Google vs. Pseudonyms

Google+ logo“The ‘real names’ issue is more important than certain people seem to understand. It’s at the center of all the noise because personal identity control is a core [I]nternet value.” Violet Blue, ZDNet

This morning, I joined the ranks of those threatened with the shutdown of my Google+ access and of my Google Profile. My offense? Including my handle, the way most people know me both on and offline, in quotation marks between my first and last name. Unfortunately, using “George ‘Loki’ Williams” is a violation of Google’s absurd name policy.

To be honest, I find Google’s desire for real names rather amusing. Sure, you can easily weed out people who use handles like “Overfiend” or “CuteGrrl,” but for those who want to game the system, it really is as easy as putting up an ordinary name. “John Jones,” for instance.

For those of us who have substantial name recognition under our pen names it produces a problem. A problem that becomes even worse when you factor in the number of people who adopt anonymity due to fear of reprisals — those who write about religion and politics come readily to mind.

The funny part is that a lot of the furor could be quelled easily. Google already allows you to enter alternate handles in your profile, they just do not display as the profile name. Being able to set which of these handles are visible to certain circles would neatly fix most of the issues and still provide Google with the “real name” it so dearly desires.

The blogger known as “Nathalie” on +forGoogle.com expresses one common attitude about the topic:

You are free to either speak anonymously or use whatever name you wish almost anywhere online. If you don’t like the policy of a website or service it seems only natural not to sign up no? Am I the only one thinking this here?

No, she is not the only person thinking this. And, in my opinion, they are wrong.  If Google+ were just another service, then the argument would hold water, but it’s not. Google is nearly ubiquitous, having moved into the arena of utilities rather than services.

Internationally known blogger Violet Blue expounds on this in her recent ZDNet column:

You see, I’m sick of that argument because it is simply invalid.

Google+ is not like Facebook or any other social site, not at all.

If you don’t like Facebook’s ‘real names’ policy, you can leave and cultivate your social media presence elsewhere — yes, you’ll be shut out of a significant area of commerce and social interaction, but you’re not completely screwed.

If you don’t like Google Plus’ terms, or like me you run afoul of policy simply by existing, you stand to lose more than just a social network. You stand to lose access to aspects of a public utility.

Google is not just a company. It maintains infrastructure for what have become vital services. And this is something you’ll only start to see if Google suspends you from Google Plus.

Additionally, the idea of creating the “real world” based on real names is patently absurd. From George Elliot, who was a woman, to Stephen King, examples abound amongst the authors of the world. Likewise, with many artists and with online writers such as myself.

Alexis Madrigal, senior editor of The Atlantic, brings up the example of shouting “Down with government!” in the middle of a city street. In the real world, people would know it was said by a person fitting your description, but it would not persist in a space where coworkers, family, and anyone else could access it. He writes:

Online, Google and Facebook require an inversion of this assumed norm. Every statement you make on Google Plus or Facebook is persistent and strongly attached to your real identity through your name. Both services allow you to change settings to make your statements more or less public, which solves some problems. However, participating in public life on the services requires attaching your name to your statements. On the boulevards and town squares of Facebook, you can’t just say, ‘Down with the government,’ with the knowledge that only a small percentage of the people who hear you could connect your statement to you. But the information is still being recorded, presumably in perpetuity. That means that if a government or human resources researcher or plain old enemy wants to get a hold of it, it is possible.

The pseudonym advocates note that being allowed to pick and choose a different name solves some of these problems. One can choose to tightly couple one’s real-world identity and online identity… or not. One can choose to have multiple identities for separate networks. In the language we were using earlier, pseudonyms allow statements to be public and persistent, but not attached to one’s real identity.

There lies the substantive difference. Facebook was not being forward-thinking when it required real names in the beginning. It was working with a tiny collegiate community. When the platform exploded, people simply saw this as the way things had always been done. This is not going back to the old ways of doing things: like most advances on the Internet, it is all about devising new ones.

Even Microsoft’s Social Media Researcher Danah Boyd has written that users of online pseudonyms are overwhelmingly likely to be members of disempowered groups. Just look at Facebook, where teens and minorities still use nicknames or handles constantly without anyone noticing. Give Boyd’s “Real Names’ Policies Are an Abuse of Power” a read. It’s potent food for thought.

I’m going to close with a resource for anyone following this subject, and I believe that everyone should. For a brilliant collection of pertinent data, check out Infotropism, a blog written by a former Google employee. She has collected all the info on what you can do, can’t do, will get booted for doing, etc. It is, quite simply, the best resource on the topic that I have run across. You can cut right to the chase by starting with the constantly updated post, entitled “Google+ Names Policy, Explained.”

Source: “Google Plus: Too Much Unnecessary Drama,” ZDNet, 08/14/11
Source: “Why Facebook and Google’s Concept of ‘Real Names’ Is Revolutionary,” The Atlantic, 08/05/11
Source: “Google Plus’s ‘Real Name’ policy is abusive; Facebook is not a ‘Real Name’ success story,” Boing Boing, 08/14/11
Source: “‘Nymwars’ — Get A Life,” +forGoogle, 08/17/11
Source: “Just go somewhere else’ is a fallacy. The name policy stretches far beyond Google+, and here’s why,” Google+ (Todd Vierling), 08/27/11
Source: “Why Google’s statement on its real names policy is disingenuous,” Google+ (Mike Elgan), 08/11/11
Source: “Google+ names policy, explained,” Infotropism, 08/04/11
Source: “Google to Enforce Real Name Policy After 4 Days,” eWeek.com, 08/12/11
Source: “Google+ name policy ‘frustrating,’ Google confesses,” CNET News, 07/26/11
Source: “Google+ Punts on Kafkaesque Name Policy,” Wired, 08/12/11
Source: “The Google+ Real Name Policy Is Wrong,” Mike Cane’s xBlog, 07/24/11
Source: “Google: Don’t like real name policy? Don’t use Google+,” ZDNet, 08/29/11
Image of the Google+ logo, used under Fair Use: Reporting.

About George Williams

George “Loki” Williams is the community and brand manager for award wining game company Savage Mojo, Ltd. and the owner of SocialGumbo, LLC, an online consultancy specializing in Web content and online communications. Loki has produced content for clients including the Open Society Institute, National Association of Broadcasters, Kobold Press, and Kaiser Permanente. His work has been seen or written about in The New York Times, The BBC, Air America, The Gambit Weekly, and NOLA.com, among others.

  

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  1. Catherine (Foxydot) OBrien Sandrick says:

    I wasn’t even aware of this restriction. I’ve had my handle in parens in my profile for ages, and Google+ simply imported it. Since 90% of the internet knows me by my handle, not my “Legal name”, it seemed important to include it.

    It would be nice if there was an AKA field in the profile, so that at least you would show up in searches for your handle or maiden name.

    With the possibility of another name change looming for me, maybe I should integrate my 22 yr old handle into my legal name.

  2. Da' Vane says:

    The issue of real names is important, because it is a complex legal issue, and Google can face court charges. For example, what if your real name WAS George “Loki” Williams, and had been defined as such in a court of law? What if it was not a handle – but it was your real name under a piece of paper given court mandate. It’s persecution for those who have changed their names or who have non-standard names based on the idea of what a real name should be. There’s issues here regarding people who are in the process of changing their name for many reasons, which Google seeks to claim control of and monopolise – whether it’s people who are married, divorced, or those in witness protection. Even those who are transgender, going through the process of transitioning, have to deal with the fact that these social media sites are trying to enforce and preserve a history that most of these people are trying to erase and forget for whatever reasons, holding them back with regard to what is real. What is the difference between someone undergoing their real life test when transitioning, someone using an alias for publication purposes, and someone who simply wants to use an alias on the internet? This is not something that Google has the right or authority to enforce – and maybe it is time that if Google wants to keep trying to enforce such things, we should stop considering Google such a utility, and remove some of it’s power, before Google does become even more of the monopoly power over the internet that it already is.