How do you label yourself in social media? Ten years into the revolution now you’d think the conventions for this basic question would have been established, but no. Salman Rushdie, with his perpetual genius for controversy, stirred it up in the Twitterverse a week or two back.
To be fair, Rushdie did not start the flap. Under Facebook’s terms of service, “Registration and Account Security,” Rushdie ran afoul of several provisions. In Facebook’s words:
Facebook users provide their real names and information, and we need your help to keep it that way.
If you select a username for your account we reserve the right to remove or reclaim it if we believe appropriate….
As part of its real-names-required policy, Facebook, wanted Rushdie to use his given name – Ahmed Rushdie – and were about to kick “Salman Rushdie” off Facebook. Rushdie took to the more liberated Twittersphere to point out the absurdity of banning Salman Rushdie, and within two hours, Faecbook had the sense to give in – at least in Rushdie’s case.
Twitter, of course, is a different universe from Facebook, one filled with users with all sorts of exotic pseudonyms. Twitter lets you call yourself whatever you want. For example, just from the gravitas-laden world of public diplomacy alone, there’s the blogger mountainrunner (Matt Armstrong); the Middle East expert abuaardvark (real name Mark Lynch); and Hondo Mesa, a.k.a. Dennis Kinsey, director of public diplomacy at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. Vibrant handles flourish in Twitter.
For a day or two in what became known as the “#nymwars,” much good Twitter fun was had by everyone in the Rushdie Affair, except perhaps for Mark Zuckerberg. But, there are serious unresolved issues and big stakes in the name issue. As New York Times reporter Somini Sengupta nicely summarized the controversy:
One side envisions a system in which you use a sort of digital passport, bearing your real name and issued by a company like Facebook, to travel across the Internet. Another side believes in the right to don different hats — and sometimes masks — so you can consume and express what you want, without fear of offline repercussions.
The argument over pseudonyms…goes to the heart of how the Internet might be organized in the future.
Writing in Slate magazine, the new-media skeptic Evgeny Morozov, author of The New Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, took Facebook’s insistence on one name for all Internet versions of the self as a 1984-esque effort that benefits both repressive governments and corporations trying to market to you. He wrote:
That Facebook’s stance on pseudonyms may be entrenching autocracies doesn’t seem to bother the company in the least. In fact, the Chinese edition of the “Facebook Revolution” bears all the markings of an anti-revolution: Facebook has been criticized for deactivating the account of the prominent Internet activist who goes by the pseudonym of Michael Anti. In Egypt, Facebook was precariously close to clipping the wings of the future revolutionaries when it suspended the Facebook page started by the Google executive Wael Ghonim, who, of course, was also using a pseudonym.
Of course, every company has a stupid policy or two, and Facebook is no exception. However, its stance on pseudonyms is more than a stupid policy. It’s part and parcel of Facebook’s noxious vision for the future of the Internet, where privacy—rather than hard-earned cash—becomes the currency of the day. And Facebook’s monetary policy runs on just one simple idea: You can either give up your privacy and embrace the world of entertainment abundance—or you can fight to protect it and risk living in entertainment poverty. You choose.
For me this is one of those interesting arguments where both sides champion a value that’s hard to dispute in the abstract. Call it transparency versus freedom, or the right to have an alter ego or two. I expect it will take years to sort this out. Here’s a little perspective, though, from the world of writers.
In the Rushdie Affair, Facebook’s real-names policy tangled with a well-established meme – the nom de plume. Pen names go back a very long way. For a great variety of reasons writers have often felt the need to acquire a new name for the public version of their self and that new name usually entails a new psychological identity. One could almost say that for many writers that nom de plume frees up the writer to write.
Consider how much poorer our store of literature would be if this baker’s dozen of writers – chosen at random from a vast universe of possibilities – had been forced to stick to their birth names:
- Thomas John Boyle
- Brook Busey
- David Cornwall
- Sidonie Gabrielle
- Theodor Geisel
- Ford Madox Huefer
- Salvatore Albert Lombino
- Solomon Rabinowitz
- Christopher Robison
- Dorothy Rothschild
- John Smith
- Pearl Sydenstricker
- Chloe Anthony Wofford
(By the way, how many can you identify? The answers will come in my follow-up post at 317am on Thursday, when I’ll offer more thoughts on this issue and reveal the origins of the enigmatic RasoirJ.)
At the height of the Rushdie-Facebook dispute, Samuel Langhorne Clemens had what would have been his 176th birthday, and Google – which has a real-names policy on Google+ – celebrated by adorning its logo with a Tom Sawyer drawing that day. A tweeter named Paul Wallbank summed up the absurdity nicely with this apercu: