Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Why the Google Profiles (or any) "Real Name" Policy is Important to Me

I'm going to mention some mature and highly personal topics in this post, along with a splash of adult language (though nowhere near the colorful levels of Stilgherrian). If that offends you, the close button is at the top of your browser window; use it now.

Are you sitting down? Good. It's nice to meet you.
  • My name is Todd Vierling. I'm 35 and I live in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. I grew up in Fort Myers, Florida, and I was adopted as a child. My house is an utter mess, to the point of being unhealthy in parts, and I have a very difficult time keeping it together; my car is sometimes worse.
  • My e-mail address is tv@duh.org. I've owned the duh.org domain name spottily since 1994, and continuously since 1995. My phone number (well, one of them, anyway) is +1-404-939-4327.
  • I'm unusually nerdy, and really dislike talking about it, because I started programming computers when I was just six years old. I progressed to advanced languages such as C by the time I was 11. I hacked my way into telephone networks and circuit-switched data networks in the 1980s, and was followed around by three-letter US government agencies for a while as a result. (It turned out that I'm mostly harmless.) I was involved in the NetBSD project for a little over ten years.
  • I'm gay, and have been out of the closet to varying degrees since I was 17. I have been involved in LGBT political activism on and off for some time, including running the PR blitz that brought international attention to the illegal police raid on the Atlanta Eagle bar, eventually resulting in significant concessions of power by the department. (Yet I still believe that most police officers have a damned tough job and work hard at it.) I have been with my partner for 15 years, even though we cannot get married where we live.
  • In 2001, I was clinically diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism that is related to AD/HD, which likely played a key role in me being unable to complete college successfully. I dropped out of college after a freshman year of almost entirely F-grades, even though I was actually on a possible career path to something much bigger than myself.
  • I was hit so hard financially during the dot-com bust that my debt spiraled out of control, leading me to start the process of filing for bankruptcy today. (A shout-out to the predatory creditors who milked me for 39%+ interest for eight-plus years and are now suing me on top of it: you'll be served with official filings soon enough.)
  • I have unusual sexual interests involving protective outerwear as a fetish. Like some people find skimpy bathing suits and lingerie sexy, I believe a man in sport motorcycling regalia is hot. (Ewww, icky!) I founded a community [NSFW] to help others with similar interests cope with, and even celebrate, their unique differences, which led to several people — myself included — coming back from the brink of suicide. That same site today has as members some very famous people under protective pseudonyms, some of whom I actually know, but I'm never going to tell who they are; that's not my choice to make.
  • I'm a textbook Jungian introvert, and normally quite modest of my own intellect and achievements. It took a hell of a lot of emotional effort to splay open my identity here, and I'm getting chills just proofreading this section. Not even the most extreme extrovert would voluntarily reveal this much to just anyone.
  • I've cross-posted this to both of my blogs: the one that always bore my real name, and the one traditionally associated with my adult-content pseudonym, "guyn2gear" [NSFW]. Thus I've voluntarily connected all the dots necessary to find out everything interesting, scandalous, or just plain dull about me, with very little effort.
  • Even after reading all this, you still don't know the "real" me. Everyone has complex facets to personality that go far beyond bland data bullet-points, and everyone holds a little something back from certain audiences for perfectly valid reasons.
That's a lot of information to take in. Would anyone else go to the same lengths as this to describe oneself to a single person, a single corporation, or the world? Would anyone willingly paint their full, real name onto aspects of life that are as personal as some of the points described here? Regardless, this is me, il buono, il brutto, il cattivo.

In spite of revealing all this information, I'm still vehemently in favor of allowing people to socialize under any name. I will never forget the times in my life when pseudonymity shielded me from real-world hate and violence, allowing me to express myself freely. As the real world is not yet a completely open and accepting vision of utopia, I would be a closed-minded hypocrite to deny that same shield from others, just as advocates of disallowing pseudonyms are closed-minded.

In spite of revealing all this information, I still believe that those of you who think that using real names will make people more open and social are horrifyingly deluded. Your idealistic vision of "real" interaction through real names isn't just nonsense; it's making online socialization more dangerous for everyone by putting them at risk of real-world prejudicial action.

I virtually vivisected my own life to demonstrate just how deeply real life could be associated with a real name. I am fortunate and privileged enough to be able to do this, and unlike some even-more-privileged corporate executives, I fully recognize this fact: I am smart enough to hold a decent job without my bedroom interests holding me back, and I'm tech- and law-savvy enough to protect my financial and other personal information online. However, most people are not so lucky.

Humans are social creatures. We seek out others who are similar to us, and tend to talk about those similar interests. Where the interests are not part of the mainstream, we tend to talk more quietly and to a more focused group of people, sometimes behind a mask of tweaked, or even false, identity. Everyone "hides" a little part of self-expression when using a real name, and reveals more personal details when afforded protection from identification.

As Oscar Wilde put it more than a hundred years ago: Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.¹

Search engines that aggregate data to be available at fingertips didn't exist then... but today anyone can be a quiet stalker without ever being seen under any name. Government-mandated, much less corporate-mandated, identification didn't exist then... but today anyone can be subjected to threats (both verbal and physical) just through a few keystrokes and mouse-clicks. Social mores were far more conservative then... but hate-filled prejudice is alive and well, arguably as violent as ever before, in the real world.

By this point, it should be crystal clear why forcing everybody to use their real names online, whether under the banner of so-called social networking, or in any other service, is nothing at all like reality: it is demanding provable identification in spheres of interaction where it would not be required in the real world. I hate the term "slippery slope", but a mudslide is about to start, and pissing on the ground isn't going to dry it out.

I know — no joke — hundreds of people solely under pseudonyms or first names, who I trust to be good and caring individuals. I've been the sympathetic shoulder for dozens of them in their times of crisis, when fundamental parts of their identities threatened to harm their livelihoods or even their physical safety. I know through example after example that everyone has a part of self-identity that could put them at risk if that part were publicly revealed.

It isn't "social" if people are afraid to socialize freely. I'd much rather be at a fun party where people express their true selves (even if I'm the odd looking, sorta sulky one alone in the corner) than be at a dinner party where pretentious dicks and prissy bitches make endless small talk about nothing at all. At that point it becomes professional networking, at best, and LinkedIn has cornered the market on that... Actually, come to think of it, seeing post after post of animated GIFs, pictures of cats and infants in weird poses, and incessant giddy talk about the latest bit of random technology sure feels like that sterile dinner party to me. Screw that — turn on the music and make me a Long Island iced tea.

"Social" without socializing is not just exclusionary; it's boring as shit. And to those who are promoting the proven-false notion that "real names" improve conversation, such as the people behind Facebook and Google+ ... it's your fault.

Viva le nym!²

¹ Thank you to Joost for reminding me of this apropos quote, and for kicking off the "Why the Real Name Policy is Important to Me" chain of posts.

² Please pardon the horribly corrupted French.


  1. That is a truly profound blog post. Thank you for writing it.

    Now, explain why I have to use an authenticated profile to post this comment.

  2. Your life and mine have many parallels, and as a result of common experiences I agree with your conclusions. And yet I'm an exception to my own opinions. While serving in the Army I was stationed at Ft. Meade and assigned to the NSA. Everything that could be known about my life was collected and cataloged by both the military and civilian security agencies. Since that time I have accepted that nothing I do or say is private and that any sense of privacy I do have is limited to particular instances. So for me the "true name" debate is an objective exercise in what I believe, not what I practice. I've made my decision based on my own life and others should have the freedom to do the same.

  3. [updated version of previous reply]

    raincoaster.com: Heh, I do allow OpenID comments... but under any identity you like. :)

    My other blog, where this is cross-posted, allows fully anonymous posts (albeit moderated) as well.