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Consider an online community where anyone can join and participate around a common center of interest (as opposed to a community that has an anchor in real life where many people know each other offline). Is there a benefit to requiring people to participate under their real (legal name)?

For example, the question and answer site Quora requires users to provide their real name. Their competitor Stack Exchange, on the other hand, doesn't care what users call themselves and does not provide any “verified name” feature.

Is there a demonstrated benefit to Quora's approach? For example, do users behave more civilly when they are allegedly attaching their real name to content? (Allegedly because there is no practical way to prevent users from using a real-sounding but fake name.)

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I believe users like the idea of anonymity on the internet. If your name is attached to a post, you're less likely to say something offensive.

However, Google recently announced they no longer require real names for Google+.

We know you've been calling for this change for a while. We know that our names policy has been unclear, and this has led to some unnecessarily difficult experiences for some of our users. For this we apologize, and we hope that today's change is a step toward making Google+ the welcoming and inclusive place that we want it to be. Thank you for expressing your opinions so passionately, and thanks for continuing to make Google+ the thoughtful community that it is.

This has been a rallying cry around Google+ almost since day 1. People protested the real name policy. Google deleted fake accounts. It's worth noting that other social media giants have had the same policy and also had backlash.

It is hard to know what is and isn't a real name. There are many names that don't sound real, but are:

(I'm done, I won't subject you to more weird names or celebrities)

By allowing users to select what name they will be known as, you are giving them control over the identity they wish to present to the world. It also allows them to separate their personal hobbies (aka IHeartNinjas) from professional ones (aka JSmith). It does help the trolls of the internet as well, but that is where you, as a moderator come into the equation.

  • On names: Some people have also legally changed their name to something not traditionally considered "normal." For example, Scott Edward Nall changed his name to Optimus Prime in 2003. Some people seem to just have cruel parents: Mai Phat Sau Nghin Ruoi (Vietnamese) translates to "Fined Six Thousand and Five Hundred," the price his father paid for having a fifth child. (Mr. 6500 eventually changed his name to Mai Hoang Long / Golden Dragon, a relatively normal Vietnamese name.) – Brian S Sep 2 '14 at 23:00
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There is a subtle difference between anonymity and non-identifiability that people seem to forget.

You can be anonymous on a web site (as far as the public is concerned) but still identifiable and accountable - which is the situation Stack Exchange has (by and large). This allows users to create an account using whatever name they like, but every action they take on the site is linked back to their account. Thus if they do anything out of line they can be held accountable for that action. This accountability is not related to them supplying a real name or not, but because all actions are tied to the account.

The idea behind asking for their real name is that it will lead to better behaviour as there is an obvious link between their behaviour and them. I haven't found a definitive study on this though.

The solution I'd adopt is splitting the real name from the display name. Keep the former hidden and only used by site administrators and use the latter on all public actions by the user.

  • 1
    Stack Exchange's real name requirement is purely optional, unlike Quora. Quora can't check everyone but will ban users if they find out (or believe) that they're using a fake “real name”. I could put whatever I like as my private “real name” for Stack Exchange and nobody would care. So how does “put your real name here, or don't because we don't care anyway” help with accountability or anything? – Gilles Jul 30 '14 at 12:25
  • @Gilles - I was using SE as an example of a site which has anonymity but (some) accountability. It also happens to have separate display name and real name fields in the profile. The fact that the latter is optional doesn't really affect my point. – ChrisF Jul 30 '14 at 12:29
  • -1 because the first line of paragraph 2 does not start with "account…". – Caleb Jul 30 '14 at 12:40
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I'd be surprised if linking your words to your official name has as much benefit as people believe. There have been several internet vigilante mobs that have taken to Facebook to express their upset with events. While Facebook doesn't require real names anymore, many folks do still use them to interact with family/offline friends.

The earliest example (that I'm aware of) of this type of mob appearing on Facebook is the Cooks Source scandal (in which a New England cooking magazine plagiarized several articles, and the editor refused to apologize).

And what comments they left. After the predictable spankings over being such copyright cretins, Cooks Source was then ironically accused of every atrocity known to mankind, including shooting JFK, telling the Nazis where to find Anne Frank, hiding Osama Bin Laden, killing Dumbledore, canceling "Arrested Development," eating the insides out of each Oreo cookie before putting them back in the box, and creating "A Very Brady Christmas." The piling on was impressive, often hilarious, and a little frightening.

I remember watching the Facebook page at the time (being stunned at how terrible people were acting with their real names attached), and while some comments were funny or amusing, other comments were just pure unadulterated hate.

No, using your Real Name does not improve behavior on the internet.

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