Who You Callin’ Ahmed?: Notes on the Nym Wars

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.

Photo of Evgeny Morozov.
Faecbook skeptic Evgeny Morozov.

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.)

Drawing of Google's salute to Sam Clemens on his birthday.

Google's salute to Sam Clemens on his birthday.

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:

Google celebrates Mark Twain’s birthday. Shame he wouldn’t be allowed on Google+ bit.ly/rNfDuw #nymwars

12 Responses to Who You Callin’ Ahmed?: Notes on the Nym Wars

  1. “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.”

    Well, there is a third option, typically exercised by trolls, stalkers, etc: i.e. the very people real names policies are supposedly there to block. Under this option, you only appears to give up your privacy while in fact still using a pseudonym. How is this done? The aforementioned trolls, stalkers, etc accomplish this by using a series of disposable accounts, each one under plausibly real, but in fact quite fake, name. Whenever an account with such a fake real name gets busted (which usually happens after a while), it’s the work of but a few minutes to get the next one up and running for further adventures in trolling, stalking, etc.

    • You’re quite right, Anon4fun. My sense is that Facebook could never monitor all the fake identities that populate its network. But when they do catch you, they’re zealous about booting you off. I’ll save my other Facebook self for another post.

  2. Washington Buckeye Dec 7, 2011 at 6:48 am

    Eric Arthur Blair lives!

  3. YIPPEE! Maybe, maybe you finally gave me a way to get off Facebook, REALLY get off, I mean. You can’t the way things are now, as you know I’m sure. You can just stop signing in, ‘close’ your profile … close? Nah, some of you always remains. I’ve tried several times and finally gave up after people kept asking me why I did so little (what’s there to do, really?). Now, thanks to your post I may have found the loophole:
    Ruth Deborah Name is NOT the name on my passport! It’s my nom de plume made up by using my Hebrew names: Ruth Deborah and an Occitan translation of my maiden name, which became Rey.
    Yoohoo, Facebook, I’m cheating! Eh oh, Mark Iforgetyourname, RDR is NOT my ‘real’ name, but you may call me Ahmed if you wish.
    Great post, Rasoir, and yes, I think that a nom de plume in a way frees up the writer to write

  4. You will never be anonymous to us, Ruth Deborah.

  5. Howdy, Neat write-up حراج السيارات. There is an difficulty with your website in web browser, may possibly take a look? Web browser even so would be the marketplace head along with a beneficial aspect of others will leave out of amazing creating for that reason dilemma.

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