Your Comfort Is My Silence

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Your Comfort Is My Silence“, by Barbara Kruger

With “calls for restrictions on Internet anonymity growing” (and rebellion against real names policies also growing), I am hoping there will be more conversation about who is actually silenced in online interactions and why.

I was thinking about Kathy Sierra the other day, whose excellent blog Creating Passionate Users never did return after she was harassed and received death threats coupled with the publication of her address and social security number.

People using “fake names” made those death threats — but people using pseudonyms don’t have a monopoly on harassing people. And this list of people who are most harmed by real name policies is just as much a list of those who are most vulnerable to online harassment and intimidation.  Suppressing pseudonyms is mostly just another way to silence people, maybe especially people who have been harassed.

But maybe there are other possibilities. Sierra’s harassment started on a site that refused to shut down users who were harassing her.  And the site’s culture strongly supported bullying. And maybe the users who made death threats could have been identified by the site owners.

Or maybe not. But there is a difference between forcing everyone to use legal names, and revealing information about someone when they make death threats against someone else.

Corporate real names policies aren’t really about protecting vulnerable people’s identities or interests; they’re about protecting corporate interests. But in addition to supporting the use of pseudonyms, are there other ways to encourage respectful interaction and reduce harms to people who might otherwise be silenced?

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Re-Civilize Yourself

Nivea pulled this ad recently, after it got attention for being racist.

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The message couldn’t be clearer: natural hair on a black man isn’t a style preference or a nod to afrocentrism—it’s straight-up uncivilized… Although Nivea has several other ads with the words “Look like you give a damn,” and one where a white guy is holding a long-haired mask, none of them mention anything about civilization.
(from Good Culture)

A post at racialicious delves deeper into which people/practices are considered “classy, refined, and aspirational,” and who defines civility v. incivility.  Which makes me think of the concerns various online gatekeepers have expressed about incivility and naming practices… What is this incivility thing exactly, that requires the domestication of the Inappropriately Named?

If you’re a cool and smart and civilized person (read: someone whose experiences are already visible and normalized all over the place), you shouldn’t have a problem with using your real name, right? It’s not like you’re gonna go around flashing gang signs on your MySpace page! Or if you did, it would obviously be ironic. (Seriously, MySpace? What kind of losers use MySpace?*).

danah boyd writes:

Years ago, I received a phone call from an Ivy League college admissions officer who wanted to accept a young black man from South Central in LA into their college; the student had written an application about how he wanted to leave behind the gang-ridden community he came from, but the admissions officers had found his MySpace which was filled with gang insignia. The question that was asked of me was “Why would he lie to us when we can tell the truth online?” Knowing that community, I was fairly certain that he was being honest with the college; he was also doing what it took to keep himself alive in his community. If he had used a pseudonym, the college wouldn’t have been able to get data out of context about him and inappropriately judge him. But they didn’t. They thought that their frame mattered most.

Maybe some people feel relatively comfortable with being transparent online because they are kind of more entitled to their opinions? That, and no one’s actually requiring them to be transparent about things like, say, how G+’s naming policies are enforced. According to the NYT:

…the Internet would probably be more civilized if contributors to online discussions had to use their real names. Some people might even start to use spell check and proper punctuation.

Civilize the natives! Proper punctuation! It’s for their own good!

Which, to be fair, isn’t the NYT’s takeaway — and thinking about ways to encourage respectful online interaction is valuable. But when there’s little acknowledgment of people whose experiences aren’t normalized all the time, this real names stuff is pretty patronizing. People like Eric Schmidt know what’s best for us:

The internet would be better if we had an accurate notion that you were a real person as opposed to a dog, or a fake person, or a spammer.

Really? ‘Cause I think the internet is better with secret dogs on Twitter.

* A lot of young people from poor neighborhoods in the East Bay seem to use MySpace, which, interestingly, has a pretty strong pseudonym tradition.
** Not that there aren’t other reasons why someone would be more comfortable, or interested in, being transparent.