Identity : Anonymity :: Community : Network (?)


There’s been a fair amount of discussion around Google’s “real names” policy on Google+ in certain circles. Most recently in my stream, Fred Wilson pointed to Corey Doctorow’s post on the topic, and the discussion around that post crystallized some of what I’ve been thinking on the issue. To be specific, the crystal is:

The “anonymity vs. real names” debate is in large part a discussion of a very different issue: community vs. network.

Ages ago, in the days before Google+, the discussion tended to revolve around Facebook comments outside of Facebook. “If we implement Facebook comments,” the corporate presentation went, “it will improve the quality of the UGC on our site, because comments will be tied to users’ real identities. If people’s comments are linked to their Facebook profile, they will be respectful of both our content and other’s contributions, because a meaningful degree of accountability has been added to the system.”

The next slide of the powerpoint was inevitably the real money, though, pointing to the awesome traffic potential that came with hitching one’s buggy to the Facebook rocket: “because users can easily share their comments to their Facebook friends,” the presentation would continue, “we make better use of users’ existing social networks in our efforts to build traffic to the site.”

And there’s the rub.

Requiring a fixed external identity online addresses a very real concern, but it’s reactive. It is, in many cases and possibly at best, a response to the ease with which users can find a new-to-them site or service these days. It is, in an unfortunate number of cases, an attempt to shortcut the process of building a community in favor of importing networks, and then trying to preemptively create some order out of the mess that almost inevitably results from that import.

In Google’s case the network import in question was…well, Google’s, but I don’t think that changes the formulation to any meaningful degree: my Google+ circles are just as far removed from my gmail “contacts” list as the squares, lists, scenes, or cadres dreamed up by any unfunded Brooklyn startup.

The issue, in my view, isn’t whether giving users of a service the ability to be “anonymous” to other users of that service is harmful to that service — I maintain that UrbanBaby settled that question nearly a decade ago, in favor of anonymity — but whether an external identity requirement does anything positive at all.

Because so many people now have established identities and communities online, the idea that you can just tap into that pre-existing structure is incredibly seductive: you find one person who’s right for your new service and they bring a whole community with them.

The problem is that the network effect can help expand an established community, but it can’t build one.┬áDrive-by visitors are generally more trouble than they’re worth, as many Dugg and Slashdotted sites will report.

Until people have a reason to take (credit || responsibility) for their activity on your site, you’ll have a real problem with bad apples, anonymous or otherwise. Once people do care, the community will make an effort to take care of problems whether or not they know the “real name” associated with that problem.

My “network” is made up of many different communities, and some of those communities don’t like one another very much. Assuming that pulling that entire, extended network into one central location is a good idea is…well, just not a good idea.

Bonus: any commenters who provide an explication of the “bartender” label that appears on Fred’s AVC comments get a free beer from me at the time and of their choosing (within reason). Bonus points for offering a (probably inaccurate) derivation of the term “86”.