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Playing the name game: real names or pseudonyms in the online economy?

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Users with real names or pseudonyms? It's an important design choice that greatly impacts your online platform

In the old days of the internet and e-commerce, usernames were everywhere from Yahoo! games to eBay auctions. Recently however, as social networks and online marketplaces have become more prominent, the use of real names has become much more accepted and often required on the web. Google and Facebook made headlines for their insistence that users be open about who they are, but many other platforms have at least some limited real name policy. It’s not obvious whether the trend of using real names is always a good thing for the websites that use them. The type of names used on a platform is an important design choice that strongly impacts the community that arises on the platform.

The Username Design Choice

I’d like to start by distinguishing between three primary naming types: real, anonymous, and pseudonymous. Real names represent a real person in both online and offline contexts. Anonymous names are those that are non-existent (not requested by a website) or temporary usernames. Pseudonyms are enduring usernames associated with real person’s distinctly online life. All three naming styles have benefits and drawbacks, and can play different roles in an online community. At a high level, here are the main differences I see:

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And here are how a few online communities and marketplaces compare in their choice of user names:

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Looking across the policies used on various platforms, the primary factor in choosing a naming style is the extent to which the offline world intersects with the online world. Facebook and LinkedIn (ideally) connect people with their offline friends, family, and professional acquaintances. Using real names and real personal information creates a community of high trust and the feature that any gains (or losses) in interpersonal relationships, credibility, and fame easily flow between the online and offline worlds.

On the other hand, pseudonymous realms like Reddit, Tumblr, and a host of online forum communities don’t require intersection with the offline world, and, in many cases, try to avoid any intersection with the offline world. On the surface, pseudonyms may seem like trouble since they give users the opportunity to hide behind a mask and say whatever they want without fear of real life consequences. If implemented well, however, the use of pseudonyms can help create just as strong (or stronger) of a community as real names.

The biggest benefits of pseudonyms are the increased levels of privacy and honesty that they encourage. Users feel free to express themselves in ways they don’t offline, and they share intimate details of their lives that might be frowned upon or unsafe to share in the “real world.” Platform designers can further strengthen the benefits of pseudonyms with features that breathe life into the personas of online users. Features like status, achievements, message history, and personalized profiles create durability for online personas that is comparable to that of offline people. With these kinds of features comes increased trust, credibility, and opportunities for deep interpersonal relationships.

Unclear Choices

It’s not always clear what the best naming scheme is for a platform even when you have a good understanding of the degree of intersection between online and offline that exists on the platform. I suspect that most of the ambiguity comes from the diversity of wants/needs of a platform’s user base.

For instance, Yelp has fairly high intersection between the online and offline worlds which might imply that real names are the best policy. Surely, there is a good level of trust in the quality of reviews that comes from seeing real names next to the posts, but beyond that, real names are problematic for some users. Real names would restrict the level of valuable candor on Yelp, especially if someone was concerned that a harsh review they write about a restaurant could pop up when a potential employer Google’s their name. Also, specific real names are not altogether helpful for other users. Personally, I don’t really care who the other users are in their offline lives, I just care that they are real people with valid opinions on a local establishment.

Yelp’s solution is to request real names when a user signs up for the site, and then show a user’s first name and last initial next to their reviews. This gives users the impression that they are getting credible information from real people, but it doesn’t entirely put a user reviewer’s offline life at stake. A minority of users like me still have a valid privacy gripe since, for example, there are very few (probably only one) people named “Jamon M.” who live in Boston. Any review I make in the future (I haven’t made any) would be easy to find with the Google search “yelp boston jamon m.”

Other platforms must also deal with choosing a name policy in the face of diverse user needs. We saw in class that Airbnb guests with black-sounding names tend to face discrimination on the platform. One solution to discrimination would be to hide real names entirely until after a booking is completed. Microsoft’s Xbox Live is a social network that mixes a user’s offline social network of real friends with their strictly online social network of fellow gamers the user meets through online multiplayer experiences. Every player has a different combination of real life and online-only friends. Xbox’s solution to naming is to make pseudonymous “gamertags” the default and give users the option to reveal their real names to select friends or even to all other users on the platform, depending on their needs.

Conclusion

Platform designers should not take naming policy decisions lightly. The degree of intersection with the offline world is a good, high-level rule-of-thumb to use, but ultimately there will always be trade-offs between privacy, candor, credibility, and inclusiveness that have to be considered – and not all users will value the trade-offs in the same way.

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