Identity crisis: who are you allowed to be online?

Recently, the online community has been in an uproar over Facebook’s “real name” policy, a topic that has been controversial at best. Google recently reversed its stance on its Google+ real name policy after being widely criticized for leading to situations where, for example, an activist in a repressive regime could find his or her life in danger. Activist Danah Boyd writes eloquently on the negative aspects of real name policies and terms them “an abuse of power.” She points out that victims of rape and stalking, as well as people who simply wish to comment on an issue without revealing their full legal identity, suffer most under this model.

Now the LGBTQ community is outraged over Facebook’s stance on real names. Facebook has begun removing the profiles of anyone whose name is deemed a “stage name” and is given two weeks to fill out the profile “properly.” Many argue passionately online to defend their right to express themselves with the identity they see best represents them online. A drag queen, for example, may want to represent only her female identity online, rather than her biological male identity. Many LGBTQ individuals also face vicious discrimination in more conservative surroundings, and their online expression of their identity is sometimes their only outlet for meeting the world in the identity they feel is an expression of how they want to present themselves.

Many have argued passionately against this real name policy. One interesting aspect of the debate is that opinions tend to focus on the right of a person to use a pseudonym, yet pseudonyms are not considered valid. Many consider a driver’s licence a deciding factor for the legality of a name. Yet, in Austria, a pseudonym can be registered on one’s national identity card. In various other countries worldwide, pseudonyms can be legally registered with agencies that deal with copyright. Does this then not constitute a legal form of self-representation? One can perform, write, and publish under a pseudonym. Why does a social network need to enforce rules comparable with those a government would require at passport control? Facebook admits it is about targeting ad revenues. Some have concerns about people using pseudonyms to harass others, but in the experience of many, it is exactly the other way around.

Do you believe a pseudonym constitutes a legally viable form of personal identity? How do you feel with regard to Facebook’s real name policy, especially in light of Google’s opposing policy which recently became more tolerant of pseudonyms? Any input is appreciated. If you have personal experience with a pseudonym and feel comfortable sharing your story, we would be very happy to hear it. You can post a comment here on WordPress, tweet to @what_ifblog, post on our Facebook page, or write an e-mail to Clio at ClioDOTMontreyATfhstpDOTacDOTat.

Photo credit: Animism: Modernity through the Looking Glass, at the Generali Foundation Vienna, Lange Nacht der Museen 2011. Exhibition view. Photo taken by Clio Montrey.
http://foundation.generali.at/en/info/archive/2012-2012/exhibitions/animism-modernity-through-the-looking-glass.html

 

 

 

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