OkCupid announced this week that it would scrap all of the usernames on its site and require prospective daters to use their real names instead. Naturally, a bunch of OkCupid users are now worried about being exposed to harassment from people they turn down on the dating site.
"Before the new year, we're removing OkCupid usernames," the company said in a statement. "It's starting with a test group and will soon be rolled out to everyone on OkCupid, so all users will need to update their profiles with their real names."
Anonymity can be an important part of online existence, especially in contexts like dating, where the potential for harassment is a bit higher than other social interactions. OkCupid users often use silly usernames to shield their real identities and prevent harassment, and many of them are complaining about the risks associated with OkCupid's new policy.
"Any loss of privacy increases potential of danger for vulnerable users," said Elle Armageddon, a privacy advocate who educates people about protecting themselves online. "Forcing users to use their 'real' names puts them more at risk of stalking, which is already a very real threat in online dating. Additionally, OkCupid's commentary about birth names is particularly damaging and alienating to users who do not identify with their legal names, for whatever reason."
OkCupid isn't the first company to be criticised for eroding user privacy with a real name policy. Facebook faced backlash in 2014 for insisting that its users sign up with their real names. The Electronic Frontier Foundation noted that Facebook's policy was particularly harmful to activists and members of the LGBTQ community.
"Pseudonyms can enable people to access information, social services, and gain entry to communities while maintaining safety," EFF's Jillian York and Dia Kayyali wrote. "This is especially true online, where individuals from distributed or marginalized groups can find community, spread awareness of issues they face, and seek information."
To make the entire situation worse, OkCupid decided to take its announcement as an opportunity to mock the usernames its users have chosen in a blog post titled, "An Open Letter on Why We're Removing Usernames, Addressed to the Worst Ones We've Ever Seen."
"We want you, BigDaddyFlash916, to go by who you are, and not be hidden beneath another layer of mystique. Even if that mystique is crucial to you and your dating life, unicorn__jizz," the post reads.
But after OkCupid users objected to the change on Twitter, the company backpedalled, saying it wouldn't require users to add their full real names to their profiles. "You do not need to use your government name or even your full first name," the company tweeted. "Use the name, nickname, or initials you'd like your date to call you on OkCupid."
A spokesperson for the company told Gizmodo that OkCupid will only ask users for their first names, not their last names. A name will be considered valid as long as it is two letters long and does not contain numbers, symbols, or emojis. There is also a list of banned words you cannot use.
"We take privacy at OkCupid very seriously. We recognise that OkCupid is a very personal experience and we want all of our members to feel safe, which is why months prior to rolling out this change we stopped indexing our profiles on Google, even though it hurts SEO, it's a step in the right direction," the spokesperson said. "We encourage users who do not feel comfortable to instead use a nickname or their initials."
For users who want to avoid using their real names altogether, Armageddon has some suggestions. "Coming up with a pseudonym is one potential solution, Another is pushing back against OkCupid and this harmful new policy, either through closing your account or contacting them directly, to let them know it's not ok."