Theorem

Any sufficiently large social network based solely on real-names becomes unusable.

Say I want to direct a comment or a contact to John Smith. That’s one of the ~45,000 John Smiths in the USA, alone – not counting the number of possible John Smiths in other countries. How in heaven’s name do I disambiguate them? How about just the John Smiths in New York… no, still too large a list. How about just the ones in Brooklyn? No. Still not workable, that’s still a few hundred.

‘Real’ names just aren’t unique. Not even remotely.

For most people, the odds are that you share your name with hundreds, or even thousands of other people. That’s why you’ve got a Social Security number – because there’s no other way to tell the thousands of Robert Garcias, Mary Taylors, Thomas Jacksons, and Linda Andersons apart (to name just a few common examples). In order for government services and records to tell them apart, they need to be named uniquely – that is, with a number, for convenience’s sake.

I mean, it’s not like we’re talking about unusual names like – say – Justin Bieber (16 of those in Florida, alone), and hundreds across the USA, including at least 20 with the same middle name as the teen heart-throb.

Facebook’s got it easy. Just 700 million or so users, scattered across 170 or so countries (so there’s quite a mix of languages involved) and pretty bluntly dismissing the hundreds of thousands of users who chance to have the same name as the stage-name of a celebrity (members of the Screen Actors Guild are required to register with a name that nobody has ever used in the industry – that means that almost all SAG members are known by their SAG pseudonym). Double those numbers, though, and they’ll have a problem.

I’ve already got that problem in Google Plus, where I wanted to share an item with a particular person. Google Plus offered me a big fat list of people whose name matched what I entered, but none of them were the person I wanted.

The only practical way to make social networks work for large populations is to include pseudonyms – but then you need to define allowable behaviour and enforce breaches of it with perspicacity and swiftness. Orkut’s problem wasn’t so much fake names (though there were many fake names that were indistinguishable from real names) it was that bad behaviour largely went unpoliced until it reached the point where it was no longer possible to do so.

The notion that our social network software provider can deal with wallet-names and make it work for an arbitrarily large population is essentially fundamentally a flawed notion.

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Categories: Opinion, Social Media.



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