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Consequences of Walking the Walk

While we’re waiting for the top management of Google to clarify and elaborate on the surprising (1,2) and controversial statement from Google’s executive chairman, Mr. Schmidt, (paraphrased by Andy Carvin) on G+ primarily being an “identity service”, rather that a social network (3), I want to reflect a bit on what leaving G+ and FB has meant for me personally and professionally as an educator and researcher.

On August 2nd 2011, I chose to close my FB account. My leaving FB was greatly inspired by leaving G+  just a few days earlier. Even though FB and G+ are two very different services provided by two very different companies, there are also certain resemblances and my main arguments for leaving FB were similar to leaving G+. I left both services because I disagree on their ToS. Besides concerns regarding intellectual property, neither system allows its customers to use pseudonyms, but insists on enforcing a “real name” policy. I realize, that I’m a very privileged person, because I’m currently not in need of using a pseudonym, but I have chosen to do so in many online services (ironically not on FB and G+), and I understand and respect other people’s need and choice to use pseudonyms. In short, I chose to leave FB and G+ in protest and out of solidarity. And yes, I know that in some parts of the world, solidarity is a intimidating concept, but to me it is one of the most important human virtues and a cornerstone of Democracy (4). The decision to leave did not come easy, but I did so “eyes wide open” understanding there would be consequences.

In an excellent post on why she chose to leave G+, Gwyneth Llewelyn, a fellow SL-resident who uses a pseudonym, explains why some users of social networks feel more or less forced to participate (5) – in this case FB:

I just joined because, well, nobody who is serious about social networking and online communities can afford not to be on Facebook, even if they don’t use it much.

I can easily relate to that. I was an active user of FB for 3 years. However, unlike many others, I didn’t use it for private reasons, but mainly as a platform to connect with colleagues and students. Having been involved in online and distance education since 2003 on a professional level, connecting f2f is rarely an option, and social networks are simply more appealing than most educational LMSs. On a personal level, I don’t miss FB, and I guess I’ve come to realize that I’m just not that (kind of) social.  However, on a more professional level I’m most certainly missing out. I was recently invited to participate in a research workshop, and as part of this participants were encouraged to discuss workshop topics prior to the actual event – I guess to enable people to get acquainted and give the organizers a better idea of what participants would find valuable. Great idea, except it is intended to take place in a FB group. And this of course leads back to the quote from Gwyneth, given the popularity of FB (although I don’t buy the whole 750 mio. unique, real name user stat), it is not surprising that organizers of any events tend to think “everybody is there, so lets utilize that to reach as many as possible”. I would have made the same assumption not so long ago.

Fortunately, FB is only  a social network (as opposed to G+ – I’ll return to that shortly), and besides not having access to more or less relevant information, so far the most significant professional consequence has to do with 3rd party services that exclusively use FB-login for authentication. An example of this could be Kitely, a virtual world service where I had a presence as part of my research. I never really used it though, mainly because it didn’t make sense to me to use my “wallet” name in that context, and I never understood why a service clearly aimed at (SL) avatar-users would require this kind of authentication. Nonetheless, these example illustrate the kind of problems I most likely will experience more of in the future …


Source: Botgirl Questi (6)

Despite the fact that I only spent two weeks on G+, I did see a great potential in terms of social networking (also in an educational setting), and though I don’t miss it, I do feel left out, when connections refer to it. As earlier mentioned, I chose to leave, so yes, you could say that it is my “own fault” (as someone told me). Solidarity is difficult to explain to privileged people with no empathy, so I’m not even going to try. Instead, I’ll focus on a more practical and selfish reason to opt out. One of the things that really surprised me about Google by my time of leaving was the way it treated its customers, the “guilty, until proven innocent” approach, which really is quite the opposite of what we in the Western part of the world are used to (7). G+ users who were suspected of violating the ToS were simply suspended without warning. Later on, Google renounced on that practice and now gives a 4-day “grace period” (8). But here is the chilling part; when suspended and if banned you are at risk of loosing access to all of your Google services, yes all!


Source

In my work as a researcher and educator, I have been using quite a few of Google’s services; docs, picasa, reader, gmail to name a few. When I witnessed how Google enforced its policy, I decided that a network, where people can flag each other with no apparent proof (it is only up to the accused to prove him-/herself innocent), really wasn’t worth the risk – especially not a network, where a lot of the people I normally connect with, are excluded. Judging from conversations in the social media sphere, a great deal of people doesn’t understand the “fuss about names and Google in general”, and there are a lot of Schmidt’y comments such as “love it or leave it”. I wish it were just that simple. Bonnie Nadri has written an excellent post explaining “those who say “they don’t get it” … (Google, G+, etc)”what this really is all about (9).  It’s not only about names and whether or not you can participate in a given network – it’s about fundamental human rights, intellectual property, surveillance and much, much more. All things, that not only affect “people with strange names”, but all of us.

So how has not being on G+ affected me? Not so much on a personal level. The people I truly care about, I connect with elsewhere. However, from a professional point of view there are several consequences. I teach and research Information and Communication Technology used in various fields and subject areas. This fall, I’ll be teaching 5 different classes, both on- and off-campus. I had planned to use several of Google’s services in all of those, but now I’m looking for alternatives. I’m not going to ban Google’s services in my classes, it is not really my place to do so, but on the other hand I’m no longer going to endorse its products, and I will use this controversy to spark (!) discussion and reflection on some of the issues raised above. I’m quite sure it will be possible to teach without Google, but it is frustrating, because I actually liked its services a lot. Many of my colleagues use gdocs as preferred collaborative tool, so I’m not quite ready to leave all of Google – yet. G+ is still, as has been said many times by its defenders, a product in beta, and there will be changes, but I doubt that it will cave in on the name/privacy issue (10). Precisely because it still is in beta, and hereby limited by an invitation-only policy, we have yet to see the true impact it’ll have in the field of social media. The good thing that can come from this is that the debate (although still fairly limited to geeks and tech-savvy people) has the potential to raise awareness about some very important issues – and this is also why I’ve chosen to blog about it.

I talked the talk, but have yet to discover fully what it means to walk the walk …

/Mariis

Notes
(1) This expression of Google’s view on freedom of expression, privacy, and anonymity from 2007 is a good example of why so many users believed the “do no evil” motto and trusted Google with their information.
(2) On the other hand, if we had payed closer attention to Mr. Schmidt, such as in these  All Things Digital interviews just prior to the launch of G+, there is nothing surprising about Google’s actions.
(3) Botgirl located this interview with Mr. Smidth, where he confirms the part about G+ as “identity service”.
(4) In this video series Tony Benn discusses the origin of  “Democracy as one of the Big Ideas That Changed The World” – especially in part 5 Benn highlights the influence of the Internet.
(5) On a related note a newly released study from Pew Research Centre shows that 65% of adult Americans use social networking sites.
(6) Although I’m not shedding any tears over this (I have two kitties!), I really appreciate Botgirl’s satirical, clever, and creative inputs – her blog, flickr, vimeo, and aggregation of #nymwars stories.
(7) Lauren Weinstein wrote a very good and informative post on this back in July.
(8) This talk between Stilgherrian and Skud gives a good overview of the nymwar, the name issues, and Google. Stilgherrian has had his G+ supsended because his mononym (but legal name) doesn’t comply to the ToS, and Skud has also been suspended, and she’s a former Google employee.
(9) Nadri has covered the nymwar in several posts on her blog and offers good advice to those who may wish to leave Google’s services.
(10) Pete Cashmore offers a perspective on why Google  will never change its mind.
Uh, a final note to the reader who sent me a message complaining that my English isn’t perfect. I know. If you took the time to carefully read my profile, you’d know that I’m not a native speaker. I’m, however exercising my freedom of expression, and perhaps you should appreciate the fact that I’m trying to write in a language that you too understand – instead of being offended. #justthinkin’

Nym vs. Schmidt


Source 

Agent Schmidt: Why, Mr. Nym? Why do you do it? Why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you’re fighting for something? For more that your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom? Or truth? Perhaps peace? Yes? No? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Nym. Vagaries of perception. The temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Identity Service itself, although only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Nym. You must know it by now. You can’t win. It’s pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr. Nym? Why? Why do you persist?

Nym: Because I choose to

/Mariis

Original quote from moviefanatic.com

Who needs pseudonyms?

I was actually working on a different post on the nymwars, FB and Google, when this tweet from Botgirl Questi caught my eye:

I will return to the content of this tweet later in this post, but it reminded me of a conversation I recently had a with one of my friends regarding why I left FB and G+. When I asked him, how he would react if a large part of his network connections was excluded from one of his networks, he acknowledged this, but also pointed to a difference in our connections; “But because you’re working with SL, you have more friends with unusual names and unknown identities – and you’re used to dealing with that – most people aren’t”. I found this very interesting because it points to two common conceptions regarding the pseudonym/nymwars issue.

First of all, my friend had the impression that mainly avatars (or other fictional characters, sic) need/want to use pseudonyms. This is by far the case, but it is sadly a very common misconception, and so I want to point to a webpage that was created in defense of pseudonyms and shows the many different groups of people, who may need/want to use pseudonyms for various reasons: the my name is me webpage.

This page was created to raise awareness about people who need pseudonyms and clearly shows how closely this need is related to the freedom of expression:

“My Name Is Me” is about having the freedom to be yourself online. We want people to be able to identify themselves as they wish, rather than being forced to choose names by social networking websites and other online service providers.

Websites such as Facebook and Google+ ask you to use a name that conforms to a certain standard. Though their policies vary, what they would like you to use is the name that appears on the ID in your wallet, your employer’s records, or on the letters your bank sends you. They don’t understand that many people go by other names, for a wide variety of reasons.

Take a look at some of these heartfelt and personal stories – it really just isn’t us “strange” avatars that need/want pseudonyms – and even so, I believe we all, avatars included, should have the right to choose! Additionally, The Geek Feminism wiki has another list of “Who’s harmed by “Real names” policy”, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) makes A Case for Pseudonyms.

Looking at these stories, nobody in his/her right mind can dismiss the need for pseudonyms some people have to enable them to interact safely online. Or so I thought, but let us return to the content of Botgirl’s above mentioned tweet. Botgirl links to a post on her blog wherein she quotes NPR‘s Andy Carvin, who met Google’s Executive chairman, Eric E. Schmidt at a recent film festival.

Carvin asked Schmidt how he could justify their policy about “real names” given that real identities could put people at risk:

He replied by saying that G+ was build primarily as an identity service, so fundamentally, it depends on people using their real names if they’re going to build future products that leverage that information.

Regarding people who are concerned about their safety, he said G+ is completely optional. No one is forcing you to use it. It’s obvious for people at risk if they use their real names, they shouldn’t use G+. Regarding countries like Iran and Syria, people there have no expectation of privacy anyway due to their government’s own policies, which implies there’s no point of even trying to have a service that allows pseudonyms.

He also said the internet would be better if we knew you were a real person rather than a dog or a fake person. Some people are just evil and we should be able to ID them and rank them downward. (quoted from Carvin‘s G+ (!) page)

I’m trying my very best to ignore the arrogance and stupidity of Schmidt’s comment and to keep a civil tone here, so I’ll let it be for now.

However, let me just finish by pointing to the second part of the statement from my friend where he implies that acceptance of pseudonyms requires (positive) experience. During this period of nymwars, but also during my research in SL, I’ve struggled to understand the fear some people have towards pseudonyms, or as my colleague, Mark Childs calls it: the obsession people have with “real” identities. Based on my own research experience, I think my friend’s stance is quite plausible, people fear the unknown. And identities that do not conform to “real” or “normal” standards do provoke ontological/existential questions. I have no other particular qualified (read: academic referable) explanations at this point, but it is a topic, I will continue to investigate.

/Mariis

Update
On August 30th, Andy Carvin posted a “a transcript of what Google CEO Eric Schmidt said in the Q&A at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International TV Festival, so you can see his direct words rather than my paraphrasing of it”.