At the IAPP Global Summit in Washington, D.C., Jules Polonetsky (@JulesPolonetsky) conducted a public discussion with Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan. During the audience Q&A portion of the discussion, I posed two question: essentially what does Facebook do to ensure its developers are assuring that contextual clues help the Facebook audience know what information is being shared and with whom and secondly, why does Facebook insist on a real names policy despite the fact that there exist a clear minority of it’s audience that reject the idea.
I’ll save you an analysis of the response to the first question which essentially amounted to context is important and our developers know that. The response to the second question, though, bears further investigation. Erin answered, essentially, that its a means to encourage good community standards; that being anonymous or pseudononymous on the Internet leads (or allows) people to engage in behavior that they, shall we say, wouldn’t want their mother to see them doing. Jules chimed in that at AOL they saw rampant disregard for social norms due to the pseudononymous nature of that forum. I later approached Jules and suggested that, while the pseudononyms may play a role, another factor may have contributed more to AOL’s raucous nature. Unlike Facebook, AOL was primarily based on public forums (chat rooms, bulletin boards, groups). Facebook, though it has some of those features, is primarily based on private forums: private messages, postings on friend’s walls. The public forums do exists but they are largely an ancillary service to Facebook’s primary use (sharing old high school photos). I would put out the hypothesis that this is the major contributing factor to people being on their best behavior. If they are obnoxious, rude, crude, or otherwise inappropriate, users have the ability to ban those people from their private spaces (ignore their posts, unfriend them or block them). Even the public spaces generally have moderators that can remove unwanted visitors.
Facebook is perhaps the ultimate big data company. I would suggest Facebook researchers (they have those right?) do some data analysis on how many adverse reports they get of people in public spaces versus private spaces. Do users mostly avail themselves of self help (unfriending) or resort to reporting to Facebook? Of those complaints, how many of the users appear to be using pseudonyms and how many appear to be using real names? Inquiring minds want to know. If, as I suspect, the public spaces are much more rife with complaints and pseudononymous users, then perhaps Facebook could require real names for access to public content as opposed to the private spaces.
Many people have justifiable reasons not to use their real names. A one size fits all policy is not appropriate for a space of 1 billion users (*cough cough*). In the real world, while we use our real names, people engage in social circle segmentation. What I tell my doctor I don’t tell my neighbor. What information I give to my boss may be different than the picture I paint and my kid’s little league game. In those environments, context plays a role in allowing us to socially segment our acquaintances into circles of what we share. While concepts like Google Circles and Facebook Smart Lists allow people to segment their audiences in those platforms, this is often difficult and mentally taxing for people to do. Easier is to segment their friends either on different platform (Facebook for school friends, LinkedIn for professional contacts, Google for online friends, Twitter for ….well it varies by the person). Pseudonyms on platforms allows for a quick brain response of who am I right now and who is my audience. I don’t have to worry about my boss seeing the picture of my with the lampshade on my head at a party. Each of my social circles is in a nice distinct bucket. Just some food for thought, Facebook.