Why Twitter doesn’t care what your real name is

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Amid all the noise and fury over Google’s policy of requiring real names (or at least real-sounding names) on its new Google+ network — a policy that Facebook also has, and one we have been critical of in the past — it’s easy to forget that there’s a pretty large web service that doesn’t much care what your real name is. Although it does prevent you from pretending to be people you aren’t, Twitter doesn’t block or ban users for having pseudonyms the way Google and Facebook do. Why is that? I think it’s because Twitter realizes it can provide plenty of value for users (and thus for advertisers) without having to know your real name. The social web is about reputation and influence, not necessarily names.

I started thinking about this again, not just because the real-name issue continues to draw heat from Google+ users — and because Facebook’s real-name policy threatened to become a legal issue if legislation that was being proposed by Congress passed — but also because I had a chance to re-read Clay Shirky’s excellent take on group dynamics from 2003, in which he talked a bit about identity online. If you haven’t had a chance to read his presentation, I highly recommend it. Before he became a media guru, Shirky spent years studying early online worlds such as LambdaMOO and The Well, and his insights are worthwhile for anyone interested in the topic of community online.

When he gets around to the issue of identity, Shirky says that he generally avoids the topic because it “has suddenly become one of those ideas where, when you pull on the little thread you want, this big bag of stuff comes along with it” — something just as true now as it was eight years ago when he said it. He notes that while anonymity doesn’t work well in group settings (as supporters of Google’s policy like to point out), the answer isn’t necessarily requiring real names, but rather some structure that allows for persistent pseudonyms or “handles.”

Not real names — persistent identity with reputation attached

There has to be some permanence to these handles, Shirky says, because otherwise there’s no reputation hit to changing your online name and behaving completely differently — and users need to be able to know who they are talking to or interacting with from one minute to the next, even if they don’t know their real name. As he puts it, weak (or non-persistent) pseudonyms don’t work well because:

I need to associate who’s saying something to me now with previous conversations… If you give users a way of remembering one another, reputation will happen, and that requires nothing more than simple and somewhat persistent handles.

Does that sound like any kind of online network you know of? It sounds a lot like Twitter to me. In a recent open house at the company, CEO Dick Costolo talked about how the service doesn’t really care what your real name is — all it wants to do is connect you to the information that you care about. And if that information happens to come from a “real” person, then so be it; but if it comes from a pseudonym, then that’s fine too. Twitter isn’t necessarily married to the idea of users having pseudonyms, Costolo said — it’s simply “wedded to people being able to use the service as they see fit.”

I think Mat Honan at Gizmodo hit the nail on the head in a post he wrote about Costolo’s remarks, in which he talked about how Twitter doesn’t care what your name is because it has realized that you and your activity are just as valuable to advertisers with or without a real name. That’s because advertisers want to target their messages based on interests, demographics, reputation and influence — things that have little or nothing to do with what name you use. You could argue that people who use real names are more likely to tell the truth about their age, marital status etc., but even those aren’t the real goal.

Reputation and influence matters — not names

The reason why services like Klout have been gaining steam is that advertisers and marketers are looking to build a “reputation graph” that they can tie to the interest graph they get from watching behavior on social networks. They need to know not just what is being talked about but who is saying it, and whether they are influential. Does their real name matter? Not really. Did anyone care that Perez Hilton used a fake name as he built a small media empire under the noses of the mainstream media? No. Advertisers certainly didn’t care, because he had influence in the markets that they were interested in.

Shirky’s point is that for a functioning online community, all you really need is some kind of system for attaching reputation points to a user’s “handle” or pseudonym. Klout is trying to do that with a number that rises and falls based on your activity on networks like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and Tumblr. It may not be the best system, and Klout has its share of critics, but it is the closest thing we have right now to a reputation graph that is based on Twitter and other social-network activity. If you behave badly and you lose followers, your ranking falls, regardless of what your name is.

That kind of penalty — a loss of status, a loss of followers, etc. — matters to most users (other than pure trolls, or what online researchers call “griefers”), and so they will behave in ways that protect it. It’s the same in successful online communities like Slashdot and Metafilter, where users have invested a lot of time in their online personas, whether they use their real names or not (I’ve talked about this before as being a little like levelling up in online games like World of Warcraft). And of course, the “real” names of many Twitter users and gamers can be discovered fairly easily with a web search.

Google has made it clear that it wants Google+ to become a central kind of “identity service” that it can build other services on, although it’s not clear what kinds. But the real-name requirement must be based on something other than just wanting to have a well-designed online community or network in which people are free to share information, because Twitter has shown that doing this doesn’t require real names — and never has.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Klobetime and Danny Cain

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