Social networks are the actual craze online. People are spending more and more time online, so it is only logical to give them the option to socialize online too. There is one small problem: privacy. Facebook got burnt pretty badly recently and has had to revamp its privacy controlling mechanisms. Now Google+ is coming with its Circles feature, promising finer-grained control over privacy. But here, I argue about using display names (or nicknames) online, something that no social network wants you to do.
Why do social networks bother with real name? Because it is easier for your friends and people to find you. Because it looks more professional. Because they make money by knowing a ton of things about you. Social networks will do various things to “persuade” you to use your real name, such as suspending your account if you’re caught using a display name, or a name that resembles a display name. Quora goes as far as to possibly require you to prove your identity using official documents just to use their service. Insanity, I say.
Why should you be using a display name?
EDIT: A few days after posting this, I see this very nice article slashdotted about the topics of display names on social networks. Worth checking!
You get better privacy
I ask a simple question: Does every person that see you automatically know your name? Probably not, unless you’re wearing a Tshirt that has: “My name is <name>!” in big Impact letters across it. That’s how it works in real life.
On social networks, you will usually upload a picture of yourself, after being “convinced” to register with your real name. Voila, now everyone that sees your face automatically knows your name.
The problem with current social networks is that whatever your privacy settings are, your name is still visible to all, whether you like it or not.
My idea of social networks is allowing you to find people you know, not allowing people you don’t know to find you! Using display names, you become harder to locate on social networks. Is that a good thing? Yes and no.
Yes, because only people close to you are likely to know your display name and locate you on social networks. No, because your not-s0-close friends may not find you if they want to. Do not despair, there is a solution to that, which we’ll see further down.
You can dissociate your online self from your real self
You went to party with a few friends and one of them snaps a picture of you in pose that does not show the best about you, probably sleeping on a couch with a couple of empty beer bottles beside you. You are now tagged and everybody has a good laugh.
A few years later, you are going to a job interview and you are nearly through. Your boss decides to do some background check on you on social networks and stumbles across that picture, as well as your friends’ and your own comments. Well… your chances of scoring the job have just slumped down quite a lot.
Social network profiling is happening a lot these days. True, you can configure your privacy settings to be restrictive and disallow public members from seeing details about you. But are you sure your friends have done the same configuration? No certainty there. In those cases, a display name may help you.
Actually, a better solution would have been to keep two different profiles: one for your “fun” self and one for business purposes. The problem? Social networks prevent this. Why? Because you are more difficult to track. Also, it can be cumbersome to manage two different profiles and make sure they don’t clash.
It is simpler just to use a display name. So if someone tags you in a picture, they’re tagging a display name, not the real you. So your boss looking for “John Smith” doesn’t see the unflattering picture in which “Rockstar John” has been tagged, and where he has copiously used the F-word.
The main disadvantage is this: people can be trolls when they enjoy anonymity. Doesn’t mean they cannot be trolls when they are using real names. Again, the solution for this exists.
Anonymity protects people
This point builds upon disassociating your real and online selves. If you live in a country where freedom of speech is restricted and you happen to say something which is “unacceptable”, you might land into pretty serious trouble if you had registered with your real name. People who are in this situation are intelligent enough to know the value of a pseudonym.
But there are disadvantages!
Of course there are! The biggest one is that some people do weird things online or turn into trolls under the cover of anonymity.
One of the reasons put forward against display names on social networks is that you’re not meant to have anonymity when using such services, since you want people to find you and interact with you. Also, another reason I’ve seen (and a funny one at that) is that social networks are not 4chan or just other forums. People do serious business on social networks.
Right, I totally agree regarding the business part. But! That doesn’t mean that right for privacy is waived!
display names will provide anonymity, but at the same time will allow people to act like a certain body orifice. display names will also make it more difficult for your friends to find you. How are they supposed to know “John Smith” is actually “AzurKnight22″?
That’s where options come in
So how to we solve this problem? Give people the choice to use display names instead of their real names. Require them to register with their real names as it is done now but they are given the option to use a display name that shows to the “public”, while the people who they add as friends can see their real name after registration.
If the person has opted to use a display name and instead of real names, again supplies display names then the service has a good reason to suspend their account, just like it is currently done. But how does this simple-looking solution help maintain your privacy but at the same time resolve these 2 disadvantages?
But how can your friends, whom you have not yet added as friend, find you? Well, your friends will know your full and exact name, correct? If they search for that exact name, your profile will turn up in the search results. Now what? Normally you have a profile picture set up, so they can easily locate you by face. If you are so paranoid and didn’t set a profile picture of your face, well, you do not be found.
Otherwise, another option might be: “Allow my real name to show in search results” to make you even more findable. This results in you being findable for people who really know you while keeping you away from the rest.
Basically the system remains as it is, only an option for display names is added. So tracking user habits for advertising purposes etc remain same. It’s the system that needs to track your habits, not the general public.
Finally, we come to trolls. Trolls are already present on social networks at this moment and are already using display names, so allowing the use of display names will not change the situation. As such, arguments such as display names will increase spam are unfounded. What if your friend, under a display name, starts spamming your wall? Remove them as friend. You can add them afterwards if you like.
Display names are not necessarily the best idea to get additional privacy, but I believe it will certainly help in providing some measure of privacy until some better system comes around. If you have such a system in mind, do let us know! So anyway, what’s your views regarding display names on social networks? Hit the comment box below!