Google plus ungood

August 25, 2011

I liked the idea of Google+ (Facebook without all the things that make Facebook rubbish: for me, that’s primarily the intrusive ads and stupid games) but was going to wait until I’d had a bit more time to play with it before blogging an opinion. Then the row about “real names” kicked off, and I think I can now say that until or unless Google rethink their ridiculous, unworkable, divisive and discriminatory “real names” policy, Google+ won’t be a place I want to call home.

I’m not going to rehash the issues here because other people have already done it far better than I could ever hope to do, so I’ll just point to them:

It’s partly this last article that prompted me to write about this at all, as — in an all-too-common mistake, and a pet hate of mine — the author seems to be conflating anonymity and pseudonymity. They’re different. Anonymity is when people don’t know who you are; pseudonymity is when they don’t know the name on your birth certificate. How often do you check your friends’ ID? Do you ask them to show you their passport or other forms of ID (a utility bill in their name, perhaps?) before trusting them as a friend? I know I don’t. I know my friends’ names, sure — usually a first name and a surname (yes, most of my friends have Western-style names) — but in several cases the name I know them by probably isn’t the name on their birth certificate. Some are married, and have taken a new surname to mark that change; some use a different name from their birth name for other reasons, whether they’ve changed it by deed poll (which is simple and costs no money) or simply choose to use that name for some or all aspects of their lives.

Among my ex-boyfriends, for example, I can count the following:

  • Someone who had changed his name by deed poll to a single name (no surname). This caused difficulties with official forms (which often demanded a surname), but he managed to claim benefits under his chosen name.
  • Someone who always went by a pseudonym and refused to acknowledge his birth name (though I did later find it out, to his annoyance). I don’t know what he used in official contexts (banking, passport, etc) but in all the social contexts where I’d encountered him he was only known by the pseudonym and most people didn’t know his birth name.
  • Someone to whom I was first introduced by his online pseudonym — a Firstname Lastname format, but a name taken from a song, so (arguably) obviously a pseudonym. (I learned his birth name fairly early on in the relationship, in fact before learning that he was actually married. You can’t win ’em all.)
  • Someone to whom I was first introduced by his persistent offline pseudonym — his Tudor re-enactment name, to be precise. (Again, I learned his birth name fairly soon, but he regarded both names as “really” him in different contexts, and was happy to be addressed as either.)

OK, maybe I’ve had more than my fair share of ‘alternative’ boyfriends. But none of these people were anonymous in any sense, to me or to the other people who knew them by their pseudonyms. The pseudonyms were consistent and persistent. They also weren’t a reliable indicator of the trustworthiness of the person: choosing a new name for yourself doesn’t make you any more or less likely to be a liar, a troll, an idiot, or a philanderer than sticking with your birth name. A reputation accrues to the name you use, whether you were born with that name or not, and that reputation can be good or bad.

My first experience of online communities was on usenet and local University newsgroups. On the local newsgroups, most people went by the same names they’d used to register for their course — so those names were “real” enough for the University. On the other hand, I generally didn’t know much about them except their name (and their 8-character user id). If all I know about someone is that they are called “John Smith” and that they’ve written something interesting on netnews, what difference does it make to me whether they were actually born John Smith or Peter Scroggins? (Or, indeed, Patricia Scroggins?) The question is whether I can trust that the “John Smith” I interact with today is the same person as the “John Smith” I interact with tomorrow: that the name is a persistent handle for the “real person” behind it (whether or not I ever actually meet them in “real life” — an infuriatingly inaccurate term for physical space, given that I spend so much of my quite-real-thank-you-very-much life interacting with people online).

Later, I ventured out into usenet proper, where far more people were known by obviously pseudonymous (often punning) names — I was reminded of my dad’s habit of entering his name on hi-score boards as “Sue Donnym”. However, these names were as fixed as the “real” names on local netnews, and had their own character, their own style of writing — I would have known if they had been appropriated by a different person — so again, what did it matter if they hadn’t been born “Sue Donnym”?

At the same time, I was spending more time on IRC. Here everybody went by a nickname, a one-word handle: there were people on IRC who knew me primarily as “jaffa” and would have been hard pushed to remember my “real” name (if indeed they ever knew it). But again, those names were persistent: on the local channel, at least, it would have been a clear breach of etiquette for someone else to sign on using my ‘nick’. (On global channels, if I’d planned to become a frequent user of a channel where there was already another jaffa, I’d’ve chosen a different nick, but I’d’ve stuck to it.)

It’s possible that the closer you get to someone, the more likely you are to find out what their “wallet name” is (I’m grateful to Skud for coining the phrase) — the name on their credit cards, the name on their passport — but there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of what that means for your relationship with them. How would you react if you found out that somebody you’d known for years by one name was actually born with a different name? That would surely depend on lots of different factors: your own attitudes to trust, privacy, and pseudonymity; the reasons that person had for changing their name; perhaps the extent to which they had deliberately or actively misled you about their name; and doubtless all sorts of circumstances specific to the situation and the people involved.

Perhaps knowing someone’s “wallet name” matters to you a lot; perhaps it doesn’t. I don’t think it matters to me in most circumstances. But it certainly shouldn’t matter to Google Plus. The usual objection is that Google need to know your “real name” so that they can join up Google+ with your other online activity: but if all your other online activity is conducted under a persistent pseudonym, then your “wallet name” is surely less valuable to them than the pseudonym. This objection is often accompanied by snarking to the effect that Google is a business giving us a free service, so we shouldn’t complain; sure, they’re at liberty to make that decision as a business, but that doesn’t oblige me to like it, to defend their choices, or to use their services. I’m not deleting my account, because I don’t mind people finding me by my birth name (which is the name I use for all official purposes and most social purposes); but I suspect it’ll be like my facebook account, another namesquatting homepage to prevent other people claiming my name. Beyond that, I don’t feel I want to invest time and effort in a service which potentially disenfranchises many of the people I know, love, and respect online.