Social networks' real-identity rule may become norm

User registration with real identities could be reality in near future, not from government enforcement but as social networks want authentic user profiles to win advertising dollars, observers note.

Mandatory registration on social networking sites with real identities, including details such as names, could become reality in future. It will not be due to government enforcement, which observers say is not feasible, but because social networks themselves see authentic user identity as a compelling proposition to woo advertisers.

Jake Wengroff, global director of social media strategy and research at Frost & Sullivan, said a government cannot force its citizens to register their social media accounts with their real identities, though it can exert pressure, such as fines or threats of a shut down, on social networking companies.

However, government pressure on social networks to conform to regulations are not looked upon favorably by the public, such as in the United States, if the backlash against the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) were anything to go by, he added in an e-mail.

Pam Fang, Singapore Polytechnic (SP) lecturer for Diploma in Media and Communication, concurred on the infeasibility of government enforcement, noting how several Facebook users who were concerned with the site's privacy policy requiring users to reveal their real names, chose to make the move to Google+ when it was launched--although they soon faced the same issue with Google's social network.

Citing Singapore as an example, the current "light touch" approach together with user self-regulation is sufficient to maintain responsible use of the Internet where every individual is mindful and accountable for what they post online, said Fang, who is also an advisor for the SP Center for Social Media.

Both observers' comments were in response to the news that Beijing had given an ultimatum for microblog, or weibo, users in the city to register their accounts with their real names by mid-March--or be banned from posting on the service. The Chinese authorities have stated that microblogs contributed to public dissent and unfounded political rumors, Reuters reported last month.

The real-name policy was first introduced in the city in December last year. A spokesperson from the Beijing Internet Information Office said in a Xinhua report while users must register with their real names, they can post using their weibo username. The rule has since been extended to other Chinese cities including Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Shanghai.

Using user information to win ad dollars
Wengroff however pointed out that the biggest push for verified user identities could come from social networks themselves, and not governments.

It is "absolutely" possible in the future that more social networking sites, including microblogs such as Twitter, will see to it that users register with their real identities, he said. Already Facebook and Google+ mandate that users register with their real names for "far more important constituency that is their advertisers".

User identity is crucial for them to make a compelling value proposition for advertising dollars, he said. "Without real names and true demographic data, advertisers simply won't find marketing on social networks useful. And without advertising dollars, social networks, for the most part, cannot survive."

Fang, on the other hand, argued that while real-name regulation may increase user accountability, it is unlikely be a social norm, considering the user backlash Google+ faced from its real-name rule. "If more social networks implemented real-name policies, it would mean that popular users such as Lady Gaga cannot be known as such online," she added.

Furthermore, people use social media for the variety of viewpoints absent in traditional media. If a social network requires real-names, it may stifle the vibrancy of online discussions, motivating users to move elsewhere to express and share their views, she noted.

That said, she highlighted that it was important to distinguish between permitting pseudonyms and anonymity. "Pseudonyms are merely a reflection of a part of an individual's multifaceted identity, whereas anonymity may give users leeway to make disparaging comments," the SP lecturer said.

Web users ZDNet Asia contacted said although online user monikers were not always their real names, using real identities online on social networks was becoming more commonplace, if not almost a given.

Singaporean secondary school teacher Frederick Wong noted that people were increasingly living their lives online. "With social media, being your real-life self is the only way to get the best experience. Even if you use a pseudonym online instead of the name on your identity card, your friends know that it is you," he said.

Freelance writer Julianne Goh said in a text message interview: "There practically isn't any novelty in using a nickname or pretending to be someone else online. In fact it's almost tiring. It's become an unspoken expectation that who you are online is who you are offline as well."