I’ve Just Seen a Face

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.

4 thoughts on “I’ve Just Seen a Face

  1. This is an interesting observation. As a facebook user, I am conscious of the fact that people know who I am and so I am accountable for what I say, do, or post. I do allow a little silliness and teasing, but clearly don't stray from my normal standards of behavior. I've always felt that anonymity was a test of real integrity. If your behavior changes because you are faceless, you should ask yourself why. Would you be ashamed of yourself otherwise? Anonymity can be a treacherous cover for your own cowardice.

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  2. I'm rather surprised that using a nickname on Facebook, rather than a real name, can annoy you — frankly, it's a smart option. I very nearly refused to join FB simply because it did require a real name and information. What is to hold them accountable for that info, pray tell? The entire site is a stalker's goldmine. While I eventually gave in, and even used my real (nick)name, there are some definite advantages to anonymity — such as not being easily findable by the more disturbing elements of society.

    Also, it's “techie,” not “teckie,” and not to be confused with “Trekkie.” And… hasn't “username” been one word for the past decade?

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  3. I would in most cases agree with you, if it weren't for the privacy settings Facebook provides. I am under the impression that facebook attracts to some extent an older, and more professional, demographic than do other sights, such as myspace. I could be wrong about this, of course, but I can't see my parents, or most of the other adult friends I have on facebook, opening a myspace account. Because that group of people tends to have higher concerns regarding security issues than our generation, it makes sense to me that facebook should be equally concerned about their security/privacy issues so as not to alienate that segment of their customer base.

    If, as I brought up in my post, older generations are more comfortable with their real name than a username, then I might even to so far as to say that the former makes facebook a safer online environment than myspace. In theory, having a large number of adults/parents monitoring the community means that something like a suspicious wall post would be more likely to be spotted. Also, I have never heard of some idiot teenager being seduced on facebook. This does not mean it has never happened (I am not much of a news-reader, as you know), but for whatever reason, I hear this mostly happening on places like myspace or other more remote internet forums.

    Assuming facebook's privacy features work (which I believe they do,) then any potential stalkers who happened to stumble across me would be able to know my name, the city that I live close to, and my college (as those are the networks to which I belong.) Here is why this does not bother me.

    Say an online predator decides to stalk me. First of all, I have no idea what his motivation would be, as he cannot see my profile picture, and has no idea what I look like, or how old I am, or even if I am really a woman. Then he would need to be either near enough to A2 to stalk me, or (unlikelier still), he'd have to have enough time and resources to come to A2 to try to track me down and stalk me. Even supposing he showed up at school, he would have no way of picking me out of the student body, as he has no way of knowing what I look like, or even anything else about me for that matter. Why anyone would go through so much trouble to track down a complete stranger, I haven't a clue. All said and done, I am far, far more likely to pick up a stalker from school or work.

    Anyway, it seems as if the whole username thing was a bit different than what I understood at the time I wrote my blog post, which probably makes most of what I wrote irrelevant.

    Also, thank you for the techie correction. I have modified my post accordingly. As far as usernames are concerned, regardless of how long it has been one word, it just struck me as being funny when I was writing, as many words in English do (as I constantly write in my status updates.)

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