Identity on social networks — how much $$$ is it worth?

As you might have noticed this has really been on my mind for the last couple of weeks. And while it didn’t click at first there is one point in Cory Doctorow’s piece on the controversy of Google+’s Real Name Policy that really stood out and made the pieces come together:

The first duty of social software is to improve its users’ social experience. Facebook’s longstanding demand that its users should only have one identity is either a toweringly arrogant willingness to harm people’s social experience in service to doctrine; or it is a miniature figleaf covering a huge, throbbing passion for making it easier to sell our identities to advertisers.


Google has adopted the Facebook doctrine at the very moment in which the figleaf slipped, when people all over the world are noticing that remaking ancient patterns of social interaction to conform to advertising-driven dogma exposes you to everything from humiliation at school to torture in the cells of a Middle Eastern despot.

Specifically the part about “remaking ancient patterns of social interaction to conform to advertising-driven dogma” is the kicker. Forcing the users to adopt a specific notion of ‘identity’ that can be sold to advertisers—I’m not cool with that. Like Lanier says, this begs the question who is the ‘user’ and who is the ‘used’.

It’s true: without our real name, your data is much less valuable. This is and probably has been painfully obvious for years, but it took a while to penetrate my woody noggin. It’s the commodification of identity to make money. There is (maybe) nothing inherently bad about this, but the implications of forcing people to use (and be confined to) one online identity are something I’m not comfortable with.

So I (finally!) deactivated my Facebook account. I’m still on Google+, which I right now think of as the lesser of two evils. And don’t get me wrong, I like social media. I think they are a great tool to keep in touch with friends, especially when you are not living in the same place, or even the same continent. However, I’ve grown increasingly weary of the lines between work and life, private and professional, blurring more and more. If I had my way, we would all use our internet names on our social media pages and that’d be that.

However, handles can not be monetized, or at least not as much as a ‘real name’.

Jaron Lanier puts it very well:

It’s not about Google, it’s a general business idea which Google played a role in pioneering, but it’s shared by Facebook, and also companies with which I am now affiliated through my work. It’s not at all specific to Google at this point, but… People have to understand that there’s no such thing as “free,” that when they buy into a system in which they upload their videos to YouTube without expecting to make anything (unless they’re very lucky to become a token Horatio Alger story) at the end of the day, or when they contribute to services like Google+, or Facebook, or other social networks, what’s happening is they’re working for the benefit of someone else’s fortune by creating data that can be used to grant or deny access based on pay to these third parties, the tawdry third parties I mention so often.

If you have an hour to spare (which you should have, if you stop checking your Facebook/G+/Twitter feed), listen to the entire talk on

And I won’t even go into mobile devices, for the simple reason that I don’t own one.


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