What’s in a name?: Questions of privacy in a Chinese social network

Chinese social networkers – the right to be anonymous?

Besides being accompanied by the above photo, which I find perfectly encapsulates the tension between recognition and anonymity among social networkers, Robert Ness’ post to Danwei.org this morning offers some of the best commentary I’ve heard on the right (or lack thereof) to be anonymous on the Internet in China. At issue is the real name system (实名制), or identity verification system. This is a system that requires someone wishing to join an online community to provide his or her real name and photo in order to join. Some like this system because (as they put it) it guarantees the authenticity of someone’s view points – members of an online community will know who said what. The systems proponents further argue that people will think twice before posting any potentially incendiary social or political commentary, as they will not be anonymous. By contrast, critics argue that this system represents Big Brother in action. Many of these critics further feel that the ability to post anonymously leads to discussion of taboo topics that would not be discussed if discussants could be personally identified.

Ness frames this debate in the context of the Chinese social network Zhanzuo.com -- in Ness’s words, “one of several sites contending for the role of ‘China's Facebook.’” The English version of the podcast interview with some of Zhanzuo’s regular networkers does a great job covering the different perspectives on this openness vs. privacy issue.

I confess I was interested in Zhanzuo for another reason as well. In order to reach out to social networkers, particularly on non-U.S. networks, I created profiles for myself on different networks active in different parts of the world (see my MySpace and Facebook, as well as my Orkut and Bebo). So naturally Zhanzuo was something I wanted to check out. I tried using Google translator to get around the language barrier, and to my surprise it wasn’t a total failure. I did get this far:

But when I created the profile I wasn’t able to type in the Roman alphabet, so I couldn’t give my real name. I threw in few random words in Chinese I copied and pasted from part of the page on the faint hope that I would be able to edit that bit of text into my real name once I was inside. Not surprisingly I was not able to do this – while I found the “edit my personal info” button, I was still unable to get the site to recognize my Romanized name. So my Zhanzuo profile is doomed.

But before the name verification authorities deleted my profile, I did try to add a little blurb about myself and the SIG-III blog, partly on the off chance that someone would see it before my profile disappeared, and partly just to see if I could do it. What happened was interesting. My attempts to post to the “about me” section were blocked, with (in Google translation) a rather Orwellian message:

your current state is: not yet audited by administrators, unable to use this function.

Block of the network to promote the real-name system, in order to pass audit, you must:

1. Upload your photos as a true portrait

2. Complete the true information (including name, department, etc)

Within 24 hours administrators will examine your images and information vetted through you can freely enjoy the fun of the block!

If Facebook, typically considered the standard bearer for authentic profile information in the U.S., ever tried anything like this, Facebook users would leave immediately. This amount of verification would never fly with a U.S. audience, thus marking a very significant difference between American social networkers and a certain percentage of Chinese social networkers. And while I wouldn’t presume to draw conclusions about broader social phenomena such as privacy in general and how attitudes towards privacy change by culture based solely upon an experiment like this, I did think my experience with Zhanzuo offered an interesting if incomplete window into attitudes towards privacy among Chinese netizens.

Posted by Aaron Bowen

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