The United States is a country that was founded on freedom of expression. This doesn’t mean, however, that we can say whatever we want without consequences. Or does it?
Since the advent of the Internet, you’ve been able to post in newsgroups, forums, blogs, and the comments sections of various websites with complete anonymity––behind a screen name of your choosing. You might be browsing the comments section of a YouTube video and spot a particularly racist comment by someone named “hottchick24”. Your blood boils, but you have no idea who “hottchick24” is. It might be a 57 year old man who just got laid off from his job as a data systems analyst and has nothing better to do. The question is, why do people feel free to post hateful and lewd messages when no one will know who they are?
A recent controversy came up involving Blizzard Entertainment near the release of their video game StarCraft II and during the final stages of developing their Battle.net 2.0 gaming service. Blizzard created something called a “Real ID” for in-game players, which meant all players would have their real name on display when they added friends that they knew (like ones from Facebook), but these same players could hide behind a screen name when playing with strangers inside the game. This system was just fine, except that Blizzard decided it would be a good idea to require the use of your “Real ID” on their official forums. In other words, you couldn’t post without using your real full name.
The rationale was this: People who spam and make offensive comments would be deterred from doing so if their real name showed up on the forums. Unfortunately for Blizzard, a whopping 21,000 posts fought back against the idea within 24 hours after they announced the decision. One reason so many hated the idea was that a disgruntled opponent could see your real name on the forum, search for it in Google, and find your real-life contact information, including your home address, your phone number, your workplace, your Facebook account, etc. Another fear was that a future employer might search for your name before hiring you and see that Blizzard forum post you made about how much you wish you were an Orc in real life.
Many gamers use these games as a way to escape from their real lives, and they don’t want to be connected to the games they play so obviously. This still leaves us wondering, though: Which side is right in this argument?
Well, Blizzard reversed its decision and allowed people to stick with screen names when posting on the forums. This was probably a wise business decision for them, but nonetheless, it was a victory for trolls everywhere. It’s unfortunate that Blizzard couldn’t use this method as a way to filter out negative content from anonymous users, but in the end, it seems like the high level of interconnectedness on the Internet makes requiring people’s real names an unwise and dangerous strategy.