Over the past year, online dating service OkCupid has shaken up a few of its core features, and the changes have all pushed the service far closer to resembling rival dating app Tinder. Thursday's big change, however, sees the site borrowing a subtler Tinder "feature" that has long enraged users of other online platforms: a real-name policy, coming before year's end.
"We all have real names," the company's open letter states while listing a variety of goofy-sounding handles that the unnamed author insists are taken from real dating accounts. "We know, this is tough to hear. It’s because, like the recent goodbye we said to AIM screen names, it’s time to keep up with the times. We want you, BigDaddyFlash916, to go by who you are, and not be hidden beneath another layer of mystique."
The feature will only display first names, and OkCupid says no outside-service verification will be used to confirm that the name matches your actual identity. An OkCupid spokesperson tells Ars Technica that the only requirements are a two-letter minimum without numbers, symbols, or emojis and that it will operate a "banned word" list, whose contents it did not disclose.
Real name, real headache?
OkCupid's decision follows a tumultuous period earlier in the decade when a number of companies began preventing customers from publicly identifying themselves with pseudonyms, and instead began mandating they use real names, even when communicating with other users. Facebook's policy, in particular, has faced serious scrutiny thanks to privacy and LGBTQ advocates pointing out the inherent problems and dangers that users can face by attaching "legal" names to their online accounts. Google's efforts to attach real-name information to Google+ accounts eventually crashed and burned due to user outcry—particularly in terms of those real names getting attached to YouTube accounts. Blizzard toyed with a real-name policy for roughly one week in 2010 before changing course due to negative fan responses.
Facebook ultimately won out in European courts in disputes over its real-name policies, but that hasn't stopped critics, including Ars' own Timothy B. Lee, from speaking out about just why Internet anonymity is valuable, especially in the face of governments trying to legislate their own real-name rules. From Lee's 2011 op-ed:
Not everyone seeks anonymity to behave boorishly. Some online speakers want anonymity because they fear their legitimate online speech could trigger real-life retaliation. That could mean a citizen of a repressive regime wanting to criticize the government. It could mean a whistleblower wanting to expose the wrongdoing of her employer. It could be a woman trying to avoid discovery by her abusive ex-husband. The list of reasons people want to speak anonymously is almost endless.
Lee also points out that companies in free-speech countries like the United States are welcome to enforce their own real-name rules, and users can adopt or reject them as they see fit, so OkCupid's plans (probably) don't run afoul of American law. But they do raise questions about the sensitive data proposition of online dating and how any attachment to real identities can prove troubling. One European Tinder user found this out earlier this year when she requested, and finally received, an 800-page print-out of personally identifying data that the company had collected about her use of the service. And whether you're using the site in an above-board fashion or behind a partner's back, the ramifications of real dating data in hackers' hands still echo loudly following the explosive Ashley Madison leak in 2015.
When asked about issues with identifying factors that can result in harassment and abuse, whether due to stalkers and exes or due to users being members of the LGBTQ community, an OkCupid spokesperson responded with a statement:
"We know this is a change that has worried the trans community. We have always been about inclusivity and making OkCupid a place where everyone feels welcome which is why we were one of the first dating apps to offer non-binary gender options and today have 22 gender options and 13 orientations available. It's important to note that it doesn't necessarily have to be your legal first name, it can be whatever nickname you would like your dates to call you." The statement also pointed out that the company stopped indexing its profiles on Google "months ago."
OkCupid's rapid Tinder-ization
In OkCupid's case, the move follows some other major changes that bring the service far closer to resembling Tinder. This one, for example, mirrors Tinder's use of Facebook profile data, which thus assigns a "real" first name to a user's account.
Last month, OkCupid rolled out a change to its messaging system that prevents any user from seeing if they've received an unsolicited message unless they stumble upon the message-sender's dating profile and indicate a "like." Doing this unlocks that suitor's ability to directly contact the other person. This is similar to Tinder, which only allows messages to be shared when both users indicate a "like." For some users (read: the popular ones, as per activity on the site), this feature change can reduce mailbox clutter. For others (read: the less popular ones), this makes receiving messages much more difficult and all but requires constant flipping and swiping through profiles just to raise your chances of unlocking a sender's ability to contact you.
In July, OkCupid also removed an opt-in feature that showed users who had stumbled upon their dating profile and at what time they did so. This allowed daters, particularly the less popular ones, to passively peruse potential matches of interest. By removing this opt-in feature, OkCupid essentially nudged users to do more browsing and swiping through the entire site's meat market of available daters.
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