Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Anonymity Online: Blizzard and Real ID

I've been reading a lot about last week's Real ID debacle, and its broader significance in terms of identity on the internet. In case you were more concerned with things like the World Cup finals, early last week video game juggernaut Blizzard announced that they would be implementing a program called Real ID that would force users to identify themselves by their real names when posting on the company's forums. This move directly effected a significant portion of the gaming community, as Blizzard is the developer of hugely successful international franchises like Starcraft and World of Warcraft. The response from gamers and internet users alike was overwhelmingly negative, and many expressed fears of privacy invasion and abuse. By the end of the week Blizzard announced that as a result of the feedback they would no longer be going forward with the Real ID program on their forums.

At first I didn't pay much attention to Blizzard's announcement given that I don't play WoW or post on their forums. When the proverbial shit hit the fan, however, it became impossible to ignore as more and more people started weighing in on the issue. On Saturday I listened to the latest Invisible Walls over at and became incensed as I heard Shane Satterfield talk about how Real ID could help clean up the internet. He argues that by making people identifiable and accountable we will develop a communal sense of propriety online like the one that purportedly exists in real life. Even if Satterfield weren't wrong he'd still be missing the point, as the consequences of Blizzard's plan would have far exceeded their stated aims. If you start forcing people to identify themselves online you force the real world upon them, with all its prejudices and limitations. Users are effectively robbed of the ability to have a unique online persona, and that is not a scenario we should accept under any circumstances. The possibility for identities that exist beyond physical and spatial constraints is perhaps the most valuable aspect of online interaction, and anonymity is an integral aspect of that phenomenon.

The immediate ramifications of Real ID are pretty much universally negative, beginning with the exposure and vulnerability of users who accepted its terms. In one of the uglier episodes in the debate about this new program, a Blizzard employee attempted to demonstrate the Real ID program in good faith by using their real name on the message boards only to have their detailed personal information posted by a user. This included his phone number, names of his relatives, and his address, though not all of the information was correct. While unfortunate, this does provide an example about how easy it would be for users to be preyed upon by malicious entities. You wouldn't even need to post anything to see the real names of users, and that kind of openly disseminated information is a risk. This seems especially true given that video games have led to acts of violence in the past by unhinged individuals. It simply baffles me that Blizzard would produce such an opportunity for its customers to be exposed in this manner.

Along those same lines, another evident negative to Real ID would be the outing of minority gamers. Ethnic groups, women, etc., would be exposed and left open to targeting and abuse by the same trolls Real ID was intending to stop. Susana Polo at Geekosystem notes that the current atmosphere online suggests we need anonymity to protect these groups, and that this points to an internal problem of accountability and acceptance. While true this doesn't mean that the Real ID program would do anything to promote tolerance among users, but would certainly give direction to the hatred. Satterfield argues that message board trolls would clean up their act if identified, but this perspective fails to address the core issue behind the attitudes and assumes that all such users see their beliefs as unfavourable. Polo wisely advises against Real ID in favour of greater responsibility within the gaming community, asking users to stop ignoring and thereby perpetuating examples of hatred and intolerance.

While these are certainly serious concerns, the most evident victim of Real ID would be the conversation itself. Many have commented that the Blizzard forums would see a massive drop in participation following any implementation of Real ID, and there's no doubt that's true. Whatever discussion remained might be more polite, but it would definitely be less diverse in terms of the number and range of its voices. Whatever thoughts might gestate on the board would be restricted to the point of irrelevance by the very design of the creative space. By limiting the voices you render the conversation effectively impotent, and that is the absolute last thing we should be doing.

The internet is an environment with real post-human potential, and virtual entertainment is one of the most vibrant sites for interactions that explore this new horizon. Communities are founded here regardless of countless "real world" factors that might otherwise deny their formation, and their anonymity enables them to function on their own terms. I'm not going to justify the discussions of online communities because frankly I don't have to; uninhibited debate never requires a defence. People like Sean Brooks and Clay Shirky study and endorse the positive effects of online communities, and both argue that there can be real value even in that which isn't necessarily intelligent or polite in a traditional sense. To disavow that potential because of trolls and hate-mongers simply isn't a justifiable action as the quantifiable loss would far outweigh the supposed gain. It's fine to allow for "real life" identification in cyberspace, and indeed many choose to use their legal names for their online presence. But to make it the rule is quite another thing, and any such action would be a significant step backwards in terms of progressive discourse.

As it stands Real ID isn't happening and that is a good thing, but we shouldn't let it be the end of this story. Anonymity is an important facet of the unique cultural phenomenon that is the internet, and this event demonstrates how easily it could be lost. We can bring "reality" into the fold at any time by identifying ourselves, and likewise there should always be an option to abstain from doing so. Real ID would have taken away that choice and that is not something I am prepared to accept, no matter the reasoning. I'd rather wade through a thousand message boards filled with hateful trolls (the Ain't It Cool readers come to mind) than see compulsory identification programs aimed to "clean up the internet." Progressiveness trumps propriety every time.

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