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Facebook embraces online pseudonyms, starting with gamers

With Player Names, Facebook's changing its tune on how identity works online. But while gamers can be more private, there's no hiding from Facebook.

Silhouette

This is, for now, less a full-scale identity change for the platform and more a recognition of the fact that gamertags are a crucial part of gaming culture.

Image: Ben Sweet and Protocol

Facebook is rethinking one of the platform's oldest and most closely held features: requiring users to use their real names. As part of its push into gaming — which this week includes a big push into cloud gaming — Facebook's allowing users to use "Player Names" and themed avatars rather than their real name and photo.

Users will be able to use their Player Names when they're in one of the new embeddable, shareable games rolling out on the platform. They'll also be able to use them in any game that enables Facebook Login for Gaming, which Facebook launched in September as a way to save progress and settings in a game across platforms. (It's Facebook's version of Apple's Game Center or Google Play Games.) Facebook wants to turn Facebook accounts into gamertags like the ones people go by on Xbox or PlayStation.

This is, for now, less a full-scale identity change for the platform and more a recognition of the fact that gamertags are a crucial part of gaming culture. (Good luck convincing Ninja to play as Tyler Blevins.) But it's nonetheless a big change for the company and an important statement about how the company sees online identity now.

One of Facebook's grandest ambitions is to become the identity layer for the internet. Facebook has spent years pushing hard to be users' one true account, the one that knows all their interests and friends and history and can log them in everywhere. That, of course, allows Facebook to follow people wherever they go, collecting data and serving them ultra-personalized ads. If people don't trust Facebook in their most sensitive, private moments, Facebook misses out. Facebook wants it all.

To do that, Facebook needed to learn that everybody has multiple identities on the internet. Who they are when they play games is often different from who they are on LinkedIn, on Tinder and on Facebook. Facebook can only underpin all those things if it acknowledges where people are the same, where they're different, and how they want to identify themselves.

Five years ago, Mark Zuckerberg made a much less nuanced case for identity. He said in a town hall Q&A that real names were crucial for keeping users safe. "We know that people are much less likely to try to act abusively towards other members of our community when they're using their real names," he said. It also makes Facebook simpler to use, he said, since users could search for someone by name and find them.

The first part of Zuckerberg's argument has long been debated. Using real names (and having a policy reason to take down fake ones) did make certain kinds of harassment easier to police, but it also made it easier for harassers to find their targets in the first place.

The question of even what qualifies as someone's "real" name has been tricky for Facebook to answer, too. "If your friends all call you by a nickname and you want to use that name on Facebook," Zuckerberg said, "you should be able to do that. In this way, we should be able to support everyone using their own real names, including everyone in the transgender community." But Facebook would require government ID to verify their identity, or shut accounts down for using nicknames. A group called the Nameless Coalition wrote in an open letter at the time that "Facebook's current process can put users who use a name other than their legal name for safety or privacy purposes in real danger."

The second part of Zuckerberg's thinking — that real names make people easier to find — is simply no longer the case. With 2.7 billion users, Facebook has long since required more than just a name to find someone. (A quick unscientific search of HowManyofMe revealed that I, for instance, am one of 1,994 David Pierces in the U.S. alone. Good luck finding me on Facebook.) Most other social platforms already rely on some combination of phone numbers and unique usernames. Even Facebook-owned properties like Instagram and Oculus have embraced alternate usernames, and in Instagram's case it's easy for people to have lots of different accounts. Recently, though, Facebook has pushed to reconnect everything under users' Facebook accounts. That's how Player Names will work, too: many names under one identity.

Facebook's not going all-in on anonymity, though. It's trying to thread a needle between that multiple-identity idea and the same kind of safety assurance its real name policy always promised. "My Player Name on Facebook is MadMac," said Jason Rubin, Facebook's VP of Play. "Mac was a dog of our family that passed away a couple weeks ago. So MadMac is completely glued to Jason Rubin. If I misbehave, Facebook always knows that MadMac is Jason Rubin, and anything that we can do to Jason Rubin can be done to MadMac. There is no anonymity, 100% not." If you meet someone in a game and want to be friends in real life, Rubin said, it's easy to expand that friendship to the rest of the Facebook universe. And if you break the rules in a game, Facebook still knows how to find you.

Allowing users to dole out pieces of their Facebook identity could be an important change, particularly for those looking to Facebook for more sensitive topics. Rubin mentioned the need for "tight pseudonymity" for someone wanting to join an AA group, for instance. The platform's "health support" groups have been important to many users during the pandemic, too, and people join groups for practically every aspect of life in 2020. Rubin made clear that the company is investigating a number of other places the new identity policy might be useful, and that gaming was just a relatively lower-stakes place to start. "There are some great places on Facebook to allow pseudonymity, for human health and for other things," Rubin said. "We just have to get it right."

Protocol | Fintech

Jack Dorsey is so money: What Tidal and banking do for Square

Teaming up with Jay-Z's music streaming service may seem like a move done for flash, but it's ultimately all about the money (and Cash).

Jay-Z performs at the Tidal-X concert at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in 2017.

Photo: Theo Wargo/Getty Images

It was a big week for Jack Dorsey, who started by turning heads in Wall Street, and then went Hollywood with an unexpected music-streaming deal.

Dorsey's payments company, Square, announced Monday that it now has an actual bank, Square Financial Services, which just got a charter approved. On Thursday, Dorsey announced Square was taking a majority stake in Tidal, the music-streaming service backed by Jay-Z, for $297 million.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

Sponsored Content

The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

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Saul Hudson
Saul Hudson has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, especially in understanding and targeting messages in cutting-edge technologies. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, in helping companies to build passionate audiences and accelerate their growth. Hudson has reported from more than 30 countries, from war zones to boardrooms to presidential palaces. He has led multinational, multi-lingual teams and managed operations for hundreds of journalists. Hudson is a Managing Partner at Angle42, a strategic communications consultancy.
Protocol | Policy

Far-right misinformation: Facebook's most engaging news

A new study shows that before and after the election, far-right misinformation pages drew more engagement than all other partisan news.

A new study finds that far right misinformation pulls in more engagement on Facebook than other types of partisan news.

Photo: Brett Jordan/Unsplash

In the months before and after the 2020 election, far-right pages that are known to spread misinformation consistently garnered more engagement on Facebook than any other partisan news, according to a New York University study published Wednesday.

The study looked at Facebook engagement for news sources across the political spectrum between Aug. 10, 2020 and Jan. 11, 2021, and found that on average, far-right pages that regularly trade in misinformation raked in 65% more engagement per follower than other far-right pages that aren't known for spreading misinformation.

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Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.
Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

People

WhatsApp thinks business chat is the future — but it won't be easy

From privacy policy screw-ups to UI questions, can WhatsApp crack the super-app riddle?

WhatsApp Business is trying to wrap shopping around messaging. It's not always easy.

Image: WhatsApp

At some point, WhatsApp was always going to have to make some money. Facebook paid $21.8 billion for the company in 2014, and since then, WhatsApp has grown to more than 2 billion users in more than 180 countries. And while, yes, Facebook's acquisition was in part simply a way to neutralize a competitor, it also knows how to monetize an audience.

The trick, though, would be figuring out how to do that without putting ads into the app. Nobody at WhatsApp ever wanted to do that, including co-founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton, who reportedly left Facebook after disagreements over ads. More recently, even Mark Zuckerberg has slowed the WhatsApp ad train, with The Information reporting that ads in WhatsApp likely won't come while the company's under so much regulatory scrutiny. So: $21.8 billion, no ads. What to do?

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

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