danah boyd writes on the recent Internet debate around Google banning the use of psuedonyms on its new social networking service, Google+. She writes,
Over and over again, people keep pointing to Facebook as an example where “real names” policies work. This makes me laugh hysterically. One of the things that became patently clear to me in my fieldwork is that countless teens who signed up to Facebook late into the game chose to use pseudonyms or nicknames. What’s even more noticeable in my data is that an extremely high percentage of people of color used pseudonyms as compared to the white teens that I interviewed. Of course, this would make sense…
The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalized by systems of power. “Real names” policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people. These ideas and issues aren’t new (and I’ve even talked about this before), but what is new is that marginalized people are banding together and speaking out loudly.
I’m interested in the implications this has in the planning engagement process. While a tool like PlaceSpeak is rooted in the idea that sharing where you live with authorities lends credence to your input, participation, and sense of belonging-ness, I’d be curious to know what precedent there is for planning participants to not want to be identified. Perhaps in situations where there is a lot of community pressure to maintain solidarity by supporting or rejecting something as a group.
It also begs the question of how and whether online political participation can or should be linked up with the rest of our online lives, and what differentiates the situations in which that linkage is desirable versus undesirable. A few salient statements on this can be found on skud’s post describing who is hurt by a ban on psuedonyms:
“I enjoy being part of a global and open conversation, but I don’t wish for my opinions to offend conservative and religious people I know or am related to. Also I don’t want my husband’s Govt career impacted by his opinionated wife, or for his staff to feel in any way uncomfortable because of my views.”
“I’ve been stalked. I’m a rape survivor. I am a government employee that is prohibited from using my IRL.”
I’m continually fascinated by how we will learn to accord and reconcile our online and offline selves, and how individuals will refigure and subvert the power that institutions exercise on our reputation. It’s pretty much doing away with identity as an obscurity exercise. Meanwhile, participating in planning processes come with their own issues around power — especially in places like Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where claims to legitimacy and the desire to help the needy war with vested interests, bureaucratic particularities and many, many people in various states of distress.
As danah has always pointed out, who you are is only inconsequential if it is something you can benefit from, rather than being victimized, or explicitly threatened with loss of autonomy, control or freedom, because of who you are. As this migrates into the real world of people who can start making life hard for me, I wonder at scenarios based off stories I’ve heard from others. For instance, if I decided I pursue some form of activism in my neighbourhood, and it ran counter to the interests of my landlord, would s/he look for ways to evict me, and would their task be made easier because my real name is all over the place?
I’m a big believer that we can adjust our culture to compensate for the potential abuses made possible by these tools. As David Eaves has written in the past,
It will be interesting to witness a world where grandparents have to explain to their grandchildren why they were climate change deniers on their Facebook page. Or why you did, or didn’t join a given political campaign, or protest against a certain cause.
Ultimately, I think all this remembering leads to a more forgiving society, at least in personal and familial relationships, but the world of pundits and bloggers and politicians may become tougher. Those who found themselves very much on the wrong side of history, may have a hard time living it down. The next version of the daily show may await us all. But not saying anything may not be a safe strategy either. Those who have no history, who never said anything at anytime, may not be seen relevant, or worse, could be seen as having no convictions or beliefs.
There is likely to be a ton of anxiety and an adjustment period full of potential pain before that vision can even come close to being realized, if it ever really can. (This recent story on BoingBoing about mug shot online blackmail relates to this as well.)
In short, I see urban planning, particularly as it pertains to engagement and involvement of members of the public, as one interest among a host of others when it comes to sorting out the intricacies of online identity. Given that decision-makers often get a lot out of knowing things about who’s feeding back to them — basic demographics but also income level, origins, occupations, housing tenure history — in order to understand how to weigh what they say, I imagine we’ll start to see some questions around what degrees of disclosure make your word worth it to the person one is talking to.
Last word to danah:
There is no universal context, no matter how many times geeks want to tell you that you can be one person to everyone at every point. But just because people are doing what it takes to be appropriate in different contexts, to protect their safety, and to make certain that they are not judged out of context, doesn’t mean that everyone is a huckster. Rather, people are responsibly and reasonably responding to the structural conditions of these new media. And there’s nothing acceptable about those who are most privileged and powerful telling those who aren’t that it’s OK for their safety to be undermined. And you don’t guarantee safety by stopping people from using pseudonyms, but you do undermine people’s safety by doing so.