Real name sites are necessarily inadequate for free speech

Recently on this blog, danah boyd set off a firestorm by suggesting that the imposition of real names on social media sites is an abuse of power…or even authoritarian. The obvious retort is “don’t like it, don’t use it”, or learn how to segement one’s network (i.e. bend to the system, because its your problem). But I’m here to take another angle on this one: real name sites are necessarily inadequate for online audiences. Yes, necessarily inadequate. I once had a dream that people could seamlessly manage their social networks on any site through some combination of visulaization and clever user interfaces. It was based on the visualization of Facebook networks. People who see these networks, as I’ve discovered in many interviews (early work discussed here), readily identify the myriad social contexts in their networks. One cluster is clearly family, another is clearly coworkers, and so forth. As such, it seemed like the next step would be to use this information to create some sort of selective sharing interface. These are Google+’s social circles (or Diaspora’s Aspects), except determined semi-automatically. Then one could simply select which context, and read from it, or post to it.

Network drawn from namegenweb
Old Facebook personal network showing many social contexts

This is “the myth of selective sharing” (as Marc Smith calls it). Its an engineer’s dream based on a misunderstanding of the key distinction between offline and online life. Offline we assume that our conversations are not encoded and thereafter not available to people outside of our immediate audience, by default. Yes, some lucky people give talks to large audiences, they get on the radio or tv. Most don’t. But everyone has some reason to share things with one person but not another. We don’t need to go as far as whistle blowers, political dissidents or closet cases in religious areas. Lots of people have grievances with their bosses, or find someone else attractive, or have problem students / subordinates they need advice on. Lots of people need advice on their own issues, be it alcoholism, drug abuse or gambling. When people do this offline, they do it in situations: temporally and spatially bounded contexts for action. The pub after work; the patio over a cup of coffee; the closed door meeting.  Continue reading “Real name sites are necessarily inadequate for free speech”