It seems a number of people take the use of “real names” on the Internet as something we should all just accept without further thought. But a recent piece by Gartner Distinguished Analyst Bob Blakley shows very clearly why at least a bit of thought is actually called for – at least amongst those of us building the infrastructure for cyberspace:
… Google is currently trying to enforce a “common name” policy in Google+. The gist of the policy is that “your Google+ name must be “THE” name by which you are commonly known”.
This policy is insane. I really mean insane; the policy is simply completely divorced from the reality of how names really work AND the reality of how humans really work, and it’s also completely at odds with what Google is trying to achieve with G+. (my emphasis – Kim)
The root of the problem is that Google suffers from the common – but false – belief that names are uniquely and inherently associated with people. I’ve already explained why this belief is false elsewhere, but for the sake of coherence, I’ll summarize here.
There isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between people and names. Multiple people share the same name (George Bush, for example, or even me: George Robert Blakley III), and individual people have multiple names (George Eliot, George Sand, George Orwell, or Boy George – or even me, George Robert “Bob” Blakley III). And people use different names in different contexts; King George VI was “Bertie” to family and close friends.
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A “REAL” NAME.
A name is not an attribute of a person; it is an identifier of a person, chosen arbitrarily and changeable at will. In England, I can draw up a deed poll in my living room and change my name at any time I choose, without the intervention or assistance of any authority. In California, I apparently don’t even need to write anything down: I can change my name simply by having people call me by the new name on the street.
COMMON NAMES ARE NOT SINGULAR OR UNIQUE.
Richard Garriott is COMMONLY known as “Richard Garriott” in some contexts (check Wikipedia), and COMMONLY known as Lord British in other contexts (go to a computer gaming convention). Bob Wills and Elvis are both “The King”.
Despite these complexities, Google wants to intervene in your choice of name. They want veto power over what you can call yourself.
Reversing the presumption that I choose what to be called happens – in the real world – only in circumstances which diminish the dignity of the individual. We choose the names of infants, prisoners, and pets. Imposing a name on someone is repression; free men and women choose their names for themselves.
But the Google+ common name policy isn’t even consistently repressive; it sometimes vetoes names which ARE “common” in the sense Google intends (Violet Blue is an example), it sometimes accepts plausible names based on clearly fraudulent evidence, and it even “verifies” fraudulent names.
Google+’s naming policy isn’t failing because it’s poorly implemented, or because Google’s enforcement team is stupid. It’s failing because what they’re trying to do is (1) impossible, and (2) antisocial.
(2) is critical. Mike Neuenschwander has famously observed that social software is being designed by the world’s least sociable people, and Google+ seems to be a case in point. Google wants to be in the “social” business. But they’re not behaving sociably. They’re acting like prison wardens. No one will voluntarily sign up to be a prisoner. Every day Google persists in their insane attempt to tell people what they can and can’t call themselves, Google+ as a brand becomes less sociable and less valuable. The policy is already being described as racist and sexist; it’s also clearly dangerous to some disadvantaged groups.
If you want to be the host of a social network, you’ve got to create a social space. Creating a social space means making people comfortable. That’s hard, because people don’t fit in any set of little boxes you want to create – especially when it comes to names. But that’s table stakes for social – people are complicated; deal with it. Facebook has an advantage here; despite its own idiotic real-names policy and its continual assaults on privacy, the company has real (i.e. human) sociability in its DNA – it was created by college geeks who wanted to get dates; Google+ wasn’t, and it shows.
If Google’s intention in moving into social networking is to sell ads, Google+’s common names policy gives them a lock on the North American suburban middle-aged conservative white male demographic. w00t.
The Google+ common name policy is insane. It creates an antisocial space in what is supposed to be a social network. It is at odds with basic human social behavior; its implementation is NECESSARILY arbitrary and infuriating, and it is actively damaging the Google+ brand and indeed the broader Google brand.
The problem is not flawed execution; it is that the policy itself is fundamentally unsound, unworkable, and unfixable.
Google can be a social network operator, or they can be the name police. They can’t be both. They need to decide – soon. If I were Google, I’d scrap the policy – immediately – and let people decide for themselves what they will be called.