The Null Device

The mysterious Spike Wells, formerly of Facebook

The limits of the Zuckerberg Doctrine, which states that everyone is to have one identity, publicly linked to their legal “wallet name”, which they use for all interactions, have been tested with the curious case of an impeccably connected young man named “Spike Wells”, who, until recently, had a Facebook profile:
He has more than 400 friends, including some of Britain's richest young men and women, and appears to have an impressive appetite for partying both in Britain and abroad.
Yesterday, however, it was claimed that Wells is in fact a pseudonym used by Prince Harry, whose nickname is Spike - even his Scotland Yard minder is known to call him Spike - to keep in contact with his friends.
The “Spike Wells” profile disappeared after a recent tabloid incident involving Prince Harry, and was largely locked down beforehand, leaking only the information that, under the Zuckerberg Doctrine, is public, but even that was enough to give the game away: given sufficient eyes, pseudonymity is shallow.
While Mr Wells used high privacy settings, until last week a limited version of his page was available for all the world to see, with every update discussed and debated on the internet by fans of Prince Harry.
Mr Wells's profile says he is from Maun, Botswana, a town visited by the Prince and his former girlfriend Chelsy Davy in 2007. Like Prince Harry, he also lists his interests as "all sports".
In July, Prince Harry went to the Womad Festival in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, where he was pictured wearing a hat based on the popular mobile phone game Angry Birds. Mr Wells's Facebook profile featured five people wearing similar hats, although their faces could not be seen.
Which suggests that even if one takes care to lock down one's profile and refrain from posting anything publicly that reveals one's identity, the very act of making social sites useful will, over time, leak out enough information to give one away, given sufficient eyeballs. If you're a young, single prince in a celebrity-obsessed society, sufficient eyeballs can be taken for granted. If not, the lack of a hungry public can be made up for by the more targeted interest of a smaller number of parties; business rivals, extortionists, obsessive stalkers, vindictive ex-partners (business or romantic), and others all could be very interested in piecing together a party's identity from a succession of large numbers of fragmentary clues. Which is why Scotland Yard's Royal Protection Branch have warned those with a high profile to forswear social software altogether:
However, Dai Davies, a former head of royal protection for Scotland Yard, said that a Facebook page for a member of the Royal family would pose a security risk. "From a security point of view I would never recommend anyone high profile to have a Facebook account," he said.
Of course, telling the world's richest and most influential people that they should, due to their status, restrict themselves to 20th-century modes of social telecommunication is not without its problems. (Telling the children of such people that there's no Facebook, no Instagram, no Pinterest for them, ever, by virtue of who their parents are could be even more problematic.) Hiding in plain sight on Facebook, however, has its problems, with information leakage. (One could imagine, after a few royals protested, members of the Royal Family being issued pseudonymous accounts, whose public profiles and publicly visible activity are “chaff”, deliberate disinformation posted by handlers from a specially established department of the security services, and whose personal updates are visible to friends only, with the cover identities (the “legends”, in intelligence parlance) of the accounts being known only to a trusted few, so, for example, only a few dozen people from old money and a handful of Qatari princelings would know that, let's say say, “Melva Bellamy”, ostensibly a 43-year-old veterinary nurse in Sheldon, Iowa, is really Prince Charles. At least until someone talked to the tabloids or Mrs. Bellamy started haranguing people about architecture or homoeopathy or something. I suspect that the handlers in charge of keeping Prince Phillip's account—or, rather, accounts—under the radar wouldn't have an easy job of it.)

Of course, this is only as secure as the weakest link, and there are many ways the secret online identities of the super-famous could fall into the hands of a delighted tabloid press. If the Queen (in her guise as Bolivian scrap merchant “Levi Villalobos”, or something to that effect) posts a comment on a photo taken by property tycoon Lord Reynold Mooney-Bagges on one of his yachts in Barbados, mentioning a similar trip she took some years ago, or how the dogs in a photo look a bit like her Corgis, or any one of a number of bits of innocuous fluff, this will be visible to all of Lord Mooney-Bagges' friends. And even if the Queen's (sorry, Señor Villalobos') online contacts are vetted by MI5 prior to being approved, Lord Moneybags' friends aren't. And they include three emotionally unstable narcissists, one fabulist and compulsive liar and two senior executives at News International. Oops!

Another option would be for the Royal Family to have its own social network built, for them and the few they socially connect with. This site (undoubtedly built by a military contractor at huge expense) would be accessible by invitation only; the invited would be vetted by the security services and given key fobs, like more ornate versions of the ones used by online banking services, for logging in. The theory is that Prince Harry could then have anyone he wished to socialise with invited to the service, forming a virtual royal court in cyberspace. Meanwhile, similar sites may crop up outside of the court; private social networks founded by groups of the super-wealthy and organised along the lines of private clubs.

The problem with such forums, though, is that they would be siloes, separated from the rest of online activity. If you're the Royal Family, you may be able to get away with sticking to your own forum without it turning into a ghost town; this, however, might not scale well to those less famous or whose fame is not guaranteed by constitutional law. And such siloes, by definition, would separate what happens within them from what happens outside; within, there are different identities, a different social graph, and their own discourses, photographs, events and the like. Which may be suitable for a traditional royal court who can bestow the honour of attendance on those sufficiently well connected, but it does preclude one from interacting with the outside world other than by inviting selected members of it into one's sphere. Perhaps the online royal court would flourish, or perhaps it'd become an expensive white elephant, but I doubt it would remove all need for those in the gilded cage to venture outside of it.

Perhaps the solution is a sort of delegated, federated social software, where each realm has its own identity scheme and privacy rules, but protocols exist for federating between them. (After all, Facebook is no less a walled-garden silo than such a virtual court would be, merely one that's many orders of magnitude larger.) When the credentials from one realm could be used for interacting with other realms (and granting access to private content, though issues of trust would have to be worked out), we could go from a one-size-fits-all Zuckerbergian walled garden to a multitude of interacting social spaces—some jealously private, some as public as Twitter; some free and ad-supported, some paid for with premium services, some enforcing a Zuckerbergian wallet-name policy, some encouraging pseudonyms or handles—without users being restricted to interacting only with those in one's own space.

There are 1 comments on "The mysterious Spike Wells, formerly of Facebook":

Posted by: Riley Finn Mon Sep 3 11:47:30 2012

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