiences, an option recently automated.) Hundreds of publishers have adopted Facebook Connect as their default logins.

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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