Sep 10 2011
This is a cross-post from Mashable.
Google has raised a lot of digital hackles with its new policy requiring real names for Google+. Cory Doctorow says that real identities are bad because they make it easy to sell us to advertisers. danah boyd goes further, saying that the policy is an abuse of power, because it may compromise users’ safety.
But they vastly understate the case, and ask for the wrong solution.
The hugeness of Google’s error is in misunderstanding the basic human need for a flexible framework for identity creation. People change and evolve, and throughout the entirety of human history, we have been able to shed old versions of ourselves, and construct new identities. This is so universally true as to be a cliche. How many films have this arc as the first act: A stranger comes to town. What is the mysterious secret he hides? What did he run away from?
Our identities are complicated. In fact, the need for multiple identities only accelerates in today’s internet culture. Digital natives understand the notion of curation so much so that they curate their own existence on social networks. Julia Allison and iJustine are extreme examples of this phenomena, but it happens all over every Friday night when young people spend more time shooting photos of themselves to upload to Facebook to show how great a time they’re having, instead of, you know, actually having a great time.
The act of identity creation happens on the social network, through the curation process. Not by the things that are really happening to the person.
In this context, we are becoming more like celebrities. We manage our personas by curating which pictures get tagged on Facebook with our identity (hint: only the ones where we look good). We portray the most interesting aspects of our lives through status updates (“I found a dollar on the street!” gets 27 Likes not because it’s important, but because it’s interesting.) We understand that parts of our personalities are most appropriate for different audiences.
The rise of celebrity culture is actually an attempt to create shared experiences for a large, fragmented society. Smaller countries have smaller celebrities in the U.S. (Incidentally, that’s why Kylie Minogue had to redeem her post-Locomotion career in the U.S. with the wonderful “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head;” and why David Beckham left a hugely successful career in the U.K. to bring soccer to a country that would rather watching boring old baseball than see a low-scoring soccer game.)
So, as our own social circles continue to grow, we become more like celebrities ourselves. So, we can learn something from celebrities about the importance of alternate identities. Increasingly, artists have created alter egos for themselves to make space for a different or new part of their personality to emerge. As they get boxed in by the expectations of their fans, they need to create an outlet that allows them to risk something by creating work that is outside of their traditional oeuvre.
Madonna took the persona of Dita when she released Erotica and her Sex book in order to explore sexuality in a deeper way than she could as the Material Girl.
Sean Combs became the rapper Puff Daddy, then P. Diddy when he needed to refresh his stale 90s image. Instead of creating a new personality, he just kept beating that dead horse, and when it stopped working, he dropped the “P” and just became Diddy. But, for his serious menswear clothing line, he uses the moniker Sean John.
Marshall Mathers became Eminem, and when there was still too much darkness and bile, he created the persona of Slim Shady.
The most extreme example is Nicki Minaj, who has taken the notion of alter egos to the insanely logical extreme. She has only released one album, but has no less than eight distinct personas:
1. Onika Tanya Maraj is her given name
2. Cookie is the first identity she created to escape her troubled home life
3. Harajuku Barbie is the playful Minaj
4. Nicki Minaj is her primary performing identity
5. Roman Zolanski is the hard charging, angry brute
6. Martha Zolanski is Roman’s mother
7. Nicki Theresa is a Mother Theresa-inspired saint
8. Rosa is her Spanish moniker
The value of multiple identities to these artists is indisputable. One of the most extreme examples is Roman’s Revenge, the 2010 Nicki Minaj and Eminem duet. Both rappers spend the entire song spewing hate-filled lyrics at their fans. This is not a song that a musician would want to present to the public as part of their late night talk show personality. Without alternate identities, this song could not exist. And while it’s a tough song to listen to, the world is a better place for having the song in it.
One single name will never be able to contain all of the aspects of any individual person, in all their complicated, contradictory glory. That’s why Google+ will ultimately fail in its attempts to create an “identity service” with their real name policy.
Quora also has a real names policy. But it never came under serious scrutiny because it was always clear about what kind of community it was: a serious-sounding, wonky intellectual place where deep-ish knowledge, packaged well, is appreciated. It’s a very specific niche, and it is more interested in keeping quality high than getting lots of users to interact.
Google+ wants us to give it everything, which means that we will end up giving it nothing of value. By requiring real names, Google+ is sending clear signals that it wants to be a specific type of community: the kind where people share cat videos and links about current events that can inform Google’s own search rankings. Paradoxically, even this banality will still create a huge amount of value for Google, because of how bad computers are at truly understanding people. Google’s ability to sell advertising will still grow tremendously, even from this crappy level of information.
Critics of the Real Name policy want Google to change its mind and see the error of its ways. That is the wrong solution.
The right solution, of course, is to do nothing. Allow Google+ exactly the kind of community they ask for: the one where you use your real identity, but in return, only share a certain, specific part of yourself: the part that you don’t mind being indexed by Google’s servers and made available to the entire world. In other words, the most boring, unimportant, and universal version of yourself.