Friday, August 26, 2011

What the $#!% is Happening to Free Speech on the Web?

Once upon a time AVSIG was the last known place on the internet to require its members to use real names. We were archaic prudes.   But we were just sticking with the theory we've had since back when we sort of invented online social networking in 1981*: Mobs of anonymous people won't hesitate to say terrible things about your mother on the internet, but Dr. John P. DeWalter of Rhinebeck, New York** will probably give her the benefit of the doubt.

This probably has something to do with Dr. DeWalter's full name being on his sentiments.  Or his successful, readily located dental practice in Rhinebeck.  Or his knowledge of the cost and inconvenience of getting one's front teeth replaced.

With a few exceptions the policy has always worked out for us.

Sure, some low life could print up, say, your musings from our political section and send a sheaf of it off to your soon-to-be-former employer, but we have always kept the low-life population pretty low on AVSIG.  And honestly: do you really want to contribute your services to an employer who would fire you over your political beliefs?  (You say the economy is in the dumper and you value any employment you can get?  OK. Then just keep your big bazoo shut on politics anywhere your true identity is on the line, whether it's a glowing screen or a Rotary breakfast).

The larger web is embracing real names on a grand scale lately, as if the old-fashioned idea of knowing who you're conversing with on a regular basis is a new user experience upgrade.

Facebook and Google Plus may claim to want only to cultivate civil, productive social environments with their real name policies, but in reality these behemoths wouldn't be going to the mat over this issue unless they wanted the real good marketing data that rides along with real names.

Interblog counter-punching against this new-old real name trend has not exactly been bruising.

A blogger at InformationWeek recently compared the Google+ real name policy to an authoritarian regime, asserting that the search giant's latest attempt at social networking exposes users to potential harassment and persecution, stifles the exchange of free ideas, denies privacy, and isn't being enforced fairly.

If this sounds vaguely like a cross between some 60s flower child whining about not being able to pitch a tent on the White House lawn and some high-schooler's reluctant poli-sci position paper, it may be because the vanguard of tech writers today are children of the web's no-barriers free-for-all first decade-point-five.  The consequence of bad behavior in the land of screen names rarely ever amounted to anything more than the inconvenience of being "banned," after which the "banned" reincarnate under new screen names to resume flaming, taunting, and trolling and other "ings." 

Considering the millions of insults traded on web forums each day, the idea of, say, comfortably calling someone a bleepbag under one's real name must be discomforting to folks who have probably rarely written a letter to the editor, let alone a letter to the editor under their real names.

But let's look back to the recent days before DARPA, Bill, Steve, and Tim hooked us all up on the never-ending natter, when the only safe opportunities we had to call somebody a bleepbag was from a passing car or while sitting among thousands in a football stadium.

The pre-ZuckerWinkle "social networks" were pool halls, Elks Lodges, corner taverns, churches, and the PTA.  Everybody knew everybody's name at those places with the exception of maybe the pool halls and taverns, but the anonymity afforded in those places was never good enough to stand between you and a broken beer bottle.

Today there are endless destinations for anonymous web posters, but still very few online places where everybody knows your name.  You can count the large sites on one hand.

So why even join one of these real-name social networks if your real name is such a big secret?

And if you do join a real-name social network, why spout off about politics unless you're proud of your opinion and willing to live with half of all registered voters (or more) disagreeing with it?  For whatever it may be worth to you, research at the politically-biased institution of your choice shows that your political opinion counts for squat out there on the internet ... same as with your smug look-who-I'm-voting-for bumper sticker and your hip I-support-Bozo yard sign.

Your web time would be better spent plus-one-ing fan sites for Snooki and The Biebs.

Of course modern real name pushback isn't all about political persecution.  There are certainly other ideals you can be "persecuted for" on the web and in real life, like being a Michigan fan or driving a PT Cruiser.   Still: you make your choices and you and your real identity live with them.

There can be no doubt that InformationWeek's real name protester is on the money about real names stifling the free exchange of ideas, however ... at least the free exchange of ideas anon web punks have come to see as an online birthright.

Recently The Columbus Dispatch switched its online article comment module to one requiring real names for posting.  Editor Ben Marrison, who under the previous anonymous comment arrangement enjoyed 24/7 insults accusing him of making up positive reader feedback anecdotes, having bad hair, and dribbling non-stop insipid observations about the world in his column each Sunday, couldn't have been more pleased with result.  Real Name feedback on Mr. Marrison's column announcing this change dwindled to 1/100th the typical feedback under the anonymous comment arrangement, and it was mostly polite, glowing, and positive feedback congratulating Mr. Marrison on the publication's wise, prescient move.  If prevarication serves, someone even complemented Mr. Marrison's hair.

But there was a little hiccup in the Dispatch Real Name changeover ... where Editor Marrison mistakenly announced that real account-holder names would not show up on posts in the new comment system ... but where the real account-holder names did show up on the posts, along with the fake names the commentators had been using as posting names on the old anon system.  One outspoken and oft-inflammatory poster under the previous make-up-whatever-name-you-want setup, a prominent local attorney, was tragically outed. As they say on the internets under real names or fake, sucks to be him.

(Real Name: BieberCleaver114)

*No, we're not going all Winklevoss on anybody.  We only sort of invented it.
**Dr. John P. DeWalter of Rhinebeck, New York is a wholly fictitious person, we think. 


  1. You ought to rant more often, Mike. That was fun. :)

    Don Brown

  2. Not to worry, Don. I have big plans for becoming a cranky old man someday :).