Why Real Names in a Social Network are Good

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I posted this in a comment on this page and thought it would be good to talk about here
A little background. Circa 2006. Every high school kid longed to be different and express their differences. So they got a myspace. They chose strange names for their profile, they posted a million pictures filled with ironic and pithy sayings, they made their profiles their own. Pink text over a strobing background of nickleback? Why not, you are expressing yourself. When someone added you as a friend, it might take 20 minutes to figure out who they actually are.

Ugly Myspace Profile

Check out this mashable article that actually touts this as a good looking profile... Imagine what that bad ones must have looked like. 2007

Enter Facebook. Its clean, people use their real names, their profiles look the same, all the information is in the same place for everyone, and it works. It was a huge breath of fresh air for its users. People realized that they don’t want to be assaulted by everyone else’s confusing and frequently obnoxious forms of self expression. And they realized what they valued in a social network was not childish expression, but the socializing itself. And facebook allowed them to do that as efficiently as possible.

Facebook even almost lost that image for a while when apps became an issue, but due to massive public outcry they fixed it.

Now come back to the present. Facebook users still primarily use their real names. But lots of people don’t. Some use their middle names, others use a made up one. Often it is because they don’t want an employer to find them and don’t understand privacy settings. Sometimes it isn’t. But I can tell you that the consensus among many of the most active Facebook users is that it is extremely frustrating when people use fake names. It is a painful reminder of the way things used to be, when you would struggle to connect with somebody as a result of their overzealous self-expression.

I think google realizes all of these things. People don’t want their social network website to be about self-expression. They want it to be about socializing and sharing. Not that there is anything wrong with self-expression, but in this case people see it as getting in the way of what they are there to do.

The fact is that no matter how much you want to express yourself in an unusual way, people don’t want to be forced to constantly wade through everyone else’s self expression as a constant hindrance to actually socializing with them.

To summarize what I believe the sentiment of most social network users is:

You want to express yourself? Write a song, buy some clothes, paint a picture, do something. If I appreciate your brand of self expression, I will check it out. Don’t change the background of your social profile to a band I hate and don’t change your name so I can’t find you.

Facebook Users Do Not Censor Themselves

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You know how in ‘real life,’ people typically say things that are appropriate to the situation and actually think before they speak? Facebook is exactly the opposite of that. To quote the recent hit “The Social Network,”

“It didn’t stop you from writing it. As if every thought that tumbles through your head was so clever it would be a crime for it not to be shared.”

People post whatever is on their mind, whether it be offensive, in poor taste, or just stupid. It’s as if the veil of anonymity prevalent in the old internet has somehow carried through to the present, even though any veil, especially on a site like Facebook, is purely imaginary. Status updates frequently contain questions as to why the other half of the population (and political spectrum) is so unintelligent, though usually in far more colorful words. Flame wars generally ensue.

And we all have the friends who want to share EVERY hill and valley of the emotional roller coaster that is their life. While I appreciate their candor, sometimes I wish people would only say things they would say to each of their friends in person.

So what does this mean for marketers and businesses? It means that people will say whats on their mind, good or bad, and that they will be honest. It doesn’t so much create new opportunities so much as it provides further evidence of what we already knew: people are going to talk about things that they experience whether you are involved or not. This might be a great or awful experience with your brand. It’s your choice whether you participate in the conversation.

This observation also made me wonder… Which way is internet culture swinging? Towards self-censorship and professionalism, or towards complete free expression and possible recklessness? What are your thoughts?