What is your real name? That’s my new favorite comment on TechCrunch, where many of its readers hide behind phony names and email addresses. Apparently it’s not considered appropriate to challenge such geniuses about their real identity. Could be similar to talking about “open” and “Web” as though they have magical properties of goodness and well-being. Or not.
Nasty comments and identity baiting are in and of themselves minor irritations, best left to swift deletes or just plain not caring. Facebook and even Twitter mostly get around this problem by requiring a registration to play along, but the earlier generation of blog posts and even RSS encourage anonymity in reading mode. No reason why we should be forced to identify ourselves in order to consume a page; the problem comes if we want to respond on a level playing field in comments.
But take “what is your real name?” and apply it to other things besides blog posts. Say you’re in a meeting and the guy to your right has been verbose but unintelligible for over an hour. You ask: “What is your real name?” This will be viewed as a hostile interruption if taken literally, so it’s important to smile broadly and giggle in an “I’m laughing with you, not at you” posture. If the question is treated as a non sequitur, you need to drop the smile and look earnest with a hint of stupidity. After all, adopting comment dynamics to the real world is a complicated strategy.
Let’s play it out from here. If the response is, “What do you mean?” you could explain yourself by saying, “Well of course Bob I know what your real name is. I guess I’m trying to understand what you’re talking about or whether in fact you have all the time in the world to waste and don’t mind including me as your personal on-standby stooge intern.” Or you could punt by saying, “Just wanted to see what you’d say. Did you know that more than 70% of people answer with a different name than the one they’d given previously?” Of course, that’s not true, at least right now. If more people engaged with each other as though they were in a social media context, we might come up with social names with more frequency.
My key social name is @stevegillmor, my Twitter @mention handle. As Twitter’s iPad, iPhone, and even Web apps handle @mentions and direct messages in a more uniform way, a social pattern of realtime communications develops. Beyond the obvious shout out function, @mentions provide a kind of Bat Signal to groups aligned around projects, breaking news, trend spotting, and customer service. Not only do you get the message when @mentioned, but a group’s characteristics are built out based on the public nature of the alert. Email silos authority; @mentions broadcasts it.
You could say that @mentions make your social name more real than your actual real name. Certainly @Scobleizer is more real than Scoble. You can say the most outrageous things about Robert in a crowded room without fear of reprisal, but @mention him and he’ll reply in seconds no matter what time zone or Quora fight he’s in. The social imperative is to be responsive in real time to @mentions, or risk being redefined by your comment cloud. And we know how painful that is, if by we we mean me.
At work the other day, a fellow salesforcian pinged me with “What’s your real name?” as I walked by. He was smiling as he said it, but before I could say anything more, he advised me to not “feed the trolls.” Normally I would have agreed with him, as it only gives them the attention they’re looking for. Yet there’s an implied consent to not answering, a whiff of a suggestion that because I have occasionally replied to others more willing to identify themselves, I must have read the other comments and been so overwhelmed by their analysis and superior intellect that I am afraid to respond. I choose another path, Douchebag.
Frankly, Douchebag stumps me. I get that he’s using his fake login name to insult me, as in “you’re the douchebag,” but in a sea of such names Douchebag stands out and becomes a brand name, like Kleenex. Comment sub-trolls form beneath him, fleshing out an army of the douchebagerati. Elections are held; uniforms are distributed. Douchebag becomes a victim of his (her?) own success, too famous to move on, a figurehead in the late fat-Elvis period.
Thats the biggest problem with social mediocrity. The ease with which you achieve stardom — create a new gmail account, you’re in — cheapens the platform upon which you construct your scenario. Whole worlds bloom, comment cities with fireman, courts, daily newspapers, garbage collection…. well, no. And then some guy comes along in your thread and shifts it to trying to convince Mike Arrington to fire me. Believe me, Mike’s got his own problems writing his performance review for AriannaPo. Douchebag’s candle burns out long before the next guy’s ever will.
However ephemeral comment stardom might be, we only have to look to the Middle East to see how far a tweet or two million can travel. It’s not just people but countries that yearn to know their real name. Perhaps the most perplexing reaction of all in the comment cloud is the fear of new ideas, new forms, new experiments in this thing most of us should never call journalism. It’s more like learnalism, the probing of the vast opportunity unleashed in our fingertips by the SocialPad revolution. With FaceTime coming to our iPads this week, anonymity becomes a second class citizen.