Russett’s article “A Contemporary Portrait of Information Privacy: Collective Communicative Consequences of Being Digital” explores the death of privacy online, examining both the death of privacy and the processes behind it. While reading the article, I was reminded of an incident which may serve as an instructive real-life example on Russett’s discussion, namely Blizzard Entertainment’s attempts to force users to post with their real name.
Blizzard Entertainment created games such as Starcraft, Diablo, and the (in)famous World of Warcraft. As Blizzard’s game franchises enjoy vast playerbases, a great many posters frequent the official Blizzard forums, dubbed the “Battle.net” forums, after Blizzard’s in-game multiplayer service. Users post under their Battle.net account name, which the player chooses free of restriction from Blizzard. Forum posters discuss anything from game tactics to general-interest topics such as movies and literature, with debates often devolving into heated attacks. In July 2010, Blizzard announced a change to the forums which would display posts under the real name attached to a player’s Battle.net account rather than the username. Blizzard claimed that the usage of real names would force users to conduct themselves with more politeness on the forums.
Blizzard’s rationale for the change matches exactly Russett’s claim that “when addressing an upset public, the PR response will tactfully emphasize a perceived greater efficiency” (Russett 47). Blizzard justified the switch to the so-called “Real ID” by presenting the switch as a measure to better the Battle.net forums community.
The user backlash proved immediate and immense, with many angered posters lashing out against Blizzard lifting the veil of anonymity which sheltered posters from repercussions for their discussions, no matter how heated. Posters saw their ability to speak freely threatened. Blizzard’s reasoning was in and of itself a bit perverse. The company claimed that Real IDs would enforce a better standard of behavior. Blizzard’s announcement left unspoken exactly why posters would feel compelled to behave better; namely, the threat of real-life repercussions from other individuals. Such repercussions need not only be limited to a firing or a harshly-worded letter. As observed by Penny Arcade, a popular gaming webcomic, revealing one’s real name to a stranger in a fierce internet debate makes it that much easier for the individual to inflict physical harm on one due to emotions aroused during an argument. Blizzard’s plan proposed to turn a previously anonymous community into a heavily self-censoring body where members might fear to voice their opinions. Given that official forums often serve as a place for users to complain about a company’s work as well as a place for fervent fans to praise the same, Blizzard certainly stood to gain from making posters afraid of angering other members of the Battle.net forums.
Blizzard reversed their proposal after weathering a storm of community outrage for several days. Since June 2010, the concept of an online “Real ID” has only increased in prevalence due to the increased emphasis on linking Facebook accounts to the use of other websites. Such systems remain optional-for now. However, one need not tax the imagination in order to picture a world in which access to websites requires some form of online profile depicting one’s real self.
Curiously, the complaint-filled 2500+ page thread containing the original Real ID announcement appears to have been deleted from the Battle.net forums.