Gender, Identity and Naming

Avoid ‘real names’ policies

Some website owners, in an effort to control abusive behaviour, require their users to use their ‘real names’ (by which I mean names listed on government identification). This is most notable as a feature of Facebook’s terms and conditions, where people have found their accounts suspended or disabled because they were believed to be using pseudonyms. These policies have been a contentious issue online over the past few years, catalysed by the ‘nymwars’ that happened after the opening of the Google+ social networking service.

Real-names policies come from a valid place of concern – the desire to reduce the amount of trolling and harassment on social-networking sites, forums and comment sections in blogs – but the solution to the problem doesn’t actually come from imposing such a policy. It makes more sense to try to control the behaviour that’s actually problematic, rather than trying to force everybody to use names that match government-issued identification.

Some people have been victims of online harassment and stalking. Forcing victims of domestic abuse and violence to use their legal identities opens them up to identification and harassment from abusers.  Transgender, gender-variant and genderqueer people may not have had their names legally changed via court order or deed poll and may not want to sign up using their birth name. Some people prefer to use the internet to reflect a different aspect of themselves from the persona they present at work. And some people have been banned from ‘real names’ sites simply because they have unfamiliar non-Western names or unusual given or chosen legal names. All these reasons are perfectly valid ones, and are a good reason to reconsider strict ‘real’-name policies.

There’s also a difference between being pseudonymous and anonymous. You can ask your users to use a persistent pseudonym on the site and ban anonymous comments.

Geek Feminism has a comprehensive list of who is harmed by a real-name policy, and My Name is Me has a collection of personal narratives from people who are affected by these policies.