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.

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5 Comments on “Why Blizzard and Zuckerberg Are Wrong”

  1. Peter Liu Says:

    Recently, a phrase came back to me that I heard more than once while working in a browser company that shall remain nameless (to protect the innocent and guilty) in the ’90’s… “software by kids, for kids,” uttered by management that was brought on to play the role of “adult supervision” as I saw it phrased in one of Guy Kawasaki’s books.

    My take is what we’re experiencing is a viewpoint not steeped in years of corporate culture where things matter whether they actually should or not, but of those who haven’t had the benefit (or misfortune) of having experienced life beyond their 20’s in a business setting other than that of their own making.

    Personally, I don’t know if I should feel sorry that our endeavors didn’t involve almost 500M people or that I come from an age where lack of control over how my information is used or disseminated irks me.

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  2. […] there has been so very much written the last few days about Blzzard’s RealID policy, but it seems just about everybody […]

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  3. Jessica Sellers Says:

    I can understand the desires of Blizzard and other such companies in wanting to cut down on trolls in their forums – the idea probably being, if you’re worried about an employer checking out your online presence, maybe you shouldn’t post things that would embarrass you if they came to light. The problem with that, though, is what if the very fact that you have an online presence, or that that presence is associated with WoW or any other similar game, is in itself offensive to your employer? Imagine losing a job simply because your employer or potential employer doesn’t like what you choose to do in your free time. And we’re not talking about drugs or building bombs or something. It’s that they don’t like that you play video games. At home. On your own time. And that’s the least of the evils you listed too – being found by an abusive ex, or having your family and contact information published for all to see are even worse. This feels almost like those horrifying, unintentionally lewd children’s toys that come out every so often. I cannot understand how someone could look at this and think, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea.’

    I have a friend whose Facebook profile is completely made up. He went with the ‘porn star name’ formula – you know, your first pet + the first street you lived on. He doesn’t have any real pictures of himself on there or any contact information, and, knowing him, he probably made up an entirely new email address specifically for this account too. I’m not saying it’s iron-clad, but he’s taken steps to make it as absolutely bogus and difficult to connect back to him as possible. And it works just fine – we who know him in real life know who it is behind the screenname, and nobody else matters. I can’t say I haven’t thought about following his example there. 😉

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  4. […] there has been so very much written the last few days about Blzzard’s RealID policy, but it seems just about everybody […]

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  5. Very well said. It’s worth noting as well that, on top of all these seemingly obvious reasons why insisting on real names is actively a bad idea, there’s also rather good reason to think that the reasons given for it being a good idea are rubbish: http://techcrunch.com/2012/07/29/surprisingly-good-evidence-that-real-name-policies-fail-to-improve-comments/

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