One of the oldest jokes about the Web – the 1993 New Yorker cartoon that said "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" – may not be true for much longer.
Several major websites spent the past year slowly chiseling away at online anonymity. Two of the biggest forces, Facebook and Google, even got into open spats, demanding that members use their real names online – and booting many who refused.
Few fought the name police as publicly as author Salman Rushdie. In November, Facebook froze his account, demanding proof that he was in fact Mr. Rushdie. After he sent in a picture of his passport, the company returned control of the profile page, but under one condition: He could no longer go by Salman, his middle name.
"They have reactivated my [Facebook] page as 'Ahmed Rushdie,' in spite of the world knowing me as Salman," he wrote in a barrage of protest messages on Twitter. "Forcing me to change my FB name from Salman to Ahmed Rushdie is like forcing J. Edgar to become John Hoover." After rallying online supporters behind him, Rushdie returned to Twitter just two hours later with, "Victory! Facebook has buckled! I'm Salman Rushdie again. I feel SO much better. An identity crisis at my age is no fun."
Facebook apologized for the change, yet reiterated that it's serious about this naming policy. Fictional names and characters may set up business pages on Facebook. But standard accounts are reserved for real people using their real names.
Earlier in 2011, Facebook kicked out Chinese political blogger Zhao Jing for creating an account under his pen name, Michael Anti.
Just before the Egyptian protests last year, the company came very close to shutting down the influential Facebook group "We Are All Khaled Said" because its administrator operated under a pseudonym. According to e-mails obtained by Newsweek, Facebook struggled to square its policy with the new political responsibility thrust upon it. It eventually arranged for an "identified" supporter to manage the group.
"We think people should communicate online in the same way that they communicate in the real world," says Malorie Lucich, a spokeswoman for the social network.
The policy reaches back to 2005, when entry required a university .edu e-mail address, which identified exactly who you were. As Facebook grew from a handful of colleges to 800 million users, it held on to this expectation of transparency. The website employs a team of policy enforcers, says Ms. Lucich, and has rolled out automated systems that watch for spammers, scammers, and impostors.
"It's not perfect," she admits. Plenty of pseudonyms sneak under the radar. But masqueraders do so at their own risk, as Rushdie inadvertently discovered.
This real-name culture may help explain Facebook's success, says Jeff Jarvis, author of "Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live." It's no surprise to him that a social network built on identities, photos, and real relationships flourished, while others designed around usernames like Lonelygirl15 withered.
"Eight hundred million people flock to Facebook because they want to connect to people," he says, "not to made-up people as with the late, lamented MySpace."
The name rule also plays into the widely accepted notion that identity adds accountability, especially in online comments. And it helps Facebook make money, since targeted ads become a lot more valuable when members provide accurate demographic information.
With Facebook leading the way, other websites adopted similar rules.
• When Google rolled out a rival social network, Google+, last summer some early adopters watched their new profile pages disappear as the company culled seemingly pseudonymous accounts. The network requires users go by their "common name," which it defines as "the name your friends, family, or co-workers usually call you."
• The New York Times encourages readers to use real names by giving some commenters "trusted" status, enabling them to post without an editor's review.
• More than 400,000 websites use Facebook's free login service, which ties people's actions to their Facebook profiles.
• In 2010, Activision Blizzard, the video game publisher behind the immensely popular World of Warcraft and Call of Duty series, announced that several of its online forums would force commenters to display first and last names.
"The Web is still largely anonymous," says David Weinberger, a senior researcher at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and author of "Too Big to Know." While he says many websites are pushing back against the assumption of online anonymity, Mr. Weinberger notes that few of these efforts turned out as planned. Why? In many cases, users hate it.
After facing criticism, Google quickly announced that it's investigating ways to weave in pseudonyms. "Since launch we've listened closely to community feedback on our names policy," wrote Google+ chief Bradley Horowitz in a recent online post. "Over the next week, we’ll be adding support for alternate names – be they nicknames, birth names, or names in another script – alongside your common name."
Activision Blizzard abandoned its plan after just three days of user outrage.
"The value of anonymity is generally not recognized by the people that want to be in control of the Internet," says Weinberger. "But maybe that's not the narrative. Maybe we've reached the edge and Google, one of the most major players, has retreated from its real-name policy."