More Randy Farmer on the Real ID fiasco

I promise this is my last post on the Real ID debacle at this time.

That said, I shot some questions to Randy Farmer about this whole thing while it was still raging. This was yesterday. Since then, Blizzard recanted and the sun is apparently shining again over the green valleys of WoW. However, I think Randy’s answers are very good info regarding community issues, regardless of the final outcome of all this.

My questions and Randy’s answers after the break, brought to you by Left Click. Powering the Internet, one Left Click at a time.

1- You’ve posted your thoughts on the issue up on the Habitat Chronicles blog (, but I wanted to ask you a little bit about what -isn’t- there. The Real ID issue, at first sight, seems to be such a critically terrible move that one of my first questions was “They can’t possibly be acting in such a dumb way. Are they just not getting it? Or is there something else here we’re all missing?”

Do you share in on that? Do you think there’s something else at play here?

I’m a social media strategy consultant, and I see lots of really smart people make categorical errors like this. I’m currently giving a talk called “5 Reputation Missteps” about how good product designers make bad generalizations about how people interact online. It happens all the time. Social media design, especially Identity and Reputation is subtle and hard.

Listen, over the years I’ve played my share of WoW, and it has been clear to all involved that the social features, especially PUGs and Identity have always been lacking. And the game has been turning morphing into an elder game (hollow world) for years now, and Blizzard has to make changes to get new users. Cataclysm is part of that, RealID is part of that, cleaning up the forums is part of that, and deeply integrating Facebook is part of that – from their point of view. It’s all part of a larger strategy I agree with. But the tactics are out of alignment with the existing community.

But, the forums are special – they are the one official place to interact, and they are public – visible to God, Google, and Everyone. Telling people to go away if they don’t like exposing their real name is bad business, as many best users will leave along with the worst. The community will fragment which helps no-one. Probably not the intended result.

2- I’ve seen some -unconfirmed- (I want to stress that) reports of several Blizzard employees being as disgusted with the move as the vast majority of players are. Do you think this is also partly a case of Management “not paying attention to the rank and file who are actually in the trenches”, so to speak?

I can’t speak to that. They claim they’ve already had these debates internally. Based on their responses, I somehow doubt that they considered all of the points the community has responded with. It’s be good for someone to respond “Hmm. We’d not thought of that….” but I don’t expect it.

To me, as a social media pioneer, I see this as a bad business choice. It is an overly risky experiment when less onerous options are available.

When I worked at Yahoo! we managed to drive the trolls off of Yahoo! Answers by empowering the users to moderate other user contributions. It’s all detailed in my book, Building Web Reputation Systems, and you can read the relevant section free at Have they really considered this sort of option? Why not release their board-rating system first and see what happens? [Without seeing it in advance, I’m not at all sure it will help things, but we’ll see.]

3- The possible real world consequences to players are quite obvious, and many good examples of what Real ID could generate in terms of real world risks and costs have been given all over many blogs. Do you think Blizzard or Activision could potentially get into legal problems should something happen? Or is a disclaimer in their privacy policy, stating that they are not responsible for third parties’ actions legally enough?

The legal risk is for lawyers to decide and IANAL. What I can say is that having the press get involved with your product because of real-life bleed-over issues is always a big business problem.  “How to Catch a Predator” often had the line “We posed as a 13-year old girl on Yahoo! Instant Messenger to lead this predator into our trap…”. This was constantly a problem for Yahoo! and contributed to the complete shut-down of numerous chat-related products including YIM in England.

There’s more at risk than legal liability. Just ask Facebook how they feel about all the claims (exaggerated and not) about privacy violations and how much that costs them legally and in public relations.

4- Given your past experiences with online communities and how they react when their environments are shocked like this, what do you expect to see from the WoW community?

Sure, every time a change (good or bad) is released, there is upset – often that settles down. But, not always! Here’s the problem – really, really bad changes kill communities, and often kill companies. We don’t remember them, because they’ve moved on, or are dead.

I’ve seen a lot of radical changes come down in a lot of online communities. I must say, without a doubt, this is one of the most radical I’ve ever encountered. It doesn’t really seem to be well thought out from this vantage point.

5- Speaking from experience, is there -anything- Blizzard can do to a real name in the forums that they couldn’t do to a simple screen name or global nick? Seems to me that from a purely administrative and technical standpoint, they are exactly the same; only difference being a real name spills into the real world, whereas a screen name doesn’t (or not as critically, at least).

My post was specific – allow Nicknames, and provide special benefits for those who chose to use their RealID as their nickname. Perhaps certain boards that not publically indexed and only readable/writeable by those who have this RealID-Nickname [a status that sticks for a fixed amount of time, say weeks.] Run an experiment with that. See what happens. Could even be awesome, who knows. But – don’t require everyone for every purpose to reveal everything to God Google and Everyone else.

Make it a GOOD thing to share your RealID – not a hurdle for basic communication.

6- By most accounts, largely, the opinion is that the WoW forums were never properly moderated and enforcement had always been lax. Do you think this contributed to ingrain the community with a particular behavior? Can online communities radically change years of ingrained behavior and continue functioning, or is it more likely they would end up fragmenting because they cannot absorb the shock?

Hand moderation is prohibitively expensive and doesn’t scale well. This is well known. This is exactly why we embarked on the project for Yahoo! Answers I mentioned above.

Oddly, I think Blizzard is right about the need to clean up the boards – it’s the only thing that people who are defending this change agree on. They’ve just chosen a path that is fraught with peril, and it wasn’t even close to the only effective option.


Thanks so much, Randy!

7 thoughts on “More Randy Farmer on the Real ID fiasco”

  1. I appreciated Blizzard’s recant, although it’s more of a “not at this time, but we’re still integrating Real ID elsewhere”.

    I imagine someone over at Blizzard is currently crying in their coffee because they’d already made big plans to either integrate with Facebook or compete with Facebook.

    I’m of the opinion we need smarter social networking with more control given to the users. IE: Not Facebook or a Facebook-clone.

  2. My only issue is his comparison of “success” in Yahoo Answers with the same tactics. As a person who at one time used Yahoo Answers, I would have to say that it has become worse when it comes to trolls and it doesn’t really stop the true trolls. People make multiple accounts and vote for themselves or against another person. The moderators don’t check to see if the person was really posting inflammatory material, they just automatically delete the post if more than 2 people report it.

    So you can easily report useful information, but if someone wants top answer, they just report you with their main account and with their “sock account” in order to weed out the competition. And yes, there are people there who take the top answer title seriously enough to have multiple accounts.

    Yes, in WoW a person won’t be able to just make another account, but lots of people multibox. Also, all they have to do is get their friends to report you to have your answer removed if they don’t “like” your reply in a thread regardless of it’s validity.

    So no Randy, yahoo Answers is not a success. All it has done is driven me away. I rarely bother to answer questions there anymore. I know many people that now consider it to be a joke.

  3. Melissa –

    Yahoo! Answers has a lot of problems, that’s for sure. The mechanism you describe: [voting up/down on posts] is a bad design and wasn’t a part of the work that we did to clean out the worst-of-the-worst trolls (those who violated terms of service.)

    I didn’t mean to heap praise on Yahoo! Answers or say that everything was sunshine and roses over there – it’s not. I was trying to point out that there are other means to deal with specific abuse problems.

    Sorry to overgeneralize in the interview – it was not my intent. I wish Yahoo! Answers had continued on the road to improving content quality by reforming various problems, including the one you pointed out. Sigh.


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