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."
"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.
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