Naming names: Google wrestles with anonymity

When you have a new social network populated by a large number of outspoken and opinionated tech enthusiasts, they're going to be watching very, very carefully for any kind of misstep.

Up to now, the missteps at Google+ have been, for the most part, handled well. For example, early on, Google announced that all Google Profiles were going to become public, and that there were only two parts of that public profile that were required: name and gender. You could describe yourself as male, female or "other," but you had to call yourself something. There was an immediate reaction from a number of users, many of them women, and after a few days, the gender requirement was dropped.

However, now the naming requirement has also come into question. Google is insisting that users go by their real names. A lot of users are not happy.

Why such a fuss? To some users, this may seem a bit odd and unnecessary, especially if you employ the Internet predominantly for business purposes, or for checking the day's news and sending emails to your friends. Why would anyone want to go by a fake name, unless it be for nefarious purposes?

Well, to begin with, because it's something of a tradition.

Using a pseudonym to maintain privacy actually has a fairly long history. Personal ads, classifieds and other missives from readers used this strategy for centuries. Letters to the editor in newspapers during the 19th century were often signed with words or initials. Take, as an example, a letter (PDF) to the New York Times about "The Character and Treatment of American Seamen" on October 24, 1854, which is signed "Your obedient servant, F.L.O." This was, at the time, the rule rather than the exception.

When I started visiting online bulletin board systems (BBSs) in the mid-1980s, hardly anyone used their real name. It was a way of maintaining privacy in case somebody else in the discussion turned out to be less than ethical (something I became aware of when the sysop of one BBS, who knew my real name, informed me that he had started driving past my house on a regular basis). It was also a way to feel freer to express yourself.

And it wasn't as though we didn't actually know whom we were hanging out with. Many of us used the same names in different discussion groups, and became good friends with people whom we had never met in person.

However, anonymity has a strong negative side -- we all know the kind of rhetoric that anonymity can produce; all you have to do is find almost any unmoderated list of comments. And, of course, false identities can be used in many nasty ways.

Google is apparently determined to avoid the problems associated with anonymity and pseudonyms. Its policy for Google Profiles, which are required if you want to use Google+, reads: "Google Profiles requires you to use the name that you commonly go by in daily life." This is, according to Google, to make sure that people using the service "have confidence knowing that there is someone real behind the profile they're checking out."

This didn't hit the radar of most users until Google apparently began suspending accounts that didn't follow its rules. For example, a blogger named Kirrily "Skud" Robert who had registered a Google Profile under the name "Skud" has written about what happened when that account was suspended. A user has gone on the Gmail help forum to complain that his account was suspended because he was using Hong Kong naming conventions.

By now, the issue has been chewed over by Google+ users, bloggers, journalists and everyone else with interest in Google and its new service. And Google? Well, according to a public Google+ post from Robert Scoble, Google VP Vic Gundotra has said that the company is "working on ways to handle pseudonyms," but that it may be a while before solutions are implemented.

It's a complex issue. For my part, I stopped using pseudonyms a while ago, but that was my own choice. I can understand why people want to use them (a page on the Geek Feminism Wiki offers a list called "Who is harmed by a 'Real Names' policy?"), and why a company that has to deal with the legal issues that come with running a large social networking site wouldn't. I'm looking forward to seeing how this issue affects the formerly enthusiastic users at Google+ and how Google will finally solve it -- if it does.

[Update: A public Google+ entry from Bradley Horowitz, VP of product management at Google, was posted on July 25, and addresses this issue with a list of some upcoming changes and some policy clarifications.]

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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