The Internet Identity Crisis

To use or not to use a real name on the Web is not always a user's prerogative. But maybe it should be

In 1971, journalist Don Hoefler coined the name Silicon Valley. And just like every other 40-year-old Gen Xer, Silicon Valley is now having an identity crisis—about identity no less. The question: How should people name themselves online?

For Facebook and Google, as well as other sites with real-name policies, the mandate is real names should be used online, and they should follow us across the Web. Out in the world, after all, names turn strangers into acquaintances and friends, and (mostly) hold us accountable for our actions. It’s why we wear name tags at conferences and news articles carry bylines.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made this policy a central tenet of his company, positioning himself, no less, on moral grounds. “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,” Zuckerberg told The Facebook Effect author David Kirkpatrick. “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly.”

On the other side are those who believe real names can deny users freedom of expression and limit individual liberties. At the extreme, they say, it puts political activists, marginalized communities, abuse survivors and others at great risk.

Arguing that Facebook and Google “do identity wrong,” Christopher Poole, founder of anonymous message board 4Chan and image-sharing site Canvas, said at a conference last fall that “identity is prismatic. There are many lenses through which people view you. … Google and Facebook would have you believe that you’re a mirror, [but] in fact, we’re more like diamonds.”

The debate between real names and pseudonyms—known as the “nymwars”—came to a head last summer when Google+ launched with a real name policy and suspended accounts for those who didn’t fall in line. Then, last fall, Facebook and Salman Rushdie came to blows when the company changed the name of his profile page to the name on his passport. (Facebook reversed course. Who wants a public brawl about identity with an award-winning writer who went into hiding with a fatwa on his head? But the company didn’t make any policy changes as a result.)

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The topic has heated up again thanks to muddy changes Google+ made for account holders last month: It now accepts some pseudonyms on its site.

But as the arguments continue to make headlines and blog posts, an important issue for marketers is often overlooked: Are real names better for online advertising?

Before Facebook, pseudonyms were the status quo. They still exist in significant pockets of the Web—among hackers, gamers, health-related message boards and other communities—but, largely thanks to Zuckerberg, hundreds of millions of people who use the social Web now do so with their real names. (It’s enough, the company believes, that users can deliver different messages to different audiences, an option recently automated.) Hundreds of publishers have adopted Facebook Connect as their default logins.

With personal data a growing, multi-billion dollar business—$2 billion annually in third-party data alone, according to Forrester Research—a well-maintained dataset, with real names and demographics, is highly coveted. Advertisers, it’s believed, are better served if they can cement one person to one name. After all, real names have been a gold mine for the direct mail business for a decade.

They also help marketers track every targeted penny and let them know, says eMarketer analyst Debra Aho Williamson, the size of the audience they’re reaching. When Twitter—firmly in the no-real-names-needed camp—shares its number of users, she notes, it doesn’t disclose the number of people, because multiple accounts are allowed.

It’s also important, Williamson says, for customer relationship management, and mapping customers across different marketing touch points, which otherwise could be a “data nightmare.”

Some also argue anonymity breeds abuse. “People behave a lot better when they have their real names down,” said Facebook’s former marketing director (and Mark Zuckerberg’s sister), Randi Zuckerberg.

If Facebook were to back away from its policy, it would “absolutely” be less valuable to marketers, says Clara Shih, CEO of social media management company Hearsay Social. It “has been transformational for the online experience and, secondarily, for marketers,” she says. “Marketers work with an authentic community and that authentic community comes from having real names.”

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Real names, Shih adds, are also a prerequisite for social graphs. And that is arguably the cornerstone of Facebook’s “word-of-mouth-at-scale” grand plan, and the reason the site can offer sponsored stories with friends’ de facto recommendations.

“Transparency across many dimensions is truly important in the relationship between consumers and marketers,” says David Cohen, evp, global digital officer for Universal McCann. “The idea of hiding behind a pseudonym is the antithesis of transparency.”

Google+ was built on real names as well. But when it launched, its policy resulting in the suspension of fake name accounts set off a fury of negative articles, tweets and posts on Google+ itself. In fact, a website,, was created as a forum where people could register their complaints. The company had believed, said Google engineering svp Vic Gundotra, at a conference this past fall, that fake names (like “Captain Crunch” and “dog fart,” to name two he mentioned), would “change the atmosphere of the product.”

As it turned out, not so much. Two weeks ago, when Google+ massaged its common names policy, Yonatan Zunger, chief architect of Google+, said on his Google+ profile that “we thought … people would behave very differently when they were and weren’t going by their real names. After watching the system for a while, we realized that this was not, in fact, the case. (And in particular, bastards are still bastards under their own names.)”

The new policy, however—Google+ now accepts nicknames, and pseudonyms with a “meaningful following”—has enough shades of gray that advocacy groups aren’t sure what to make of it. Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Eva Galperin, for one, says it’s a positive, but “we were really hoping for more.”

As Google moves to link properties and leverage Google Wallet and Checkout, it may view the emphasis on real names as a hedge for future opportunities as a seller of data or other roles, says David Rogers, author of The Network Is Your Customer, who teaches digital marketing at Columbia Business School. (In fact, just this past month, Google adopted a new privacy policy limiting users’ ability to opt out of data sharing between its properties.) But, in the current environment, he says, the value of real names is “far from proven.”

Recent data from commenting network Disqus, for instance, suggests that people who use pseudonyms post more comments, and of higher quality. Sixty-one percent of comments made with pseudonyms were positive, for instance, compared to 51 percent from people who used real names.

Indeed, some industry leaders feel real names are not crucial to a brand’s bottom line. At an event in September, Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter—which prohibits impersonation, but permits parody, fan and other accounts that use fake names—reportedly said, “Other services may be declaring that you have to use your real name because they think they’ll be able to monetize that better. … We’re more interested in serving our users first, and we think by [doing this], we’ll have a better platform for marketers and advertisers.”

Also, some believe while real names may make it easier for friends to find friends, online, just as in real life, people organize around shared interests and concerns. Those connections can easily be made with pseudonyms.

“The actual identity is much less important to me than the set of data that represents what they’re doing,” adds Roland Smart, senior director of product marketing for Involver. “It’s that set of data that I’m going to use to deliver relevant content to that user.”

Matt Rednor, vp of strategy for social media agency Mr. Youth, notes that the whole point of the Internet is to help people connect around shared interests, and to share opinions in ways they weren’t able to before. And “pseudonyms, especially from a marketing standpoint,” he says, “allow people to have more honest conversations about brands. Ultimately, that’s what we care about.”

Todd Steinman, CEO of social media marketing agency M80, says while marketers may believe that fake names contribute to lower quality comments on sites like YouTube, that dynamic changes as the topics become more weighty. “I think certain brands [like a pharmaceutical product line] understand that … you’re going to have a lot more legitimate, authentic discourse when you have profiles that [allow fake] names,” he says.

In addition, a study last summer from Internet company Meebo notes most people don’t even want a real (or known) name when looking for advice. For online recommendations, the company said expert strangers trump friends: 53 percent of people surveyed looked for recommendations from “everyday experts” with knowledge on a specific topic. For information on specific hobbies or interests, 39 percent would seek the recommendations of strangers, compared to 28 percent who would turn to friends or acquaintances. For questions about travel and cooking, the gap is even wider: about 40 percent said they would connect with “everyday experts” while about 20 percent would ask people they know.

“Your first and last name is on your credit card,” says Federated Media CEO Deanna Brown. “[They’re] on your birth certificate. But they’re not necessarily your currency in a kind of conversational or branded world.” As social media increasingly allows people to become brands—and brand influencers—themselves, she says, she sees brands warming to consumers with digital clout who prefer to use alternate identities online.

In addition, a cottage industry of online targeting firms has emerged in which most bend over backwards to prove they never use real names in their ad targeting—just cookies—lest they feel the wrath of regulators.

Universal McCann’s Cohen acknowledges that pseudonyms can be used for a variety of reasons. “It’s not one size fits all,” he says. “There’s the use of pseudonyms to mask behavior that we wouldn’t condone in the world of marketing and the use of masking that’s simply another personification of your persona, along the lines of interests and passions.” The latter, he says, could create additional consumer insights.

Facebook may have a social graph that says, “This is who I am,” adds Columbia Business School’s Rogers, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into an interest graph that says, “This is what I like.” The future of the Web is a combination of the two, he argues, but until then interest graphs built by sites like Twitter, Amazon and Netflix—that don’t rely on real names—can be just as valuable as a social graph.

“Profiles are still profiles,” adds Jordan Bitterman, svp and social marketing practice director at Digitas. “You can say you’re one thing, but the actions that you undertake as that profile are actually even more important than your identity.”

Facebook and Google+, it seems, take a different view. Perhaps that’s because their angst about how users should identify themselves is really more about what the services themselves want to be online. Both services like to tell users they’re about sharing. Increasingly, however, as both companies ramp up commerce capabilities and strengthen their presence across the Internet, it’s clear they also want to be about identifying and authenticating their data pool. The risk? If they’re not careful, what they gain in identification they could lose in expression. 

Disclosure: This reporter is married to an employee of Disqus.