Today, it was announced by Blizzard that forum posts to the official World of Warcraft forums would be tagged with your Real ID. It was later clarified that this is not something that will be retroactive, so if this creeps you out, you do not need to go purge the current forum system of all your posts.

When I read this post, my first thought was “Well, there go the forums.”

For those of you who don’t know (which is likely a great many of you), I have worked for quite a few years in the Internet industry. Specifically, I was a content producer for a top-ten website as well as maintaining the most active chatting community on that web property for a period of approximately three out of the four years I worked there, at the height of the boom in the “dot com” industry. (For the record, it took me a year to build up the community and then my community was the most active chat for the next three years until I got laid off with hundreds of other people because they were too stupid to monetize us.)

I haven’t worked too much in that area of the industry recently for a variety of reasons, including the “dot com” crash and a return to university to get my degree. Still, I maintain a variety of different forum and chat-based communities across the web and have successfully grown self-sustaining communities in both mediums from scratch. I love online communities and I love creating them. I daresay I’ve created a nice little community here on my blog as well and I really enjoy the back and forth I have with my commenters.

So as a seasoned professional in the area of online communities, my first thought wasn’t to myself and Blizzard’s privacy creep as it infringes on me. It was “Oh Lord, Blizzard has just completely ruined their own forum community and the forums will now be a desolate wasteland.”

Let us go through my thought process on the matter:

- Blizzard has provided us with access to their many, many forums for many years. They existed when I started playing over four years ago, but I’m unsure if they were available at launch or not. Regardless, a minimum of 4+ years is a long time to have a community tool such as the forums easily accessible to every customer. Changing how the forums work after so long is bound to anger some customers, regardless of what the change is.

- People get acclimated to the forums, particularly when they become a very official method of communicating with Blizzard (Blue), once Ghostwalker (Greg Street) starts posting in his official capacity on a regular basis and solicits your feedback and opinions with regards to class development and design. People also flock to the forums for a variety of other reasons: looking for a guild, recruiting for a guild, advertising guild progression, advertising crafting services on your realm forum, looking for technical support, looking for customer support, even posting to ask on which characters you’ve done the 00x quests. The forums become a valuable method of communication as soon as both sides start using the forums as a tool to communicate what they feel is important information, regardless of what that information is. As soon as people feel it’s important, the medium in which that information is available becomes valuable.

- As with all online communities, trolls and other unwelcome entities have had their fun. In fact, a lot of people disregard the official forums as completely useless, disgusting, troll-filled message boards rather than the potentially useful tool that they are. How about the Guild Relations forum? The Customer and Technical Support forums? The Guild Recruitment forum? Your realm forum? Sure, there are trolls and otherwise unhelpful individuals in each of those places, but, by and large, the good information in each of those forums is enough to outweigh the undesirables.

“So,” I concluded, “Blizzard wants to get rid of the trolls.” I feel that this upcoming system will certainly help to combat the troll problem. Without low-level alts to hide behind, without the veil of anonymity, people are bound to be less moronic. In fact, I believe that it will stop around 75% of trollish behaviour on the forums since people will be accountable for their actions as they will no longer be able to jump from alt to alt to alt as a persona. (Note that I have no data on how much crap Blizzard actually locks and deletes versus how much gets posted, etc. This is a ballpark figure based on my previous experience in online communities and the more than four years I’ve spent in the World of Warcraft community.)

So the next question I asked myself was “What will forcing people to post using their ‘real ID’ actually do?” Well, first of all, I strongly believe that a portion of the people upset over this would be upset over any change, as I mentioned before. Already, there’s a portion of the community that won’t take this “slap in the face” lying down.

Then you have the people who have reason (regardless of what the reason is) to be reluctant to share their real name with eleven million other players and anyone who happens to surf along. (“Anyone” being someone who ran some kind of search on you, like a prospective employer, a potential significant other, your cousin in Nebraska, the kid you used to babysit, anyone.) Given the uproar on this already, I would have to wager that approximately 20-25% of Blizzard’s overall customer base is actively unhappy with this upcoming change. Again, this is a ballpark figure, based on my never having seen such a strong, negative reaction to anything Blizzard has done before. The original thread, posted by Nethaera at about noon, eastern time, has grown to 607 pages of 20 responses on each page in ten hours.

Conservatively estimating things, that’s about 900 responses from unique individuals an hour, the vast majority of them disagreeing with this upcoming change. And that’s just on the North American forums. I’ve never seen such an outcry in my four-plus years in this game. No nerf has ever generated this much response.

Therefore, my conclusion is that if the change goes forward, about 25% or so of people (conservatively estimating) who did use the official forums in some capacity, including trolling, will stop doing so. There’s even an MVP poster, Snowfox, who will no longer post if this goes through.

25% less traffic means 25% less posts to make sure aren’t obscene, profane or threatening. 25% less traffic means less bandwidth/server costs. 25% less traffic means less manpower hours to supervise the posts. 25% less traffic turns into money saved for Blizzard.

Forums and other community-based tools are notoriously hard to monetize. Go on, click on the link above to the WoW forum thread about this to see how Blizzard is currently trying to monetize their forums. I’m currently looking at two banner ads. One is for swagdog, offering your guild tabard on a t-shirt. The other is for Warcraft figures.

Because the forums are so heavily trafficked, I imagine that Blizzard does make a bit of money from the display of advertisements on each forum page, just by virtue of the law of averages. But it’s my professional opinion and experience that lead me to believe that this kind of advertising is NOT enough to sustain the infrastructure and manpower the forums require and so the cost of the forums is likely subsidized by other avenues of income, including our monthly fee.

Because I do not believe the forums to be entirely self-sustaining, I believe that Blizzard is attempting to do two things here that are designed to cut costs:

a) Lower traffic on the forums to lower infrastructure-related costs

b) Lower the amount of trolling on the official forums by making people accountable for their posts by virtue of using a single identifying tag (the real ID) which lowers the amount of human supervision the forums need.

I further believe that they are doing this under the guise of hopping on the social networking bandwagon. They may be thinking that since Facebook is mostly real-life names and identities and it’s so popular, why not tap into that willingness to share and connect? Targeted advertising could be next, based on the assumed gender your real ID indicates. Advertising that can be directed to specific segments of the population can bring in a lot of money versus ads that are directed at a general population. The bottom line is, Activision Blizzard is a business and they want money. They are clearly looking at new avenues to procure money or, at the very least, save it.

So to recap, it is my professional opinion that the change forcing us to use Real ID when posting on the official forums will cut official forum use substantially, meaning less money spent on the forum infrastructure and supervision, with the bonus that trolling will drop even more than legitimate traffic.

Now for my personal opinion.

Blizzard, you’ve lost your mind. Personally, as someone who doesn’t use the Real ID in-game friend system except for three people (one of whom I’m related to, one of whom I’ve known IRL for 27 years and one of whom I’ve spent hours with IRL and many years playing with), this is ridiculous.

From the Real ID FAQ:

“Who should I add to my Real ID friends list?
Real ID is a system designed to be used with people you know and trust in real life — friends, co-workers and family”

Versus the announcement today:

“The first and most significant change is that in the near future, anyone posting or replying to a post on official Blizzard forums will be doing so using their Real ID — that is, their real-life first and last name”

So, hold up. You want me to share my real name with people who already know it, who are people I know in real life… okay. That’s my choice, I got it.

But then you want me to use the same information on a public forum which is accessible to anyone on the Internet?

Uh, no.

I’ve used the official forums a moderate amount over the years. I used to post guild progression updates, I’d post in people’s “looking for a new guild” posts with information about my guild, I’d post recruitment threads, I’d post on the forums to say hey, I’m a Leatherworker and can make this stuff…

No one needs to know that [my real name] is a holy paladin looking for a new guild.

No one needs to know that [my real name] is a Leatherworker on some realm with a couple of interesting patterns.

Further, I am, in case you didn’t know, a woman. I have had enough bad experiences in online communities over the years just because I am female that when I first made a toon in WoW, I made my hunter male. While the numbers between men and women in WoW are getting more balanced, this is still an environment that is inherently extremely hostile to women. Just about every insult used frequently in-game by others is hostile to women because it equates women with being weak and apparently some of the ultimate insults in the game have to do with men being equated to women or just being less of a “man”.

Seriously, think about that for a minute. I apologize if this is a trigger for anyone, but think about this: why do people use “rape” as casually as they do in this game? “Aw yeah, I’m gonna rape that guy!” It’s because, to them, “rape” is synonymous with exerting power and control over another person. It is encouraged in this game to exert power and control over others and I don’t have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is that people use the term “rape” so casually, to indicate they are powerful beings in this world, when the fact of the matter is that one in six women (and one in thirty-three men) will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. I have been fortunate enough to not be that one-in-six, but I certainly know my fair share of people who haven’t been that lucky.

Due to the fact that is is disturbingly common for women to be assaulted in such a way, how can using the word “rape” in-game not be hostile to women? Even if the intent is clear that someone doesn’t want to actually sexually assault another person’s character, it trivializes what is a horrifying event for anyone who is subject to it. It also emasculates the intended target, since most victims of rape and sexual assault are women.

On a related note, how can calling someone “gay” or a “fag” not be hostile to members of the GLBT community? For that matter, how is that not hostile to women as well? If someone is calling someone else “gay” as a derogatory insult, it can only be because they are not as “manly” or “strong” as a heterosexual man is perceived. And, in our binary society, if you are not a man, you must then be… a woman! So to call someone “gay” or a “fag” is not only equating homosexuality with weakness, but the implication is also that weakness is equated to being a woman.

So given the prevailing attitudes in this overall World of Warcraft community, is it any wonder that many women don’t want to be known as women to the general public? Don’t want to give people even the slightest opening into being able to look them up and stalk them?

I have an EXTREMELY common name. It’s so common that I was stopped in Germany a few years ago because suspected terrorists are using passports and other identification papers using that same name and they wanted to make sure that I was really me and not actually a suspected terrorist. And I STILL don’t want people in-game to know my real name, in general. I certainly can’t blame anyone, regardless of the popularity of their names, for not wanting to give out that information.

Giving out my real name should always be my choice. There’s a reason I post as Kurn and not my real name. Kurn is my public WoW identity. Kurn is not now, nor has ever been, linked to my real name in any capacity except where I have chosen to share my name. Kurn is SO FAR AWAY from my professional online presence that I’m sure no one even suspects that I play WoW. (Well, I hope, anyways.)

And I LIKE it that way.

That’s why, if this change goes through, I will no longer be posting on the official World of Warcraft forums. There are too many people out there who are REALLY good at e-stalking to even risk it. Doubt me? Poor Bashiok, a blue poster, made the mistake of posting his real name on the official forums and now a ton of people have looked him up, determined he’s 28 and lives at home with his mother and older brother, possibly a sister as well, and found his Facebook (now 100% closed if you’re not friends with him) and found a contact number for him. Even if that’s not Bashiok, what about the poor guy who shares his name? Do you really think there aren’t people who are going to call that number at 4am just to be dicks? If you don’t believe that’s a distinct possibility, then please, tell me what game environment have YOU been playing in? Check out Trade, sometime.

Then, there’s the whole “gainful employment” thing. On some versions of my curriculum vitae that I send out, I mention the whole officer/GM thing. On some, I don’t. I fully expect some potential employers to think it’s a good thing and some to think I’m a nutcase if they come across that information. I’m careful about which prospective employers I share that information with.

And now, some links:

Miss Medicina has a cautionary tale for you all, as well.

Ciderhelm at TankSpot is against this, too.

So is Lume.

ETA:

Larisa’s thoughts at Pink Pigtail Inn: 1 and 2

Nattie’s comment at MetaFilter is long and detailed and TOTALLY worth every moment of the read. (Thanks for the link, Mattias.)

Lissanna of Restokin is also against this and will not post her extremely popular and useful druid guides to the new forums. (Thanks for posting, Lissanna!)

The last thing I’ll say in this post is: please think about how this affects other people before you pronounce this to be “okay” or “fine”. Please think about the various uses people have for the official forums, including technical and customer support before you call people with valid concerns “paranoid”.

And finally, please note that I’ll be monitoring my comments on this post carefully. If you disagree with me, I don’t have a problem with that. But disagree with me respectfully, intelligently and back up your arguments with proof. Troll comments will be deleted.