Pseudonymity and Google.

In case you haven't been following recent developments with the much-hyped Google+ (hailed by social media mavens as in position to replace both Facebook and Twitter), you may not have heard the news (e.g., in the linked ZDnet article by Violet Blue) that Google unceremoniously deleted "[a] striking number of Google+ accounts", many apparently owing to the requirement that people with Google+ accounts must be registered under their "real names".

A follow-up from Violet Blue notes that the real-name policy is not being enforced uniformly (e.g., Lady Gaga's profile is still intact), and that the disabling of accounts that seems to have started July 22 or so was notable in that there were no notifications sent to users ahead of time that their accounts would be disabled (or why). Moreover, there seem to be at least a few cases where people deemed out of compliance with the real-name policy loss access not only to Google+ but also to other Google products like Gmail and Google Docs.

There are plenty of posts kicking around the blogosphere in response to this, pointing out legitimate reasons people might have for not using their "real name" online. (In the past, I wrote such a post myself.) You should definitely read what SciCurious has to say on the matter, since she explains it very persuasively.

There are those who argue that a real-name policy is the only effective deterrent to bad online behavior, but I have yet to see convincing evidence that this is so. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better citizen of the blogosphere than SciCurious, and "SciCurious" is not the name on her birth certificate or driver's license. However, I'd argue that "SciCurious" is her real name in the blogosphere, given that it is connected to a vast catalog of blog posts, comments, interviews, and other traces that convey a reliable picture of the kind of person she is. Meanwhile, there are people using their legal names online who feel free to encourage violence against others. Is it more civil because they're not using pseudonyms to applaud car-bombs?

Google, being a private company, is of course free to set its own terms of service (although enforcing them consistently would be preferable). That means it can set the rules to require people who want the service to sign up using their legal names. However, unless they are going to require that you submit documentation to verify that the name you are using is your legal name (as, apparently they have from some folks trying to get their Google+ accounts back) it strikes me that the safest default assumption is that everyone is signing up with an assumed name. How do you know that Paul Butterfield is Paul Butterfield if he's not scanning his passport for you, or that Janet D. Stemwedel isn't a totally made-up name?

The truth is, you don't.

And if Google wants to get so far into its users' business that they do know who we all officially are, that's going to be enough of an overreach that a bunch of people drift off to Yahoo or Hotmail or some other company that isn't quite so desperate for a total information dossier.

All of this is disappointing, since Google+ looks like it might be a spiffy little product. But if it can't get out of beta without Google burning through the good reputation it had with netizens, pseudonymous or not, who were most likely to embrace it, Google+ may have all the success and longevity of Google Buzz and Google Wave.

14 responses so far

  • Geeplus Canscrewitself says:

    I just joined responded to an invite and, yes, I am a real person.

  • Leland says:

    You might be interested in this effort to work with Google on fixing the problem:

    https://plus.google.com/103112149634414554669/posts/WAu688n8JgZ

  • Carl Buell says:

    Obviously it's not, but how would knowing my "real" name help if that name were "John Smith" or "Bob Jones"?

  • scicurious says:

    Thanks so much for the praise, Janet! It means a lot coming from you especially. :)

  • Larry Moran says:

    I'm one of those weird people who think you should use your own real name instead of hiding behind a pseudonym. It's a losing battle. There are tons of places where you don't have to reveal your real name - including when you post comments on my own blog.

    Why not give us weirdos at least one place where people have to use their real names? If you have a good reason for keeping your name secret then use Facebook or something else to carry talk to your friends and acquaintances. I want to know who I'm talking to whenever possible.

  • Unmaskd says:

    All the privacy concerns aside, I think they are making a very nearsighted business decision, turning G+ into a me-too product. Here's why:

    http://unmaskd.com/2011/07/25/open-letter-to-larry-page/

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

    But Larry, other than my say-so (and that of those with whom I've cultivated online ties), how do you know "Janet D. Stemwedel" is really my "real" (by which I assume you mean "legal") name? You didn't peek at my driver's license, so maybe the government here knows me my some other name.

    Moreover, as far as I know Google+ doesn't require that you add anyone you don't want to add to your Circles -- which means, you could avoid sharing anything you posted there with non-real-name people if you so chose. (People with 'nyms would still be able to read your "public" posts, but that's kind of in the nature of being public.)

    Also, aren't there already places where people have to use real names (like our workplaces, the department of motor vehicles, small claims court, the airport, etc., etc.)? Perhaps these are not as engaging as online spaces. But then, is the answer for people who prefer real-names-only to exclude the pseudonymous altogether? Or is there a way to choose your interactions within the space so that the pseudonymous might also enjoy the benefits of online engagement (even if you're not engaging with them and they're not engaging with you)?

  • Zebee says:

    The person I found out about this from has several "real" names, if by that you mean names people know her by off the net, and which have strong real world (including professional) reputations.

    Another person involved I have known in person for over 20 years by a name not on his driver's licence and if you asked 20 people in the circle we move in to give that driver's licence name there's a very good chance most of them couldn't.

    Larry, can you explain why those names are not suitable for google+?

    What it is about them that makes them unacceptable to you? What makes the name I am using here acceptable or unacceptable?

    Seems to me you are using "real name" as a shorthand for "way to have people required to bear the consequences of their actions", and I don't think what google is doing is very useful for that.

  • Physicalist says:

    Well, it seems I won't be on G+ unless they change this silly policy. I suppose my alter ego might sign up, but he can't quite be the same guy online. (One of several reasons I'm pseudonymous is that I generally go online to goof off, and I'd have to be far more careful goofing off using my full name.)

    Looking down my Google Reader list, I'd say over 15% of the bloggers I read are pseudonymous, and that number would at least double if we included folks who at some earlier time used pseudonyms (like Dr. Free-Ride).

    I just don't see Google's policy doing any good. Trolls can presumably still start up accounts under fictitious names. At least with a 'nym you know it's a 'nym.

  • Larry Moran says:

    Janet says,

    But Larry, other than my say-so (and that of those with whom I've cultivated online ties), how do you know "Janet D. Stemwedel" is really my "real" (by which I assume you mean "legal") name? You didn't peek at my driver's license, so maybe the government here knows me my some other name.

    That's not a very good argument from someone who specializes in ethics! :-)

    The issue is whether I prefer dealing with people who identify themselves or with people who use fake names to disguise their real identity. What you're saying is that there will always be unethical people who will get around any rules designed to avoid false identities, therefore we shouldn't even try to enforce a policy requiring real names.

    I doubt very much that you use an argument like that when you discuss other issues like plagiarism, or preparing a CV. Let's drop that argument, okay? We all know that there will be unethical people who will lie and cheat to get around any rules. That's not an argument against having rules.

    The issue before us is whether we want to live in an internet society where people identify themselves and stand behind what they say and do, just as they do in the real face-to-face world, or whether we want an internet society with different rules. I try to teach my students that it is important to take a stand on certain issues but they have to be prepared to suffer the consequences (both good and bad) .

    Our internet

  • JPop says:

    @Larry Moran

    So, you prefer mutual use of people's 'real names'/offline identities as recognised by the government because that makes people "identify themselves and stand behind what they say and do, just as they do in the real face-to-face world."? (If that's incorrect, please say so).

    This sounds like not so much an issue with names as an issue of consistency. If someone uses a consistent handle, as Sci does, then her assertions online are very much linked to her and her persona - more so, at this point, that if she used an 'offline' name which none of us would recognise to post her opinions.

    I will pass over the issues of pseudonymity for safety (both personal and professional, and especially for isolated POC/LGBT/disabled/other minorities in hostile environments) and the non-universality of a single recognised cognonem as these points have been discussed elsewhere.

    It seems that you are suggesting that there are reduced consequences for expressing unpopular opinions if you do it under a pseudonym, and that this disrupts social policing - but how are the social consequences online different if you post under your offline name? Is there a reason other than social policing to insist on having offline names?

    I mean, the main difference that comes to my mind is that if one, using one's offline name, sufficiently annoyed someone, they would be able to track one down with marginally greater ease for an in-person rebuttal - even with the rankest trolls, not really a good solution. Any others?

  • Larry Moran says:

    JPop says,

    I will pass over the issues of pseudonymity for safety (both personal and professional, and especially for isolated POC/LGBT/disabled/other minorities in hostile environments) ...

    Good, because that's another spurious argument. We all know of cases where hiding your identity might be a good thing.

    I, in turn, will promise not to mention all those cases where anonymous people have threatened me and my family. We'll ignore the times when someone hiding behind anonymity trashes the reputation of a person who doesn't deserve it. I won't bring up any cases of middle-aged sex perverts who pretend to be 12-year old girls. And I certainly won't remind you of a university student in Scotland who pretended to be a Syrian lesbian. I'll also pass over politicians who post on racist forums under a pseudonym or who engage in internet sex under a false identity.

    This is a complicated issue and there are plenty of arguments to be made on both sides. Let's not be naive and assume that the benefits for the good guys trump all the evils of the bad guys.

    We're looking for the proper balance. The rise of large numbers of anonymous voices in society is a phenomenon that's only 20 years old. I'm not sure I've seen any significant improvement in society because of this but I sure have seen some of the downsides.

    Let's be clear about one thing. This isn't about SciCurious or any of the other "good guys" on the internet. This is also about those who abuse anonymity. If I can cut out all those "bad guys" on Google+ then maybe the trade-off is worth it. That's what we should be debating.

  • bsci says:

    The rise of large numbers of anonymous voices in society is a phenomenon that's only 20 years old. I'm not sure I've seen any significant improvement in society because of this but I sure have seen some of the downsides.

    NO. The rise of voices in our society is a phenomenon that's only 20 years old. 20 years ago, millions of these anonymous and named voices barely extended beyond the people they talked to. Now pretty much anyone with an internet connection can have their commentary on events of the day directly attached to the articles on the world's top news websites. I'll grant that many of these voices don't improve discussion quality and society as a whole, but that's has little to do with whether or not they use their real names. If you want to set up gatekeeper for who has earned the privilege of being a public voice, feel free to try, but I highly doubt a pseudonymity ban would keep the "wrong" people out and the "right" people in.

  • JPop says:

    @ Larry Moran

    Ok, so say everyone is using their real names all the time. Do you believe that people won't troll and threaten using their real names? There are a number of counter-examples, not least in the US political system.

    An anonymous name on the internet has no authority. They stand and fall on their arguments. This includes "when someone hiding behind anonymity trashes the reputation of a person who doesn't deserve it". I am sorry to hear that you have been threatened, though.

    I guess this is where we'll have to agree to disagree, because I can ignore trolls, and I can dismiss bigots, and I can teach my kids about internet safety because, hey, even someone using a real name can be an abuser (9/10 time a family member, folks!).

    But I cannot talk to people who are too afraid to speak, because they face real-life consequences to speaking that you have admitted you don't. So I will take the anonymity trade off and ignore the trolls in order to hear new voices. How lovely that we can both get our way just by being in different bits of the internet!

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