Google seems to have a hit on its hands with its new social network Google Plus. Despite its still being a "field trial," available by invitation only, Google Plus seen strong adoption, with estimates that it already has over 20 million users. But there's been some concern and confusion over Google's "real names" policy, triggered by reports over the weekend of a widespread purging of pseudonymous accounts.
I am a strong supporter of pseudonymity online, having started my first blog many years ago under an alias. At the time, I was a graduate student, and it was safer for me to not reveal my identity. In an infamous op-ed that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "Ivan Tribble" made it clear that "bloggers need not apply" for academic jobs. (Let's pause here for a moment to note th irony of his own pseudonym to write his screed). While there were a lot of reasons why I opted to blog under a pen-name, Tribble made it clear that many in power positions -- on hiring committees, specifically -- frowned upon those of us who were cultivating an online presence.
Of course, a lot has changed in the six years since Tribble wrote his rant. Blogging has become a far more accepted and acceptable medium for scholars and students alike. We're all supposed to cultivate our online personae nowadays -- albeit carefully -- right? But there remains a long list of reasons why people might prefer to use pseudonym online. Please read this Geek Feminism post to see who is harmed when we enforce a "real names" policy.
A lot of these arguments about pseudonymity come down to questions of safety. "Safety" can mean a number of things: job safety, privacy, avoiding stalkers, avoiding violence.
We talk a lot about the safety of students when it comes to their online behaviors. But it is often in terms of protecting students' privacy, protecting them from cyberbullies and predators. Safety could (and should) also refer to providing students with a place in which they are free to express themselves, without the prying eyes of parents, teachers, future employers or college admissions officers, places where they can explore a multitude of identities -- kids do that anyways, you know -- as they figure out who they are, who they want to be.
Yes, of course students should be encouraged to claim their own work with their "real" identities. But one of the great things about the Internet, as the oft-cited New Yorker cartoon reminds us, is that no one here need know you're a student. Or, errr, a dog. So rather than cracking down on pseudonyms, dismissing them as something associated with "bad behavior" (or, as Dave Winer wrly notes, behavior that can't be monetized -- and yes, Google, he was talking about you), should we tolerate if not encourage pseudonyms for students?
I'm really curious to hear people's thoughts on this, and all due credit to those on Google Plus who prompted this post. For its part, Google Plus now faces a rather furious backlash for its banning the accounts of users who've opted to use pseudonyms. Skud -- geek feminist, open source advocate, former Google employee, and now Google Plus outcast -- has documented the myriad of reasons why people who've had their accounts banned opted to use something other than their real name in the first place. None of those who responded to her survey were students. But I do wonder what students think, as Ivan Tribble, in whatever shape or form he takes nowadays, does still rule the world.