I logged on to facebook this evening, and noticed an add in the corner announcing a new feature coming out in a few days. Soon, announces facebook, “you’ll be able to choose a username for your Facebook account to easily direct friends, family, and coworkers to your profile.” (Yeah, “username” is apparently one word. Given the nature of teh Intarweb, this strikes me as strangely appropriate, in an eerie, newspeak sort of way.) I am sometimes annoyed by friends who use nicknames instead of their real names on facebook. I think this is in part because I am more aware of what I put on my profile due to all the people beyond my own peer group who could be reading what I say. (This does not keep me from being natural, but it usually prevents me from being silly.) Don’t get me wrong, I don’t worry that someone will think ill of me because I have a friend with a weird nick-name, but it is one reason why I would never have one in my own profile. If I decide to write a teacher, or one of my parent’s friends, a message, I’d rather it came from “Laura” rather than from “Lo-C” or some-such. Anyway, this announcement brought to light an aspect of facebook that sets it apart from most Internet forums-something I had never noticed before.
I am sometimes surprised by the number of “friends” I have on facebook who are of a decidedly older generation than myself. What is it about facebook that they find so appealing? There are the usual answers, of course, and I suspect they comprise the vast majority of the positive incentives that cause non-techies like my parents to fit is so surprisingly well to this segment of the Internet community. But what if there were one other factor involved that helped tip the scales just a little bit further? Would it really be much of a stretch to suggest that older generations are more comfortable with the identifying themselves as “Joan Watkins,” for example, than as “austenaddict83”? Whereas the norm for the vast majority of Internet communities is to adopt an online nick-name, thereby rendering yourself anonymous, facebook asks you for your real name. In a very literal way, it wants to give your online persona a face.
Anyone who has spent even a small amount of time observing online communities knows how anonymity affects online behavior. Penny-Arcade summarized the phenomenon in probably one of their best-known comics. (I would love to have the accompanying T-shirt, but unfortunately, it would not be appropriate in too many of my daily situations.) I have always been under the impression that facebook did not suffer from this problem, but I never gave it much thought. Perhaps it is because the people you “friend” on facebook know who you are. They are people you probably can’t afford to offend: friends, acquaintances, employers, co-workers, teachers… But does the same hold true for people who join groups or causes on facebook? Not having every been much of a participant in these forums, I can’t say for sure, but my feeling is, probably not. I would hazard the guess that, if John Gabriel’s Greater Internet ****wad Theory isn’t totally eliminated on facebook, it is at least marginalized, because no one wants their real name, and the little icon of their real face, attached to something they don’t want to be held accountable for.
So how will the new username option affect facebook? Probably not at all. That question isn’t really what I wanted to address in this post. Chances are, most people will simply attach the username to their real name, and the community will plunder ever onward. But part of me is eager to watch an inadvertent social experiment unfold as one of the world’s biggest social-networking communities unleashes the power of anonymity upon its subscribers.