Danah Boyd–‘Zephoria’–Latest Luminary to Stand Up for Pseudonyms

Microsoft researcher and blogger Danah Boyd, who prefers to be referred to as danah boyd, or ‘zephoria,’ the name that got her into a tiff with Tumblr, has stepped, as we knew she would, into the pseudonymity debate. “‘Real Names’ Policies Are an Abuse of Power,” she writes today, and have disastrous effects on vulnerable people. “Personally, I’m ecstatic to see this much outrage” over Google’s harsh real-name policy on Google+, she writes.

She includes this anecdote:

Likewise, the issue of reputation must be turned on its head when thinking about marginalized people. Folks point to the issue of people using pseudonyms to obscure their identity and, in theory, “protect” their reputation. The assumption baked into this is that the observer is qualified to actually assess someone’s reputation. All too often, and especially with marginalized people, the observer takes someone out of context and judges them inappropriately based on what they get online. Let me explain this in a concrete example that many of you have heard before. Years ago, I received a phone call from an Ivy League college admissions officer who wanted to accept a young black man from South Central in LA into their college; the student had written an application about how he wanted to leave behind the gang-ridden community he came from, but the admissions officers had found his MySpace which was filled with gang insignia. The question that was asked of me was “Why would he lie to us when we can tell the truth online?” Knowing that community, I was fairly certain that he was being honest with the college; he was also doing what it took to keep himself alive in his community. If he had used a pseudonym, the college wouldn’t have been able to get data out of context about him and inappropriately judge him. But they didn’t. They thought that their frame mattered most. I really hope that he got into that school.

Ms. Boyd is in good company with Anil Dash, Scott Beale, Caterina Fake, Fred Wilson and others who are standing up for the value of a pseudonym. The debate is a rehash of the same arguments that came up with Friendster, MySpace and Facebook–but it’s more urgent and relevant than it has been in the past as the web moves closer to a universal login with more sites adding Facebook, Google or Twitter authentication to the registration process.