Today’s “Nymwar” Protests: Grass-Roots Dissent By The Governed

Who gets to decide what your name is?

Upon birth, your parents pick your name, just like they decide what food you eat and when to take a bath, as it is appropriate for parents of infants. After you grow up, naming rules are very different by jurisdiction. In Germany, where I grew up, it’s virtually impossible to change your name except by marriage, and then you can only change your last name in very prescribed ways. In common-law countries, like California where I live now, you get to change your name any time for any reason and most forms where that might matter ask for “other names used by you in the past”. (For a very interesting read, visit the Wikipedia page on “Name Change“.)

And here comes Facebook, and now Google, who demand that you only use your “one true (and presumably unchangeable) name” on their service. They give a long list of reasonably good reasons, and presumably they have another list of reasons they don’t tell us about (perhaps they want to become a bank in the future, or correlate you with other information …).

But there are two major problems with that. One, the very concept of a “one true name” is an illusion, and two, the such-named subjects won’t take it.

First of all, what is my “one true name”? In Germany, with its history of Bismarckian top-down rule, that might be clear. Everywhere else, not so much. What if I change my name according to California law? The Californians may think it is one thing, the Germans another. Or take the case of my US citizen wife who, for years, had a driver’s license and a passport that had two different names on it. (And no, it was not malicious at all, that’s the best she could do given various naming policies between the California DMV, the US passport authorities, and the fact that we got married in a third country.) So which one of those names is the one true name?

Then, many places around the world don’t use the strict firstname/lastname pair that Google and Facebook seem to have in mind. Everybody should know that by now, given the well-published problems that various government databases have of alternate names for the same person the Arab world. Or to use another German example, when I grew up, my grandmother would never refer to other people in her village by first or last name. Instead, she referred to them by “house name” and role in the household, e.g. “the X farmer” aka head of household in house X. With the decline of rural village life, house names have become rather unusual in the western world, but I guess similar schemes can still be found all over the world. Best of all: nobody would have known who she talked about if she had used “real names”, because those so-called “real names” are far less “real” in many cases than others, with my friend Identity Woman as a prime, modern example. (Who, of course, was banned from Google+, for using the name that everybody knows her by!).

But there’s something even more interesting going on here than ignorance by large internet companies’ product teams, which is my other point: the governed are not going to take unilaterally declared terms of service for much longer, and today’s protests are an indication:

Every time there’s an iTunes update, it seems, I have to agree to new terms of service, all 62 pages of it. It’s take it or leave it. Just like whatever policy Facebook or Google concoct today, whether it is well-thought-out or awful, useful or dumb, empowering or limiting, or serves ulterior motives. But the ways we use those services are more and more resembling common gathering places, like the courtyard in a castle, squares in a city, or the ancient Agora. There, too, used to be overlords who unilaterally could change the terms on which you were allowed to do certain activities in that area (and I wouldn’t be surprised if those had also included rules about your name.) But we, the governed, at some point didn’t take it any more, and our ancestors created a revolution, and decided that we were the ones making the rules, not dictators. (packing a thousand years of history into one sentence here, I realize, but that seems to be the essence of it.)

The nymwars is one of the first expression of civil discontent over unilateral policies by internet overlords. There will be more. It will take a long time. But it will end in the same place it ended in the real world: consent of the governed, and vote out of office of those to whose policies we do not consent. Watch out, internet billionaires. Your power, also, depends on the consent of the governed. What if they don’t?

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