There's no better way to rile up an online community than to mess with its privacy standards. And yet, as digital networks evolve, we'd better make sure our models for online social interaction are nimble enough to change when they need to. In this three-part series, Youth Radio's Noah Nelson looks at the privacy strategies--and failures--of three of the most influential online phenomena: Blizzard's World of Warcraft, Facebook, and the infamous image board 4Chan. The future of the Internet resides somewhere in the DNA of these three communities.
The latest battleground in the war over Internet privacy? Aztheroth, better known to the uninitiated as the World of Warcraft, the most popular massively multiplayer online (MMO) game on planet Earth. This month the champions of Anonymity clashed with the forces of Accountability in the form of a public relations nightmare over a proposed change in policy on the forums for Activision/Blizzard's World of Warcraft and forthcoming StarCraft II franchises. The battle began on the 6th, when Blizzard made the following announcement:
The first and most significant change is that in the near future, anyone posting or replying to a post on official Blizzard forums will be doing so using their Real ID -- that is, their real-life first and last name -- with the option to also display the name of their primary in-game character alongside it.
The idea behind Real ID is to transform the anarchic and often crass message boards into a place more palatable for the casual consumer... or anyone who doesn't cotton to being called a %^$^ noob every 1.21 picoseconds. While one solution for cleaning up the wild west of any online forum is to hire more sheriffs (a.k.a. Community Managers), that takes resources. You've got to pay a real human being to unleash the power of the "banhammer" when @rk@n@ught_6937 threatens sexual violence against another user's pets in a discussion thread about a software patch.
Or there's the free option: rely on the oldest form of moderation, social pressure, to do the dirty work for you. Blizzard's proposed forum changes would allow users to vote comments up and down, Which puts a degree of control in the hands of the users and assigns a number value to the social pecking order. And then there's the silver bullet of discussion moderation: the mandate to use your real name. @rk@naught_6937 might be willing to describe his revenge fantasies in graphic detail, Dave Lizewski not so much. The idea behind using a system like Real ID is to bring a sense of accountability for online interactions to places where there are few consequences for anti-social behavior. Blizzard's move comes on the heels of the social gaming revolution represented by the Facebook-based hit Farmville (from Zynga), and that's no coincidence:
With regard to Facebook, our goal is to help Blizzard gamers on Battle.net more easily connect to their real-life friends and family. For the launch of StarCraft II, we are introducing an optional Facebook friend finder feature to help achieve this goal. The friend finder enables players who decide to use it to easily populate their Battle.net friends list by sending Real ID friend requests to the people on their Facebook friends list who have Battle.net accounts.
There's a real desire on the part of game developers to tap into the amplification effect that Zynga has with its Facebook games. When coupled with the longstanding need to do something about accountability, a system like Real ID looks like a no-brainer. The problem is that from the point of view of devoted fans of properties like WOW and the StarCraft franchise, the intrusion of the real world into their fantasy life is not only a violation of their play-space, it can wind up being a violation of their privacy. It's one thing for players of an MMO to have tools at their disposal for finding their friends. It's quite another for employers and those who don't share in the hobby to be able to run a quick Google search and find out how much of a jerk (or saint) a player is. People play roleplaying games like WOW to abandon their day to day identity. Making them more accountable for their behavior by tying it to their real life persona defeats a key purpose for play. Luckily for Blizzard's huge fan base, within three day the company backtracked on its plans:
We've been constantly monitoring the feedback you've given us, as well as internally discussing your concerns about the use of real names on our forums. As a result of those discussions, we've decided at this time that real names will not be required for posting on official Blizzard forums.
This kind of "privacy two-step" is familiar to anyone who watches large online services like WOW and Facebook. When the user base of a web service runs into the millions- in Facebook's case the hundreds of millions- the limitations of the host company's ability to model real social interaction become come into relief. The recent firestorm over Facebook's "Open Graph" initiative is the archetype of the pattern-- Company A ham-fistedly changes the rules. Company A's users revolt. Company A rolls back the changes, leaving a few modifications in place. Rinse and repeat. But if more companies want to adopt the Facebook model of managing their user base, they might want to watch out: FB users aren't exactly a happy bunch.
In Part Two: Facebook's customer satisfaction is down, and the paradox at the heart of FB's philosophy that's at fault.