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Opinion: YouTube policy change reflects paradigm shift

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Anonymity is still king on the Internet, but a paradigm shift seems to be in the works.

Facebook has popularized the use of real names on the Web, and it has slowly crept its service onto other sites as well. You might have noticed sites that aren’t Facebook asking you to log in with your Facebook account. This has been occurring for some time, and it reflects a vastly different Internet than that of even a decade ago.

Given the speed at which technology changes, it’s not entirely surprising. But it is noteworthy.

A recent policy change by YouTube got me thinking about Web anonymity all over again.

The Google-owned Web video giant recently began asking users who are commenting on videos whether they would like to continue posting under their user names or with their real names tied to their Gmail and Google Plus accounts. A YouTube blog post announcing the change alludes to the notion that the move further binds together the Google Web products. This can help from a usability standpoint, so it makes sense that the concept would be extended to YouTube.

Though the blog post didn’t mention it, this also could be an attempt to clean up the notorious YouTube comment world, where wit goes to die and flame wars are an everyday occurrence.

Civil discourse is less likely if you’re hiding behind a user name such as “reporter25.” If you’re using your real name and your real-life persona, you might be less likely to offer crude remarks and more likely to engage in genuine conversation. If you’ve been on Facebook recently, you’ll see that this doesn’t always hold true, but the general idea behind the concept is sound.

At this time, the YouTube choice is optional, but the question itself leads to more questions. Do you want to be known as yourself on the Internet, or do you want to maintain your anonymity? Do you want people you don’t know “in real life” having access to your real name and, as a by-product, your real thoughts? Is privacy a fleeting concept?

Were it not that I typically use a pseudonym on every Web site except Facebook, I might be slightly perturbed by this change. As a child growing up, I was taught the stranger danger way of the Web. Don’t give out personal information. Don’t let others know anything about you. Be constantly vigilant. Even YouTube – via a support page on “protecting your privacy” – recommends never using real names. I guess they’ll have to take that tip down now.

There are a number of implications to this shift in Web policy, both professionally and personally.

One could make the argument that removing the fear of strangers removes a reluctance to use the Web freely. Some believe the stranger danger teaching method goes too far, birthing a general distrust in society. Regardless of your personal feelings toward the subject, it does seem that Web companies are moving away from anonymity.

What this could mean is that more companies could see more people using their real information online. That’s a clear benefit for companies that sell products on the Web. This could be a chance for e-commerce companies to jump on sales from a previously untapped group – those afraid or unwilling to take their money to the Web.

Conversely, for those used to their Internet privacy, the possibility for backlash exists. Though not intrinsically tied to privacy, the massive Web protest in January against antipiracy litigation showed that Americans are willing and able to exercise their First Amendment rights in an online setting. The U.S. Constitution does not specifically grant a right to privacy, but amendments and judicial rulings have touched on the subject. And let us not forget online anonymous groups that hack or otherwise disrupt Web sites for various reasons. Pulling away from anonymity could mean those who covet it will pull back harder.

The popularity of the Internet continues to skyrocket. There’s no denying that. And because of the speed of technological changes, it’s difficult for policy to keep up. Who knows where we’ll be in another 10 years? I could be Geoff Pickle or I could be reporter25. It’s an interesting gambit.

Springfield Business Journal Web Editor Geoff Pickle can be reached at gpickle@sbj.net.

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