In This Case, Gonna Have to Say "Down With the Revolution!"

I’d really never thought of Google’s “real names” policy like this – but the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal calls it “revolutionary”:

Imagine you’re walking down the street and you say out loud, “Down with the government!” For all non-megastars, the vast majority of people within earshot will have no idea who you are. They won’t have access to your employment history or your social network or any of the other things that a Google search allows one to find. The only information they really have about you is your physical characteristics and mode of dress, which are data-rich but which cannot be directly or easily connected to your actual identity. In my case, bystanders would know that a 5’9″, 165 pound probably Caucasian male with half a beard said, “Down with the government!” Neither my speech or the context in which it occurred is preserved. And as soon as I leave the immediate vicinity, no one can definitively prove that I said, “Down with the government!”
In your head, adjust the settings for this thought experiment (you say it at work or your hometown or on television) or what you say (something racist, something intensely valuable, something criminal) or who you are (child, celebrity, politician) or who is listening (reporters, no one, coworkers, family). What I think you’ll find is that we have different expectations for the publicness and persistence of a statement depending on a variety of factors. There is a continuum of publicness and persistence and anonymity. But in real life, we expect very few statements to be public, persistent, and attached to your real identity. Basically, only people talking on television or to the media can expect such treatment. And even then, the vast majority of their statements don’t become part of the searchable Internet.
Online, Google and Facebook require an inversion of this assumed norm. Every statement you make on Google Plus or Facebook is persistent and strongly attached to your real identity through your name. Both services allow you to change settings to make your statements more or less public, which solves some problems. However, participating in public life on the services requires attaching your name to your statements. On the boulevards and town squares of Facebook, you can’t just say, “Down with the government,” with the knowledge that only a small percentage of the people who hear you could connect your statement to you. But the information is still being recorded, presumably in perpetuity. That means that if a government or human resources researcher or plain old enemy wants to get a hold of it, it is possible. [emphasis in original]

And you know something, that’s true. I mean, we already knew about the whole people-could-search-you-out stuff; that’s one of the main reasons why we ‘nym advocates advocate ‘nyms in the first place. But this really brings home the point, better than anything else, that what Google and Facebook want us to do is something we don’t do even in real life.

We don’t walk down the street or in to private businesses wearing signs with our real names plastered all over them in enormous letters anyone can see. But that’s basically what Google and Facebook are asking us to do. They’re requiring something even the police don’t have the right to ask for without reasonable suspicion.

This is one revolution I’m not gonna be cheering for.

Tip o’ the shot glass to A.S.

An Open Letter to Those Who Think Real Names Solve the Civility Problem

Dear People Who Think Real Names Make People Behave Better:

I understand the desire for a more civil discourse. Most of us would like that (except for the trolls, one supposes), but a “real name” policy isn’t the magic cure that will make everyone nice. Allow me to direct your attention to what people feel perfectly comfortable doing under their real names:

Ah, yes. Very civil. A shining example of the kind of respectful discourse one can expect when everybody knows everybody’s real name, isn’t it?

We’ve seen your arguments as to why real names are necessary, and Facebook has disproved very nearly all of them. Those Facebook hasn’t managed to provide demonstrations against are taken care of at the previous link. And I’m sorry, but your civility argument was so full of holes it could be used to drain spaghetti to begin with, and since then several people have hit it repeatedly with birdshot. I think there are some scraps left there somewhere, but they can’t be scraped together into anything usable now. Real names do nothing to rescue teh intertoobz from civility problems. People are too adept at being rat bastards for anything like a real name policy to stop them.

Ah, you say, but there will be consequences! Because, y’know, bosses and stuff will know who’s saying what, and they’ll get caught, and everything will be happiness and rainbows.

That may be true in a subset of cases. A few people may have to pay a real price for bad behavior. Lovely. Meanwhile, the bad behavior continues apace, because the chance of suffering consequences is so damned remote. And folks like, oh, lessee, Bob “Shoot to Kill” O’Connell and Joe “12 Gauge” Martinez are free to continue spewing their hate and death threats on real name forums like Facebook and Google+ while people like Bug Girl and GrrlScientist are shut out.

You don’t solve the civility problem with real names. Real names won’t stop a soul from frothing at the mouth. Even if everybody signing up for Google+ had to provide a photo I.D., therefore guaranteeing they have to use their really-real names, the civility problem would continue apace. Look at Congress.

I hate to tell you this, but the civility problem will never be solved. There will always be a subset of rotten jerks in any given population. The band-aid of a real names policy does nothing but give you the illusion things will be hunky-dory.

You mitigate it by having tools in place for folks to flag bad behavior. You mitigate it by having policies in place that deal with that bad behavior no matter what name it’s coming from. That’s what Google can do: provide some community guidelines (while keeping in mind that free speech shouldn’t always be nicey-nice speech), and provide tools for people to report bad behavior.

You yourself are going to have to take some responsibility beyond “real names!” to solve the civility problem. You’ll have to flag people who are being wildly inappropriate (and not just because you don’t agree with them, or don’t like their way of putting things, but truly bad, outrageous, nasty behavior). You’ll have to block those folks who make you feel icky inside, whose actions haven’t reached the level of a flag but are still not something you’ll allow in your online parlor. Speak out against behavior you find reprehensible. And step in and ask folks to behave better when comment threads on your stream get heated.

Whose fault is it if a place is full of assholes? That’s right. Uncomfortable but true.

So please, stop bleating about how real names are required to make the web a better place, and go about doing things that will actually make it a better place. Plenty of ‘nyms will be happy to join you in those efforts.

Sincerely,
Dana Hunter

A ‘Nym is Not an Unknown

I like Google+, I do, but I’m not liking their recent purge of pseudonymous folk at all.  It’s not right that people like Bug Girl and DrugMonkey face the choice between revealing their real names or getting banned.  And we’re not talking just having their profiles deactivated, no, it’s worse than that: they were exiled completely from Google+, not allowed to even follow along in silence, all for the terrible crime of not writing under their “real” name.  Fortunately, it seems they’re now allowed to view, but nothing else.

Google+ is going to have to deal with a few facts or shrink dramatically.

A ‘nym is not an unknown.  Names are easy to fake.  Reputations are not.  Over the months and years, pseudonymous folk build up a reputation, and that reputation follows the ‘nym.  So let’s not pretend that a pseudonym is the same as anonymous.  Some people still get confused about that – apparently, Google+ is, too, and it’s pathetic at this late stage in the game.  Allowing people to use their pseudonyms will not throw open the gates to barbarians and trolls.  Disallowing ‘nyms won’t prevent people from being assclowns.  What Google is doing is about as sensible as banning all Muslims from airports because the vast majority of people who hijack planes are Muslim.  You harm a lot of very good people for very little gain.  There are better ways of guarding against undesired behaviors.  Such as, banning the people who actually engage in those behaviors, regardless of whether they use their real names or not.

Google seems to have this idea that people only use a ‘nym because they’re up to no good.  That’s ridiculous.  There are plenty of excellent reasons why someone wouldn’t want to go by their real name.  I chose a pseudonym a long time ago (ye gods, nearly twenty years, how time flies), not because I wanted to hide my real self but because my legal name isn’t one I want on the cover of my books.  Grow up with a last name associated with a very kitschy retailer, deal with the endless no-longer-funny jokes, and on top of that have a character filch your first name, and before long, you’re having nightmares about doing very Not Nice things to fans who unwitting tell you the Not Funny Joke for the billionth-and-eleventy-first time.  In the interests of public relations, I have to be a ‘nym.

But there are deeper reasons.  Much, much deeper.

I do not want my identity stolen.  I do not want to be stalked.  I do not want current or future employers deciding my liberal tendencies or my atheism or whatever else makes me suddenly unemployable, despite an exemplary track record.  I do not want my rapist able to locate me simply by searching my name. Those, it seems, are reasons enough not to operate online under my legal name.  Besides, my legal name weirds me out, now.  I hear it and it sounds wrong.  I’m Dana Hunter, online and off (except at the office).  That’s me.  Not this stranger on my driver’s license.

There are ‘nyms out there who have even better reasons.  ‘Nyms who risk death by being who they are, and would potentially be tracked down and killed if they went by their real names – Muslims who deconvert, for instance, or women escaping abusive former spouses.  There are ‘nyms who would be ostracized were certain things about them known: that they’re LGBTQ, or atheists.  There are ‘nyms who would lose their jobs for saying what they do: whistleblowers, or simply people who have a lot to share but whose companies don’t want them to discuss anything even tangentially related to their employment in public.  All of these ‘nyms have something of interest to say, something of value to contribute, and the intertoobz would be a far poorer place were they silenced.  Google+ certainly will be a sanitized wasteland if they’re all exiled from it.

And how does it possibly make sense to force ‘nyms to use their real names, even if they’re able?  We don’t know who the fuck John B. Smith is.  We don’t care.  We know a ‘nym, and a ‘nym is who we’re looking for when we go to add that beloved person to our circles.  And how do you, Google, know that John B. Smith is the name behind the ‘nym?  Because it’s a “real” name, not something even the most drug-addled hippie parent would have named a child?  How do you know that real-sounding name wasn’t just cobbled together from a few random entries in a phone book?  We don’t present proof of identity when we sign up.  Google doesn’t have Dana Hunter’s driver’s license or birth certificate on file.  (Should they ever ask, though, I can point them to a rather large number of people in both my online and offline worlds who’d know who Dana Hunter is and could easily pick me out of a crowd.  Even my parents know me by my ‘nym.) 

The solution to whatever it is Google’s hoping to prevent by banning ‘nyms – whether it’s sock puppetry or trolling or general asshattery – isn’t the nuclear option of banning everybody with an implausible name (including Chinese ones).  Just witness the security procedures that put innocent kiddies on no-fly lists only to let a terrorist named Richard Reid on board, no questions asked despite the bomb in his shoe, to see how effective such tactics are.  Targeted tools that enforce consequences for actual bad behavior make better sense, don’t ensnare the innocent quite so often, and ensure actual results.  That’s much more useful to a community. 

Google+ is new, and there are bound to be growing pains.  The real test is to see how they respond to their mistakes.  If they’re smart, they’ll fix their policy and let the poor exiled ‘nyms back in with a swift apology.

If not, my profile may not be long for Google+, whether they cotton to the fact I’m a ‘nym or not.  I don’t think I’d want to be part of an environment that’s unremittingly hostile to my Bug Girl and DrugMonkey friends.

You can help them do the right thing by adding your name (or ‘nym) here.

Google+ For the Curious

Brian Romans wanted screenshots, and screenshots he shall have.  You’re all welcome to sneak a look.  And give thanks to Ron Schott for making it possible – he kindly sent me an invite.

Google+ is, so far, the only social media site I haven’t had to be dragged on to kicking and screaming.  All of the others – MySpace, Facebook and Twitter – struck me as a gargantuan time suck with little benefit.  Friends of mine (I call them friends) ganged up and created a MySpace profile for me, so it was get my ass on there or have them make up outrageous shit about me until I did.  Can’t remember why I joined Facebook, honestly – I think it was for some cause or other.  And Twitter is Erik Klemetti’s fault – when he left ScienceBlogs, he was only going to be on Twitter for a while, so I grumbled and I groaned but I jumped on to follow him because I couldn’t be without Eruptions.  Little did I know that Twitter would change my life for the best.  Thank you, Erik!

I think it’s that last experience that made me want to be in on Google+ from the beginning.  That, and the promise that I could organize the people I associated with into circles.  This is genius.  I don’t have to drink from a firehose – if I want to catch up on my geos, I can choose my geo circle; if I’m feeling friendly, I can view friends only, and so forth.  Here’s what my home page looks like:

You notice the selections off to the left, there?  That’s right – I can change who shows up in my stream with a click of a button.  It’s teh awesome.  I love it.

Also not the “Hangouts” button to the right.  Hangouts are genius.  Ron was kind enough to have me over for a chat earlier.  It took me a few minutes to figure out how to get audio to work, and I still haven’t figured out why it won’t save my settings, but I’m sure those issues will get sorted.  We still managed a fine chat, and you know what this means: we can all jump into a hangout, show each other rocks, and jibber-jabber.  If they come up with a recording feature, it’ll become a hugely valuable tool for us.

Posting is a breeze, and I love the look I get when I link blog posts:

It snatches a picture and a few lines from the post for me.  Completely easy and absolutely lovely.

Adding people to circles, creating new circles, and managing them is simplicity itself.  You’ll see when you get there.  It’s pretty much just drag-and-drop, and there’s all sorts of ways to add people without having to go through a lot of effort.

That’s the thing about Google+: even in these early days, it’s pretty much effortless.  I don’t know how cluttered and weird it might get later, but right now it’s relaxing, refreshing, and actually useful.  It seems like I’ll be able to connect with a huge number of very outstanding people here, and it allows a lot more depth and scope than Twitter.

Not that I’ll ever stop loving Twitter.  The two seem to compliment each other quite well so far, and let’s face facts: I’m a total Twitter addict.  But I’m happy there’s finally a social networking site that allows me to do so much more without the various irritations of Facebook.

If you’re already on Google+, come find me.  If not, hop on once they’ve opened the place up and come find me then.  I want my circles filled with awesome, and you, my darlings, are the very definition of awesome.

Plastic is for Grocery Bags

Our own George W. has a thought-provoking post up pitting paper against plastic – in books.  Now seems like as good a time as any to take a stand I’ll possibly end up backing away from someday.

My stepmother, who recently sold me out for one o’ them new-fangled handheld-computers-that-can-sometimes-make-phone-calls contraptions, has also been extolling the virtues of her Kindle.  I think she’s trying to drag me kicking and screaming into the electronics age.  I’ve dug in my heels.  Yes, I swore I would never ever download music, and didn’t so much break that vow as blow it to smithereens.  But books are a different matter.  It’s going to take a hell of a lot of persuasion to wean me off of good old-fashioned dead-tree books.

I have my reasons.  For one thing, when I purchase a book, I like it to stay purchased.  There’s no guarantee of that on a Kindle.

You can’t dog-ear pages on an e-book reader.  And no, electronically bookmarking bits isn’t the same.

You can’t tell which bits you’ve read over and over by letting a book fall open on a reader.

Unless you’ve got the money for dozens of Kindles, you can’t sit in the middle of a pile of books while doing research.

Kindles don’t insulate your walls.

It’s harder for visitors to browse your shelves when your library’s on a Kindle.

Books are all one size on a reader, rather than a variety of shapes and sizes.

You can’t trade in your used books.

If the power goes out and your batteries are low, you can still read a paper book by candlelight.

And there are plenty of other reasons, all coming down to the fact that I like having actual, physical, individual, substantive texts around me.

Now, there are things that work better electronically.  George is right: technical manuals and encyclopedias are perfect candidates for electronic media.  So are things like phone books, reference books, anything that depends on being up-to-the-minute and is obsolete nearly as soon as you get a copy.  Since I got plugged into the magic of the intertoobz, haven’t needed those books of facts, atlases, or other things like that.  This leaves me more cold hard cash for the kind of books that keep for years, that deserve a life of their own and an individual place on my shelves. 

Paper, please!

I Haz Been Betrayed

There was only one quiet interval at work today wherein I could check my email, and there was this cry for help from my stepmother.  She’s got a new cell phone. 

What new cell phone? I fired back while my stomach made like iron and nickel on the molten earth and sank.

I will not mention the make and model, as that would betray where I work, and I do not want to tempt my corporate overlords into separating me from my only means of acquiring kitty kibble.  Needless to say, she’d chosen the one phone that is the bane of my existence (and the source of considerable job security).  It’s one of the most complicated phones we carry.  And this purchased by a woman who, a few years ago, swore she’d never own a cell phone ever in her life, and who only last year was flummoxed by a pre-paid flip phone.

So I spent my lunch hour muttering “I can’t fucking believe you bought that fucking phone!” whilst helping her bring it to the point where it could potentially make and receive calls.  I feel betrayed.  I expected better of my family.  Next thing I know, my dear old Dad will be calling me up wanting help with the same model, or worse.  At least I know the ins-and-outs of the thing.  And at least they won’t blame me for its quirks.

Still. 

At least I have solid proof, should I ever need it, that my bitching about this phone in my private life carries no weight with anyone whatsoever.  Even my own family doesn’t listen to me.  So the company needn’t worry about my impact upon its sales…

A Funny Thing Happened While I Was Searching Google Images…

Apologies in advance to natives of the Midwest who love the place, but I fucking hate the Midwest.  I may have been born and spent my first years of life in Indiana, but I am by no stretch of the imagination a Midwesterner.  Every time I go back there, I get, and I am not exaggerating, suicidally depressed almost as soon as I step off the plane.  I can only take so many miles of cornfields, deciduous trees, cornfields, hay fields, deciduous trees, and cornfields without a single freaking mountain to break the monotony before I’m begging for a gun.  I spent my formative years with volcanoes practically in my back yard.  I scrambled up pine trees.  The closest thing to a corn field we ever had in the area was that patch we raised in the garden once.  And humidity was something that happened to other people.  So many years in Arizona left it impossible for me to appreciate the Midwest.

(Although I adore Chicago.  Go figure.)

Alas for my sensibilities, worldbuilding had required me to virtually explore the Midwest.  It’s a long story, so don’t ask.  Suffice it to say that I’ve spent several hours over a couple of (thankfully not consecutive) nights staring at pictures of grass, leafy trees, and teensy little hills that wouldn’t even qualify as a bump in the ground where I come from, but are a major landmark amidst all that flat, bloody boring ground.  And yes, I’m depressed just looking at it.

There are consolations, however.

Unexpected things happen when one searches Google images.  Things like finding Callan Bentley’s NOVA Geoblog, which has delicious pictures of geology from all over the world.  I’ve also found out that Callan’s one of us – Pharyngula is mentioned.  Hee.

Via Callan, I discovered the National Park Service’s Geologic Resources Inventory Publications.  I know it sounds boring, but hot damn, there’s some good shit on that page!

Clicking on another image brought me to the University of Nebraska – Lincoln Landslides page, which has a link to all sorts of great things, including their Geology & Soils site.  Considering I’d settled on northwestern Nebraska as a template for the bit I’m working on, this is like stumbling across a gold mine.  It’s got geologic maps.  Mwah.

And a little more research might just soften my opinion of the Midwest.  After all, I’m already looking forward to exploring the roadside geology of Indiana with me mum – now that I know it has some.

So, here we are.  All that glorious science found not because I was searching for it, but looking for images of slightly hilly areas in northwestern Nebraska.  Google – I love you.  However did we survive without the intertoobz?

(Ooo.  Just found the Geotimes archives while searching for stuff on the Kobe earthquake.  The intertoobz are truly a wonderful place.)