Elgan: Even Google hates its own 'names' policy

The Google+ real names policy is so bad, Google can't even describe it honestly. Fortunately, the solution is easy and obvious.

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"We're working to make diseases transmissible over Google+ because we wanted to make Google+ more like the real world."

Enough with this ridiculous "real world" misdirection. The policy exists to make Google+ a better and more lucrative social platform, not to make it more like the real world.

3. The stated reason for the policy is not true. Using "real names" does not make Google+ like the "real world."

As I drive and walk around in the real world, people can see me but they don't know my name. More than 99% of the other people I encounter in the real world will never know who I am.

If someone asks me my name, I can say anything I want. Nobody requires me to use my "real name." I'm not even legally required to provide my name to the police in the real world.

Google's names policy requires members to positively identify themselves to everyone they encounter, making available all online activity available to 100% of the people they converse with (with a simple Google search).

If I know your name, I can find out everything you've posted on message boards, your address and phone number, whether or not you own your home, what your political affiliations are.

There's only one place in the real world where such absolute identification is required: prison. Every prisoner has a prisoner ID number displayed on his or her uniform and mug shot.

I suspect that Google is often blinded by its presumption that humans are just consumers. If a person is nothing more than a biological machine that buys things, then Google's description of its policy makes sense. When you buy something, you hand over a credit card, and now that store knows exactly who you are (unless you pay cash).

But if you participate in a political protest, go to a nightclub, attend an AA meeting, go to a party, or generally live your life, there is no absolute, irrevocable, searchable, permanent trail of exactly what you ever did or said available to everyone who sees or hears you.

The online world is not and cannot be anything at all like the real world. This point was made with stark clarity by The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal.

Why Google's policy is incompatible with Google+

Google's policy can't work. For example, what about any person with a personal brand that happens to be a pseudonym?

Under Google's policy, Dr. Phil, Lady Gaga, Snoop Dogg and Ralph Lauren would be forced to use Google+ as Phillip McGraw, Stefani Germanotta, Calvin Broadus and Ralph Lifshitz.

Or is the plan to allow the rich and famous to use pseudonyms but not battered women, persecuted minorities, political dissidents and others using fake names out of self-defense?

The best thing about Google+ is that user behavior is governed not by draconian rules imposed by the company, but by subtle and gentle incentives that are user controlled. For example, you don't have a maximum character count for updates of 140 (Twitter) or 420 (Facebook). You can post a novel if you want to, but you can also expect to be uncircled. Behavior is governed by the voluntary choices of users, not edicts handed down by software developers.

Nearly all favorable comparisons between Google+ and Facebook have something to do with Google's empowerment of users to make their own choices.

That's why Google's real names policy is incompatible with the rest of Google+. It's far too Zuckerbergian to co-exist with Google's other user policies.

There's also a strategic incompatibility. If Google's plan is to offer some exclusive little private club in one corner of the Internet a mere alternative to Facebook, then the real names policy is no big deal.

But if Google's strategy is to be a universal social layer for the Internet, then the names policy is fatally flawed. You can't expect to exclude everyone who wants or needs a pseudonym and expect to be the world's social platform.

The solution is easy and obvious

The solution to the real names problem couldn't be easier or more obvious. Go ahead and require a real name. But simply make the user name field like other fields in the profile -- let users hide it, as long as they've put something in the "Nickname" field.

The combination of a hidden real name and an exposed nickname lets Google have it both ways: Users can use pseudonyms, but Google itself can know who the person is (for consistency across Google accounts, and also for commerce).

Google could even add two more controls that would make the change more consistent with Google's objectives. First, allow people to hide their real name only if their account is associated with a cell phone number. (Google already allows Gmail addresses and Google accounts to be associated with phones for identification.) This would prevent people from signing up for one account after another, then abusing Google+ policies under serial pseudonyms.

Second, come up with some subtle signal -- an icon, for example -- that tells everyone that a pseudonym is a pseudonym.

Just about everyone hates Google's real names policy. And the policy itself is so objectionable that Google executives are apparently too ashamed or embarrassed to honestly and plainly express the policy.

Come on, Google: Come up with a real names policy that doesn't require phony justifications.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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