American author Mark Twain would have turned 176 today, and to celebrate, Google has decorated its homepage with an elaborate doodle, depicting a couple of boys slapping paint on a wooden fence. The boys, of course, are Tom Sawyer and a friend that he conned into whitewashing the fence. But who was Twain? Only one of the most accomplished writers in American history.
Born in 1835 in Missouri, Twain traveled widely through the American south and the west, recording his impressions for magazines and newspapers, including Harper's and the Sacramento Union. His first novel, The Gilded Age, was published in 1873, and his last, The Mysterious Stranger, in 1916, after his death. Ernest Hemingway later acknowledged that "all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn."
All of which got us thinking: What if Mark Twain, that great chronicler of American culture, was alive today? Would he approve of today's online world? Well, maybe not. He certainly wouldn't be allowed on Facebook, especially if he refused – as he sometimes did – to go by anything other than his pen name: Mark Twain.
After all, savvy readers will remember that "Mark Twain" is an invention – a piece of riverboat slang. Twain's real name was the somewhat-less-pithy Samuel Langhorn Clemens. (True story: Before he was Twain, Clemens was often credited as "Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass.") And there's nothing that riles up Facebook more than a person – any person! – who refuses to use their real name.
Consider the peculiar case of another writer, Salman Rushdie. Rushdie recently had his account deactivated. After he sent Facebook HQ a copy of his passport, the social network reactivated the page, but forced him to use his birth name, Ahmed Rushdie. Rushdie eventually obtained a reversal, as well as an apology from the folks at the social network, but Facebook brass has stressed the importance of something called "real name culture," an idea also embraced by Google+ and several other social networks.
"Facebook has always been based on a real-name culture," Elliot Schrage, vice president of public policy at Facebook, told the New York Times. "We fundamentally believe this leads to greater accountability and a safer and more trusted environment for people who use the service." Maybe so. But it sure would have made Samuel Langhorn Clemens pretty cranky.
[Editor's Note: This article has been changed from its original form to acknowledge that Google+ also insists that its members use their real names.]