Using Real Names On The Internet

While it may sound like a logical step, for most sites and interactions it really doesn’t matter.

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Using the Internet isn’t an option anymore. It’s the primary medium for commercial, informational and personal communication. And increasingly, even the devices we purchase will make connections to and from the home base, regardless of whether we think that’s a good idea.

So now the debate begins to gain steam about whether people should be required to use their real names when registering for services or commenting on articles or things they bought or services they have received. And judging from Facebook’s very public about face on its real-name policy, things don’t seem to be going well in this camp.

But it may not really matter. There are several pieces to this puzzle, and none of them are as effective as you might think.

1. Security. There is no doubt that security agencies would prefer everyone to register their real names. But whether it would really be a giant step forward in solving crimes, catching terrorists and preventing mayhem is doubtful. Just as people can purchase fake IDs such as passports and driver’s licenses, they can set up aliases that have all the earmarks of real identities. It does make it harder, but it isn’t necessarily more effective at stopping major crimes or acts of violence.

What’s interesting is that the current uproar in the security world isn’t about using real names. It’s about being able to tap into a back door for data, which Apple and Google are slamming shut with new releases of their operating systems. Names don’t matter in this system. Location, time of communication and devices used are the key ingredients.

2. Commentary. While using real names can reduce cyber bullying—what you say using your own name can be construed as libelous, and in some cases potentially criminal, which is why Facebook is so concerned with this issue—it also can significantly reduce the value of commentary about bad restaurants, inept repair service, poor quality. Just imagine what would happen if you could be sued for writing a bad review about a product because you used your own name. Law firm profits would soar, and the overall usefulness of the Internet would plummet.

Commentary should be managed, of course. A company shouldn’t be allowed to write repeated slams on their competition. That’s the responsibility of whoever runs a site to manage effectively, and there are many examples where this didn’t happen. But there increasingly are groups that will blacklist users and groups of users for bad behavior. Within the ill-defined boundaries of reasonable commentary, open conversation is a very useful thing.

3. Marketing. Real names would allow more personalized messages from marketers, but the information transmitted by IP addresses is as effective or more effective than using real names. So why, exactly, does that advertisement appear during a search of a related term? And why are you getting a phone call from a company trying to sell you something when you’ve never been in contact with that company? And you can expect with wearable communication and more pervasive analytics these numbers will go up, regardless of whether you’ve used your real name.

In some circumstances—some social media sites where people are conversing about personal issues—real names may be a requirement. But the reality is that it probably doesn’t matter for most interactions. What does matter is that people need to realize the Internet is an open forum, where what they say and do, not to mention what they buy, can be watched, analyzed, and sold to people who care about that kind of data. And it can be used by both good and bad organizations for good or bad reasons, no matter how obscure the screen name may appear.

There will always be abuses in any system. Adding names to commentary won’t change that.