Why Blizzard and Zuckerberg Are Wrong
or, The Persistent Case for Social Scientists
There are some lessons people in online businesses persistently don’t learn. A lot of these are grouped into the area of “social concerns are just as real as technical ones” or “social issues do not have technical solutions.”
Recently a couple of major players in the online space have shown a stunning lack of regard for social concerns in ways that have long-term effects and that can safely be filed under “Lessons Learned.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg apparently believes that no one needs to moderate how others see them. He has famously been quoted as emphasizing that “you have one identity.” To him, a desire to separate your life into public and private, professional and personal, is a clear “example of a lack of integrity.” From this point of view, your colleagues at work, your friends from your hobby, your mom, your friends from your church, and the people you work with politically should all be equally exposed to you and each other.
This is like saying having more than one room in your house is unnecessary and shows a lack of integrity: bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, front porch — there shouldn’t be any difference.
I’ve seen this attitude crop up a lot in online startups over the years — mostly among the more socially clueless young unmarried white males who maybe just haven’t had enough life experience, or who aren’t yet socially aware enough to understand how benighted such a view is.
So, as frustratingly parochial as Zuckerberg’s view is, I was stunned to see a major company like Blizzard make a significant step in the same direction with their recent RealID policy. Soon, when you play any of their games with an online component, you have the option to be seen by your real name by your real friends. Not a bad idea, except for one thing: you can also be seen by your friends’ friends too, and you have no control over this or any way to shield yourself.
Much worse than this though, Blizzard announced that anyone who posts on their forums will have their real name exposed to everyone else there. This was intended to cut down on the trolling and abusive behavior enabled by the anonymity of hiding behind a screen name — a well-known issue to anyone who has dealt with online community management. Their “opt-out” policy is essentially if you don’t like it, don’t post. In other words: Go Away.
Moreover the company showed a truly stunning lack of understanding of how someone’s real name can easily be used in our highly connected age. I’m guessing that no one in the chain of people who approved this decision is
- a woman
- someone not wanting an abusive ex-spouse to find them
- concerned about a potential employer checking out their online presence
or any of a number of other easily imagined scenarios. What makes me think that Blizzard operated with such disregard? Because one of their own employees (a man, not a woman) was dismissive enough of these concerns to post his own real name on the forums, only to see his home address, phone number, photos of him and his family, and a lot of other personal information surface there within minutes.
Not surprisingly, Blizzard removed the information from their forum. So they seem to get that that level of personal invasion is a problem, but not that their own policy will lead to this eleven million times over — or however many of their customers are foolish enough to actually post in their forums.
So why is this a big deal?
Both of these are signals about how large online companies think about your privacy. The point is, it’s your privacy, not theirs. We need to reinforce or take back the notion that your identity is yours — it does not belong to a bank, a mailing list reseller, a social network, or an online game provider. And they should not feel empowered to do what they will with it, deciding for you how you handle your social connections.
If you’re a developer working online, consider investing in some time from someone who is not involved in coding, marketing, art, or design. You might want to chat with those who bring a social, community perspective to the online space — because your users are certainly going to come with their own social context. And as we’ve seen with people leaving Facebook or changing their personal info on it (Zuckerberg ending up looking like a rich but clueless young guy) and the firestorm engulfing Blizzard’s formerly evangelically devoted fan base, when there’s what you might consider a “minor mismatch” between your expectations and theirs, the users win.