Monday, July 25, 2011

Thoughts on canonical names.

When I am wrong, it behooves me to be wrong as loudly as possible so that those able to correct me will be able to do so. The flip side is that when I discover that I am wrong, I must be every bit as loud in turning that around. After much deliberation inside my head, I have finally realized that I have come to another instance where I have indeed been wrong in my thinking, as some of my friends will well appreciate.

But let me provide some context. Google+ has entered into the already crowded world of social media, but is currently making huge gains in the "it's-not-facebook" market. The problem, however, that is rightfully ruffling a great many feathers is that Google decided to adopt a policy quite similar to Facebook's Real Names policy. Much has already been made of the disproportionate impact this decision has for women, LGBTs and others that may be subject to harassment if their Real Names™ are revealed so frivolously. One of the better posts on this has been by Bug Girl, who clearly lays out the impact that the Real Names™ ideology has for her.

As is my usual habit, though, I wish to take a tangent. You see, I used to place an absurd amount of importance on Real Names™, and was disdainful of my 'nym using friends. Embarrassing, but there it is. The problem with this attitude — well, one of them, anyway ­— is that it presupposes the existence of a single canonical Real Name™. This assumption is not supported by reality, though.

Even in a relatively "normal" (by Western standards, anyway) case like my own name, what should I put? Christopher Evan Granade? That is surely not what my friends call me— many probably didn't even know what my middle name was before reading that. If we go with what my friends, colleagues, bosses, family, etc. all call me, "Chris" would be much closer. That name is problematic, though, in that it is so vauge that there are three people with offices on the same floor as mine that share it, to say nothing of the broader world. If disambiguation is needed, then, we move on to "Chris G.", "Chris Granade" or even "C-Bomb" (that makes more sense if you read my last name aloud), which I feel very little ownership over. Moving online, it only gets worse. I try to use cgranade as much as possible for uniformity's sake, but sometimes I have to settle instead for cegranade. In gaming communities, where using outside names is often frowned upon, I rely on the much more generic "brokenmirror", but that often has conflicts with other users.

And I'm not even married or divorced! My mother adopted my father's last name rather than taking both or her own, there's no complications with transliteration of a name more at home in a non-Latin alphabet, no dramatic name changes in my life. I have a middle and a last name, so no issues there. Really, the problems stem from that my name is a product of the context in which I use it. I do not have a canonical name at all. No one string of Unicode code points encapsulates the complex and entirely contextual rules which lead to a name by which you should call me.

Why should we, though, even expect this to be the case? It isn't true for much simpler and more rigid systems like the Web. My website, for instance, is reached by either "" or the much longer "". These two "names," though, fill very different purposes and get used in different ways. It gets worse if I were to share on Twitter or via a QR code, where either one would first be fed through a URL shortener. Thus this single concept, my website, has at least three "names" depending on the context you approach it from. When we move to something as complicated as a human identity, the preponderance of names is only exacerbated.

Any system which does not recognize the complexity that goes into names is thus doomed to fail, even if we set aside the ethics of strong-arming users into using a particular choice of name. Facebook has only survived this failure by haphazard enforcement of their own rules, but by actually practicing proactive enforcement on Google+, Google has stared this shortcoming in the face. Here's hoping that like I did, they can see where they've gone wrong in their thinking and in doing so, better serve the users whose trust forms the basis for so much of what they do.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Throwing two cents into a storm.

The Internet is a curious beast. Some stories and arguments quickly ignite, then disappear as quickly as they started. Others seem to be perpetual in that as soon as it seems to have faded away, some newcomer to the scene causes whole histories to replay and flare up again.

Of these two very coarse categories, Elevatorgate definitely belongs to the latter. In many ways, I should like nothing more than to see the whole of the tempest pass by, recovering brain cycles for more important issues. The problem with this attitude, however, is that how we in the skeptical and atheist communities treat women is an important issue. As often as people misunderstand, misrepresent and mistake the issue, at its core, what is at stake in Elevatorgate is whether we want the communities we build to be defined by positive and rational values such as inclusiveness, respect and diversity, or whether we are content to define our movement in terms of a narrow and ill-understood notion of privilege.

Up until now, I've kept my involvement in this debate (or rather, what a debate has since devolved into) to a minimum. I am, after all, a beneficiary of the very privilege under question, being male, and hence have more to learn than to contribute in this particular exchange. (Just to preempt the inevitable, that does not for a moment mean that I am "apologizing" for other men, or that I am asserting that I should take the actions of other men upon myself--- we are all each individuals, are we not?) I am also white, learned English as my native language, and was born into a affluent family in first-world country, etc. My life has hence been one in which doors open to me that are shut in the faces of others, by no virtue of my intellect, my choices or my efforts. Were I to project my own experiences on the world, then, it would thus be all too easy for me to come to the impression that those opportunities that I enjoy are universally enjoyed. When something like Elevatorgate occurs, it should serve as a wake-up call, in that Rebecca Watson was denied a choice I almost certainly would have enjoyed in the same situation: the choice of when and how to disengage from a social event.

As a progressive, as an atheist, as a skeptic, when a wake-up call like that sounds through my social media neighborhood, what can I do but attempt to understand what dynamics of privilege and yes, of misogyny, lead to that failure to respect Watson's independence? Once I start to examine these dynamics, it becomes all too obvious that such failures add to the cost that women must pay in order to participate in communities and movements that I consider to be important. If I take seriously that central value of rationality, self-improvement, then I am led just as inescapably to try to understand how to change the social environment around me so as to prevent this cost being exacted against women in the future.

An alternative approach, however, is to become defensive and to assert that things are fine the way they are. When confronted with contrary evidence, I could have instead dismissed it, and attacked the credibility of those calmly pointing out the cost associated with privilege. I could have even tried to deny the very existence of privilege, instead casting the original incident into a false narrative of "men versus women," of feminism being a thin veil for misandry, or of Watson being a drama-queen (even that term should rankle a few nerves by now!) interested not in reducing the cost of privilege but in inflating her own popularity. Such tactics, however, are fundamentally incompatible with the positive valuation of rationality, as rationality demands entertaining the notion that one is wrong, and as rationality demands a continual effort to improve oneself and to more closely align one's beliefs with reality.

It is in this spirit that I am pleased to note that despite the many men (and even women!) that see no wrong in Elevator Guy's actions, that despite the many people loudly and vilely attacking Watson, there has been a venerable chorus of men and women working hard to shape this incident into a concrete improvement for women in our communities. The fact that this incident has so inflamed passions belies the importance that we place on hashing through disagreements, rather than letting important issues fall by the wayside. Slowly, painfully and fitfully, our communities are improving due to the hard work of activists within our midst. That is something to take solace in, and likewise, is something to encourage the rest of us to join in, even when it can be discomforting.

Notes: Please accept my apology for the lack of links here today. There's simply too many good ones for me to choose a representative set from. Also, a hearty thanks go out to the person that originally suggested the subject for this post, and that introduced me to the concept of "sitting with your discomfort."