Google's only big blunder in the creation of its otherwise excellent Google+ social network has been a flawed policy on what users are allowed to call themselves. Everybody hates the policy. Even Google hates it.
A lot of thought went into Google+. But the names policy? Not so much.
Here's my interpretation of Google's real names policy:
We require you to use your real name on the service. If we catch you using a fake name, we will give you four days to change it to your real name. If you don't change it, we won't let you use Google+. The main reasons for our policy are that we don't want anonymous trolls, spammers and haters wrecking the service, and also because real names make Google+ a better platform for commerce.
This is my own statement of Google's policy. Google people have never honestly articulated this policy. Instead, Google always couches its policies in euphemisms and misdirection. Their actual policy is so unpalatable that they can't even say it out loud.
Here's Google's disingenuous statement about its real names policy (according to Google+ product manager Saurabh Sharma in a video posted this week):
Google has "asked that those signing up for the service use the name they commonly go by in the real world." The reason? Google wants to "make connecting with people on the web more like connecting with people in the real world."
I respect what Google is trying to do with its real names policy -- at least I have no interest in Google+ descending into some kind of unholy mix between 4chan, YouTube and Chatroulette, where conversations are dominated by hate speech-spewing cowards hiding behind anonymity. And I understand that Google isn't a nonprofit organization -- they want to monetize. That's fair.
But Google's statement is disingenuous on three counts:
1. They're not "asking." It's a requirement. They don't want to say "requiring" because the truth sounds too harsh.
To ask is to imply that you'll respect the person's decision. "Asking" is not what Google is doing. They are "requiring."
Google should be honest and say: "We are requiring that those signing up for the service use the name they commonly go by in the real world."
2. The stated reason for the policy is not the real reason. "More like connecting with people in the real world?" Why? Google's official policy page says it's "so that the people you want to connect with can find you."
But that's not the reason. In fact, that doesn't even make sense. Where in the real world does using my real name let people find me? The phone book? Do they still make phone books? I don't get it.
It's disingenuous of Google to not admit that real names also make Google+ a better environment for civil discussion and a better platform for commerce.
The phony "real world" argument could be used as the reason for everything and anything. "Oh, we're plastering advertising on every conceivable bit of G+ real estate, because we wanted to make Google+ more like the real world."
"We're going to force you to listen to random telephone conversations of people using Google Voice because we wanted to make Google+ more like the real world."