Debate continues to swirl around Google's ill-conceived and poorly-implemented (I'm trying to be charitable here) policy regarding what people are allowed to call themselves on GooglePlus. I have extremely strong views on this question, from nearly every angle: technology, policy, social implications, and practicality. In short, though, my view comes down to my belief that as a matter of fundamental self-determination and respect for human rights, people should be able to decide for themselves how they wish to be named in a social situation. Google does not agree.
Those who have the knee-jerk response of "Well, anyone who doesn't want to use their real name has got something to hide or is just out to cause trouble" are, at best, cosmically misinformed. The notion that if "real names" (a term which, by the way, is nearly impossible to define - go ahead, give it a try) are good enough for the wealthy geeks at Google it should be good enough for anyone just reeks of massive privilege. (Frankly, the way Google's been implementing their 'policy' also reeks of colonialism - if you've got a nice, comfortable looking 'wasponym' as your name at G+, you're probably fine, it seems, at least based on what people have been documenting about their clownish banning and reinstatement behavior so far.) I've been reading, thinking, and writing about identity and privacy stuff for more than a decade, and the more I learn, the more I come to agree with jwz, who said:
the other night I had dinner with a friend which turned into an hour long argument over it, because he thought that forcing everyone to use their real names was just fine. This is someone I've known for decades, so to say that I was shocked and horrified by his attitude is an understatement. It was as if my friend had suddenly started beginning sentences with, "I'm not a racist, but..."
Then there are those who like to offer the oh-so-sage advice: "If you don't like, it leave." But that's pretty naive as well. As Alice Marwick noted in this post (do read the whole thing):
given that values are embedded within technologies, it is to be hoped that these are values we agree with, that benefit society, that encourage exploration and learning and positive engagement, and that don’t unfairly target marginalized communities. Given this larger social mission, “if you don’t like it, don’t use it” is not really simple at all.
But, setting aside the broader considerations, I thought I'd jot down a few thoughts on why I think that one of the angles from which to consider this question is as a parent. In particular, as parents who blog or otherwise participate in conversations online. It's important for parents to have the option to use pseudonyms in social forums and in other ways online. Skud over at Geek Feminism outlines numerous sorts of people for whom a 'real names' policy is harmful. The whole post is worth reading. On parents, in particular:
Parents and carers at risk or caring for children at risk
* parents and carers with non-mainstream views, especially religious, or practices, especially sexual relationships and sexuality (eg LGBT parents or polyamorous parents) who may risk removal of their children by social services, or loss of custody or visits to their children, or may not be elligible to become adoptive parents
* parents and carers trying to protect dependent children from abusers
Those are some of the more high-risk factors that may lead parents to choose to use a pseudonym. But there are other reasons it's important for parents to have the flexibility of choosing their own pseudonym in online fora, even if the above factors are not an issue. Here are just a few:
-- To the extent that parents talk about their children and their experiences parenting their children, pseudonyms can help ensure that the kids' own stories are protected. Children eventually become young adults and we should look for ways to give them the space and freedom to self-actualize over time without the pressure of a permanent, searchable record. That's not to say that parents must use pseudonyms, but some might decide they prefer to, and that's a perfectly respectable choice. For my own part, I use a pseudonym online for my son, although I'm not fanatical about scrubbing his name from every comment someone posts in response to my writing about him. And as he's gotten older I've become even more judicious about what I write under my own name about him, and I expect that to continue over time.
-- Apart from stories specifically about their kids, parents may also wish to discuss parenting philosophies and approaches in an anonymous or pseudonymous way. This should be ok. It doesn't mean anything bad. It might mean they live in a neighborhood full of moms who breastfeed and want to talk about formula feeding without feeling guilty. Or, insert your favorite "mommy-war" topic. It's not hard to imagine wanting to have a conversation about such a topic without also automatically picking a fight with others close (emotionally, geographically, or otherwise) to you.
-- More generally, in far too many careers, being a "mom" is seen as a definite negative for women. Pseudonymity when discussing parenting and children may be a rational career choice! Heaven forfend some employers know that their employees ever think about anything other than work.
-- Perhaps most pragmatically, when it comes to kids themselves, if they're older and participating in online communication, parents may prefer them to use a pseudonym for safety reasons.
There are undoubtedly countless other reasons for why parents and those who care for children should have the right to choose their own names in online spaces. But as the conversation continues -- and it will, even if G+ disappears tomorrow, the 'nym issue will surface again and again -- I thought a few quick thoughts wearing my 'mom' hat might be worth jotting down.