Strong opinions, weakly held

Two companies that don’t understand identity

There are two growing identity-related controversies that I’m keeping an eye on today.

The first is ScienceBlogs’ decision to add a blog sponsored by Pepsi to its stable. ScienceBlogs publishes many highly regarded blogs, and authors there are concerned that the Pepsi blog will hurt their credibility. Just take a look at the front page of ScienceBlogs and you’ll see that most of the posts are about the new corporate blog. One blogger is abandoning his blog for now. Another says that paid content is going to cost ScienceBlogs its reputation. There are many, many more examples.

The other news that caught my eye was game company Blizzard’s decision to start publishing the real names of posters on their official forums. Blizzard makes a bunch of games that people generally play under aliases they choose. They have World of Warcraft or Diablo characters that have their own names, or handles that are used for real time strategy games like Starcraft. These names were also used on Blizzard’s community forums. Recently they launched a system called RealID that enables you to connect with friends using your real name, so that they can chat with you and see what you’re doing, regardless of which game or character you’re playing. You can even link your RealID to your Facebook account. Now they’ve decided that when you post on the company’s official forums, your real name will be displayed on your posts. This decision has set off a fit of nerd rage the likes of which have seldom been seen.

In both cases, companies have misunderstood how people regard them. I’m not sure that having a blog posted by Pepsi employees hurts the credibility of other blogs on ScienceBlogs, as long as the blog is clearly labeled as such. I don’t think any less of James Fallows because Clive Crook also has a blog at The Atlantic, for example. The big problem, as I see it, is the interaction of paid content with pseudonymous blogging. There are few things academics prize more than their integrity, and ScienceBlogs’ decision to accept paid content is perceived as a threat to the integrity of the other bloggers at ScienceBlogs. How are they to know that one of their fellow pseudonymous bloggers isn’t a corporate shill for Exxon? The problem isn’t Pepsi’s blog, per se, it’s the shadow it casts on other blogs that lack full attribution.

Blizzard’s problem is that they don’t understand that most of their customers see a bright line between “game life” and “real life.” Few people want Google searches for their name to turn up results that include them arguing with some orc on their server who killed them by surprise a couple of years ago. Many people don’t even let other players know the names of all of their characters, much less their real names. Indeed, the ability to forge a somewhat independent identity for your game persona that’s separate from your real life persona is one of the key attractions of online gaming. And yet Blizzard seems to want to turn their games into Facebook games, where not only do you play, but you also share your game activities with everyone you know. This is a serious misapprehension of their audience, and it has blown up in their face in a spectacular way. I expect that Blizzard will wind up reversing itself completely before too long.

There’s a lesson in here for these companies that’s similar to the one Facebook keeps failing to learn with all of their privacy problems — identity is a big deal, and when you start mucking with the boundaries, bad things happen.

Update: See Broken Toys for more on Blizzard’s identity issues.


  1. The Blizzard thing is quite frankly amazing. For a company that normally does an excellent job of understanding their users and making tradeoffs, this is a complete misstep.

    My predictions:

    (1) In game RealID adoption will be low (where by “in game” I mean where you “friend” other people using their “RealID” and then you can then see your friend’s friends real names too.)

    (2) Use of alternative web forums will accelerate (where people can post without using RealID) and the Blizzard forums will become an empty wasteland that consists only of announcements. (Are the Blizzard employees going to post with their real names too? Didn’t think so.)

    Those of course assume that Blizzard doesn’t wake up form the reality distortion field they are in.

  2. 1) Won’t be visiting ScienceBlogs ever again. Who knows who is getting paid to write what.

    2) Won’t be buying any Activision/Blizzard games.

    Good job, guys.

  3. Science Blogs found a clue and gave the Pepsi Blog a dirt nap.

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