My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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“Real Names” Policies Are an Abuse of Power

Everyone’s abuzz with the “nymwars,” mostly in response to Google Plus’ decision to enforce its “real names” policy. At first, Google Plus went on a deleting spree, killing off accounts that violated its policy. When the community reacted with outrage, Google Plus leaders tried to calm the anger by detailing their “new and improved” mechanism to enforce “real names” (without killing off accounts). This only sparked increased discussion about the value of pseudonymity. Dozens of blog posts have popped up with people expressing their support for pseudonymity and explaining their reasons. One of the posts, by Kirrily “Skud” Robert included a list of explanations that came from people she polled, including:

  • “I am a high school teacher, privacy is of the utmost importance.”

  • “I have used this name/account in a work context, my entire family know this name and my friends know this name. It enables me to participate online without being subject to harassment that at one point in time lead to my employer having to change their number so that calls could get through.”
  • “I do not feel safe using my real name online as I have had people track me down from my online presence and had coworkers invade my private life.”
  • “I’ve been stalked. I’m a rape survivor. I am a government employee that is prohibited from using my IRL.”
  • “As a former victim of stalking that impacted my family I’ve used [my nickname] online for about 7 years.”
  • “[this name] is a pseudonym I use to protect myself. My web site can be rather controversial and it has been used against me once.”
  • “I started using [this name] to have at least a little layer of anonymity between me and people who act inappropriately/criminally. I think the “real names” policy hurts women in particular.
  • “I enjoy being part of a global and open conversation, but I don’t wish for my opinions to offend conservative and religious people I know or am related to. Also I don’t want my husband’s Govt career impacted by his opinionated wife, or for his staff to feel in any way uncomfortable because of my views.”
  • “I have privacy concerns for being stalked in the past. I’m not going to change my name for a google+ page. The price I might pay isn’t worth it.”
  • “We get death threats at the blog, so while I’m not all that concerned with, you know, sane people finding me. I just don’t overly share information and use a pen name.”
  • “This identity was used to protect my real identity as I am gay and my family live in a small village where if it were openly known that their son was gay they would have problems.”
  • “I go by pseudonym for safety reasons. Being female, I am wary of internet harassment.”

You’ll notice a theme here…

Another site has popped up called “My Name Is Me” where people vocalize their support for pseudonyms. What’s most striking is the list of people who are affected by “real names” policies, including abuse survivors, activists, LGBT people, women, and young people.

Over and over again, people keep pointing to Facebook as an example where “real names” policies work. This makes me laugh hysterically. One of the things that became patently clear to me in my fieldwork is that countless teens who signed up to Facebook late into the game chose to use pseudonyms or nicknames. What’s even more noticeable in my data is that an extremely high percentage of people of color used pseudonyms as compared to the white teens that I interviewed. Of course, this would make sense…

The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalized by systems of power. “Real names” policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people. These ideas and issues aren’t new (and I’ve even talked about this before), but what is new is that marginalized people are banding together and speaking out loudly. And thank goodness.

What’s funny to me is that people also don’t seem to understand the history of Facebook’s “real names” culture. When early adopters (first the elite college students…) embraced Facebook, it was a trusted community. They gave the name that they used in the context of college or high school or the corporation that they were a part of. They used the name that fit into the network that they joined Facebook with. The names they used weren’t necessarily their legal names; plenty of people chose Bill instead of William. But they were, for all intents and purposes, “real.” As the site grew larger, people had to grapple with new crowds being present and discomfort emerged over the norms. But the norms were set and people kept signing up and giving the name that they were most commonly known by. By the time celebrities kicked in, Facebook wasn’t demanding that Lady Gaga call herself Stefani Germanotta, but of course, she had a “fan page” and was separate in the eyes of the crowd. Meanwhile, what many folks failed to notice is that countless black and Latino youth signed up to Facebook using handles. Most people don’t notice what black and Latino youth do online. Likewise, people from outside of the US started signing up to Facebook and using alternate names. Again, no one noticed because names transliterated from Arabic or Malaysian or containing phrases in Portuguese weren’t particularly visible to the real name enforcers. Real names are by no means universal on Facebook, but it’s the importance of real names is a myth that Facebook likes to shill out. And, for the most part, privileged white Americans use their real name on Facebook. So it “looks” right.

Then along comes Google Plus, thinking that it can just dictate a “real names” policy. Only, they made a huge mistake. They allowed the tech crowd to join within 48 hours of launching. The thing about the tech crowd is that it has a long history of nicks and handles and pseudonyms. And this crowd got to define the early social norms of the site, rather than being socialized into the norms set up by trusting college students who had joined a site that they thought was college-only. This was not a recipe for “real name” norm setting. Quite the opposite. Worse for Google… Tech folks are VERY happy to speak LOUDLY when they’re pissed off. So while countless black and Latino folks have been using nicks all over Facebook (just like they did on MySpace btw), they never loudly challenged Facebook’s policy. There was more of a “live and let live” approach to this. Not so lucky for Google and its name-bending community. Folks are now PISSED OFF.

Personally, I’m ecstatic to see this much outrage. And I’m really really glad to see seriously privileged people take up the issue, because while they are the least likely to actually be harmed by “real names” policies, they have the authority to be able to speak truth to power. And across the web, I’m seeing people highlight that this issue has more depth to it than fun names (and is a whole lot more complicated than boiling it down to being about anonymity, as Facebook’s Randi Zuckerberg foolishly did).

What’s at stake is people’s right to protect themselves, their right to actually maintain a form of control that gives them safety. If companies like Facebook and Google are actually committed to the safety of its users, they need to take these complaints seriously. Not everyone is safer by giving out their real name. Quite the opposite; many people are far LESS safe when they are identifiable. And those who are least safe are often those who are most vulnerable.

Likewise, the issue of reputation must be turned on its head when thinking about marginalized people. Folks point to the issue of people using pseudonyms to obscure their identity and, in theory, “protect” their reputation. The assumption baked into this is that the observer is qualified to actually assess someone’s reputation. All too often, and especially with marginalized people, the observer takes someone out of context and judges them inappropriately based on what they get online. Let me explain this in a concrete example that many of you have heard before. Years ago, I received a phone call from an Ivy League college admissions officer who wanted to accept a young black man from South Central in LA into their college; the student had written an application about how he wanted to leave behind the gang-ridden community he came from, but the admissions officers had found his MySpace which was filled with gang insignia. The question that was asked of me was “Why would he lie to us when we can tell the truth online?” Knowing that community, I was fairly certain that he was being honest with the college; he was also doing what it took to keep himself alive in his community. If he had used a pseudonym, the college wouldn’t have been able to get data out of context about him and inappropriately judge him. But they didn’t. They thought that their frame mattered most. I really hope that he got into that school.

There is no universal context, no matter how many times geeks want to tell you that you can be one person to everyone at every point. But just because people are doing what it takes to be appropriate in different contexts, to protect their safety, and to make certain that they are not judged out of context, doesn’t mean that everyone is a huckster. Rather, people are responsibly and reasonably responding to the structural conditions of these new media. And there’s nothing acceptable about those who are most privileged and powerful telling those who aren’t that it’s OK for their safety to be undermined. And you don’t guarantee safety by stopping people from using pseudonyms, but you do undermine people’s safety by doing so.

Thus, from my perspective, enforcing “real names” policies in online spaces is an abuse of power.

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173 comments to “Real Names” Policies Are an Abuse of Power

  • Gimmer

    Isn’t this kind of ironic, given that Microsoft’s release of Live Messenger 2011 requires you to put your full name as it appears on your email as your MSN name? Perhaps you should speak to Microsoft’s engineer’s about your findings. I’d be glad to have my MSN nickname back

  • selamat berpisah

    I completely agree with this article and with Kerry’s post just above.

    I think that Google will continue to try to have real names associated with all their various products. Google makes its profit by selling information to advertisers and the more complete and whole that information is, the happier that Google and companies who pay for that information are. Facebook also makes money from selling information, but it provides that information relatively anonymously. And so it’s not as much of an annoyance to Facebook to have users using pseudonyms.

  • Xan Steel

    It amuses me to read these comments, and see that most of the names are not real. Like mine for instance. It’s a name that I have used for over 10 years, and I’m well known by it. The only problem with using a pseudonym is that the person using it is held responsible for their actions. Sometimes these people are (for lack of a better word) idiotic. Really not caring about what they are doing to others online. And for that the rest of us have to pay for their “idiotic” actions and forced into using “real names”. Instead of these sites policing there users and watching make sure they are not harassing other users, and banning the offending user. Instead by forcing these “real name” policies its only making these sites weaker in security as they have less people doing security on the site in question.

  • Rhys

    @Sam
    It seems to me like you are ignoring the rest of the community that has to deal with the people who use easy access to others’ identities for bullying, harassment, trolling, spam, and scams. It certainly doesn’t seem as black & white as you are making it out to be.

  • Ernest W. Adams

    Abuse of whose power? Google’s? It’s their playground. “My house, my rules.” If you don’t like it, you’re perfectly welcome to stay out.

    The abusers are those who hide behind a cloak of anonymity to conduct defamatory campaigns of character assassination.

    There is a pernicious notion among Internet pundits like the author that somehow Internet forums are the property of their contributors. They are not.

  • It should be noted, since no one has mentioned this, that Ms. boyd is a Microsoft employee, which is a direct competitor with Google in a number of markets such as mobile devices, search, enterprise office software, etc. She may be a researcher, but she is by no means independent nor an academic. Something to keep in mind when you’re reading the words “authoritarian”, “vulnerable people” and “abuse of power,” which she has so helpfully highlighted to enhance their sensational effect.

  • Adelheid

    I’ve witnessed far more nastiness on Facebook in the last few days (related to the upcoming Australian census) under people’s ‘real names’ than I have in various pseudonymous environments.

  • Interesting article and timely debate for us as a company building a social product that has had to formulate a framework based on members needs on this very issue. I think the point John Kroll makes about moderation is a key one. Our policy became formulated and supported by members balanced by
    - the freedom members enjoy to use any name (real or not) they wish with
    - the responsibility for members to take ownership of their environment to moderate both content and people that don’t match what the community wants to be.

  • I am surprised no one has mentioned introversion. I started out using my real name online, but I have always felt deeply uncomfortable doing so.

    Being comfortable away from crowds is natural to who I am, and I find that I have a greater sense of responsibility using a nom de-plomme. If I am more or less have a limited circle of acquaintances in my normal life, then how does that jive with collecting virtual friends?

    Further more the blog mentioned Lady Gaga, and I find it amusing that it is OK to have a nom de-plomme because one is a superstar, but ordinary people are to be feared and made to account for who they are. Why?

    Then there is the surprises in the world of creativity, we all know that Mark Twain is not a real name (but made real of course in light of his fame), but I was surprised when I saw recently that Lewis Caroll isn’t Lewis Carroll. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson is a name I have often google, just to recall.

    I like exploring my thoughts online, so never mind the point about being an introvert, or famous nom de-plommes, or creative purposes. What about thinking? Every time I write, I write as is i.e. in the form of thinking out aloud. I find refreshing to explore, to think about what I have written and to juxtapose that with what I have just read. Does not mean that I am wrong or right, but that I have poured out thoughts – Isn’t that a worthy freedom?

    And then what about humility, where does that come into the picture. If I am not trying to sell anything, or make a name for myself, where in the 21st Century is there a greater freedom than the joy of simply expressing thoughts – or in other words for the sake of flow (not money or reputation). Every great philosopher at some point tells us that we must be less to be more, and yet our names become material possessions. Then again every great philosopher says that the tongue and thought also need restraint – so I fail there – but that is who I am.

    I can go on and on and on but I don’t want to convince anyone that my attitude has merit or not. I love self-expression, I am an introvert, I live the creative dimension of the non deplomme, I know I have to be that much more responsible because I choose this path, I enjoy the humility of it – I love the feeling of flow and I wise up when I realize that what I have written doesn’t make sense (often it doesn’t). And I enjoy the freedom of it all.

    Those who love seeing the world as black and white, can have that world for all I care. As an introvert, it is just as simple for me to live the rest of my days out in complete silence. I can do it. Yet at what ultimate cost as human being who feels this is the right thing to do for me? Do the very words “leave me alone” offend. If I am offensive, then apology is always due – and, if I live my life the best way I know, then this is the best way I know.

    [Em]
    @thoughtspaces

  • Lindsay

    I’m curious if anyone has played with the privacy settings. Ok, my RL name is there. but EVERYTHING else about me that I choose to share I can hide, or only share with certain people. I, for one, left facebook, and I’m using G+ exclusively now, mainly because of that.

  • As someone who chooses to participate on the internet using only a pseudonym, I’d like to say BRAVO to this post. I’ve used Cstar and Cstar1 online since 1998 – including as a staff member at Delphi Forums since 2002. There isn’t a single real argument that can be presented by G+ (or anyone else) that supersedes my right to privacy.

    Google suspended my account two days ago, and my appeal was denied yesterday – by “Neil” – who curiously failed to sign his last name to the rejection. (I wonder why.) I was able to provide Facebook, Linked In & other URL’s that verify that “Cstar” is a legitimate name, and is what “friends, family, and co-workers” call me.

    If only Twitter and Delphi Forums welcome me and my pseudononymous participation, then those are the services I will use, and to hell with G+, which might have been a nice additional venue.

    The whole thing is stupid – all G+ has to do, is require real names on the “internal account”, but give us the choice of what name is displayed to the rest of the world.

  • Greetings in peace, in most Divine love and light to all. Enforcing identity to be anonymous or using the real name is not the issue but its truly based on the person needs and personal perceptions and I am aware that most people hiding themselves with anonymous identity for a reasons yet at the same time an anonymous identity had been misused to violate the peace and harmony be at in reality or on the digital world.

    Nonetheless, as for me I go for the real names policies and have been using my real name for the last more than 10 years online and as I said the real name policies all the time keep reminds me to be always responsible, think wisely and to be truthful that we need to be responsible on our own actions that is truly no black and white but a choice. Peace.

  • Cory Albrecht

    If this issue is important to you please sign and promote the Google Pseudonym petition at http://l.skeptical.ly/pseudonym-petition

  • bob williamson

    “If companies like Facebook and Google are actually committed to the safety of its users, they need to take these complaints seriously.”

    I think they are … you are just making a mistake as to who the users are. As someone eloquently said,

    “If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer, you’re the product being sold”.

    G and FB’s customers (“users”) are the advertisers. They are who is being looked after. If you remember this, their behavior makes perfect sense.

  • John

    My first comment is Google don’t hold it in too long or you will get piles. Having said that I can see the point on both sides. Looking at Facebook the real name thing seems to work best but using real names don’t always work. People who don’t want to be held accountable don’t use real names. We have to admit to people who don’t play fair have a certain amount of power in how the policies are made and I think we have to accept it.

  • Tom West

    You have eloquently pointed out that ‘real names’ serve a different cultural norm than a system that allows pseudonyms.

    However, how is it an abuse of power to serve one cultural context and not another? I strongly prefer a non-pseudonymous environment where people can be held accountable for their words. Should I be denied my particular cultural preference if a company chooses to serve it?

    If this was the sole or even dominant social networking tool, I would agree that the corporation might have a social responsibility to meet as many social needs as possible, even to the detriment of a number of its members. But G+ is only one social network among many. Surely they have the right to customize their software to serve the desires of specific markets?

  • Andrew

    Great post…but Google+ does not have a “real names” policy. Their policy has always accepted pseudonyms. Their enforcement mechanisms were broken (and I believe google acknowledged this brokenness), but what do you expect from a brand new site from folks with limited social networking software experience?

    It’s amazing how intolerant some people are of new social web sites. Let them develop organically. See how they go, and if you like them keep using them, and if you don’t, there are plenty of fun places on the internet that you’ll probably like more.

    Relax, it’s not such a big deal. There are a LOT bigger problems out there that could use your (and by “your” I mean EVERYONE) time and help.

  • Elena

    I’d really like to know if there has been any proper research done on whether or not using a pseudonym makes someone act differently on the internet.

    From my own subjective perception, I’m not convinced. Correlation isn’t causation. Most people on the internet use pseudonyms of some sort or another, so of course most misbehaviour is done pseudonymously. That’s because most everything is done pseudonymously.

    There’s so much argument and waffle; I’d like some proper data.

  • Kitty

    It’s very easy to say if you don’t like the policy, don’t use it if you are personally unaffected by the policy. However, that kind of exclusivity and exclusion is exactly what perpetuates power structures and keeps marginalized people marginalized. Creating a climate where people are either not safe or not welcome is elitism in a nutshell.

  • maelorin

    Seems this G+ account has been suspended. (been expecting for a while since the ‘names’ thing arose).

    I have had a gmail account (and many others besides) in this name, since gmail came into the game. this has not been an issue anywhere else for, oh, the 20+ years i have used it. on what basis are random people ‘assessing’ ‘common names’?

    it is quite *legal* in common law countries for people to adopt names other than the one(s) on their birth certificate. the name i am using here *is* a ‘legal name’.

    how does google propose to verify the ‘legalness’ of names? do we all front up at a google office with birth certificates and so forth? or does it come down to the name *looking* ‘legal’? on what criteria? it is perfectly legal to name a child, or change one’s name formally, to a single word as either firstname or surname. in some cultures, it is possible to never have had more than a one word name. it is also possible to be named Angel Angel Angel, or Hoopy Frood, or Teary Elasmoblast Smith – and so on.

    i have been known by several ‘absurd’ names in my life. primary school ‘chums’ are likely to remember the names they called me better than some formal name. most of us didn’t know each others surnames, for example. (plus, decades have passed by. i’m more likely to be reminded by ‘stinky pinky’ or ‘princess bluebell’ or ‘horseface’ than i am say by ‘steve pinkerton’, ‘amy grant’, or ‘melody kariannais’).

    and google compensate people who have to give up the use of a common law name on their services? one that may have built significant online (and offline) good will and recognition? many people have only known me by this name. for others, it is how they find me online. other names i am known by, in other contexts, are either less unique, or have different meanings/purposes. i have no interest in collapsing or cross-linking names that have been associated with me for decades into a single persona – if i wanted to do that i would have done so years ago.

    humans are identified by their connections with others, not their credentials. friends of friends, not unverified assertions or claims to associations that *you* (google) cannot verify. people know who they know. and online, we interact with ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ personas all the time. google cannot ‘protect’ us from others over whom you have no real control. sure you can suspend or pull accounts. but since you’ve devalued the first as a form of penalty, you’re diluting what little ‘control’ you do have.

    a policy that *prefers* the use of common names is great. it would be *better* to have policies regarding genuine behaviour than getting mired in this ‘real’ names tar pit. it is not my ‘name’ that assures people i am genuine, it is my behaviour. focus on that: you have a lot more scope to assess it than you do unknown credentials from every country on the planet (including a bunch that no longer exist).

    There are a lot of assumptions embedded in your policy – ones that tell me a lot about the design of your system, but also how very little google has learned from being a global enterprise. “names in a single language”? parents can freely give their children names in multiple languages. it might be better to ask for names to be ‘expressed in a single alphabet’?

    how i behave, and the relationships i build, are the key to my ‘identity’, not my ‘name’ – that’s merely a label. i am not loosing my ‘identity’ for your administrative convenience.

  • sneJ

    @Andrew: on what basis do you say Google+ has no “real names” policy? It’s own help documents say that:

    “For this reason, Google Profiles requires you to use the name that you commonly go by in daily life.”

    That sounds very unambiguous to me.

    I’ve been following the social-software field for almost 15 years, and it’s abundantly clear to me (as it is to most people working on online identity, PKI and so forth) that there is no such thing as a “real name” or a single identity. People are not database records, and only naive engineers will attempt to pigeonhole them as such.

  • Anthony Prattico

    This post is just another sign of how pathetically sad our society has become. A person’s name used to mean something, and you didn’t need to prove it. Think about the world prior to government issued IDs: Want to buy property, get a loan from the bank, open a credit account at the local general store? Walk in, look them in the eye, shake their hand, give them your name and ask for what you want. Nobody hid, because people were proud of their names. I use my real name on both Facebook and Google+, and I am proud of it. And please don’t give me crap about being from the so-called “priveleged” class. Every society and culture has been discriminated against at one point, and that discrimination is found throughout recorded history. Some people fought back, others seem to prefer to remain the victim.

    People need to get used to the fact that if you use any online site, for any reason, you can be found. There is no hiding behind pseudonyms or fake names. Remember the Netflix fiasco? There were no names at all, but that still wasn’t enough to truly anonymize their customers. If you’re being stalked, and you use a fake name on Facebook, but have your real family and friends as Friends, then you have identified yourself. Even if you have all of your data hidden, one of your “friends” may have their Friends list public, which is most likely enough to identify you.

  • Kelly Faulkner

    i don’t know what i can add to this conversation, but i thought most of the concerns raised, while revealing an alarming percentage of people suffering from personal safety fears/problems that speaks volumes about our culture, are not wholly applicable to the issue of what your name is on the google+ network.

    “I am a high school teacher, privacy is of the utmost importance.” while my first response is “so why are you exposing it to the whole world on the internet?” my more considered response is: limit your circles and post accordingly. no one can see your posts except for those *you* choose. (i am a high school teacher, too.)

    “I have used this name/account in a work context, my entire family know this name and my friends know this name. It enables me to participate online without being subject to harassment that at one point in time lead to my employer having to change their number so that calls could get through.” there’s no reason you cannot use that name. yep, none.

    “I do not feel safe using my real name online as I have had people track me down from my online presence and had coworkers invade my private life.” so use a pseudonym, which is acceptable on google, and applies to several of the other entries.

    “I enjoy being part of a global and open conversation, but I don’t wish for my opinions to offend conservative and religious people I know or am related to. Also I don’t want my husband’s Govt career impacted by his opinionated wife, or for his staff to feel in any way uncomfortable because of my views.” as a very vocal & opinionated female, i really relate to this one! but again, why not use the pseudonym you are currently using?

    “I have privacy concerns for being stalked in the past. I’m not going to change my name for a google+ page. The price I might pay isn’t worth it.” so don’t. it is not compulsory to become part of the google+ community. there are many, many other forums available to you.

    as some people above have pointed out that google wants you to have *a* name, it doesn’t have to be your birth name at all, but you did not address this in writing your post, and most of your examples are unsupportable in this light. what is a “real” name? the name i was given at birth? well, i don’t use that name myself, and haven’t for over 2/3 of my life. i use the name that is my identity, and *you can too.* danah, i read your blog often, but feel this post is sensationalistic and frankly, a bit misleading.

  • Derwin

    Some folks don’t seem to realize that Google DOES have a real names policy right now. That policy is the guidelines directing their enforcement agents. Their vaguely worded TOS is meant to sound nice and friendly. But what it’s talking about is using your legal government name, or a socially acceptable, mainstream American shorthand of your legal name.

    Facts:

    Right now, people are being actively suspended for the slightest oddity in the way their name is even spelled.

    The enforcement agents are adhering to a simple script, and will not answer human questions.

    If after one (1) email you do not immediately fill in a name that satisfies their judgement, they will fall back on a script that instructs them to demand to see a photograph of your government issued ID.

    If you attempt to reason with them after that email which demands (not an option, DEMANDS) government ID, or provide any other proof of the valid, legal use of a chosen name or pen name, even if it’s published in a magazine – you can send them the cover with your name on it! – there are now reports that they’re cutting you off from any further interaction. No matter how polite or reasonable you are.

    Many users are now in “the black hole” and even further emails are being ignored. The customer service agents are, evidently, being instructed to treat any resistance as immediate indication that you are a malicious user. This is not uncommon practice in the customer service industry. The scripts given to many poorly trained, low level grunts often instructs them to cease responding and blacklist individuals who “refuse to cooperate”.

    Also, there’s growing suspicion that the “report user” button is being used as malicious harassment (because such systems are always abused). As crazy as it sounds, Google seems to be keeping no policy records of why a user’s suspended account was reinstated. Certain high profile cases, where a well known user was suspended but did get unsuspended, have seen that user…. resuspended. Merely a day later, for the same reason – their name. Which the previous enforcement officer restored. Someone had to push that button, and given that these cases were high profile, there likely was a line of jerks waiting to click it and see how fast they could get the user suspended again.

    The big problem is that people are not seeing that this isn’t a silly lark with a new social funsite that just popped up. Google changed their policies in mid-stream, in ways that affect other google services. Profiles are not a new social website invention. Google profiles existed and were used for services like Buzz and Google Reader. Guess what? If your profile is now suspended, those previously existing services stop working either entirely or in part. It’s true that Gmail lockouts were a system error – but they’re still happening to some. But Google is already threading the consequences of Plus through their other services, affecting existing users without so much as a by-your-leave.

    If you think they’re not going to continue doing that, I believe it’s simply naive.

    This isn’t a new arbitrary site that people should just ignore and pick the next generic brand on the aisle.

    It’s Google. They’ve worked hard to become the internet. To make themselves an indispensable service for millions – and if you think it’s “free”, think again. You’re paying by agreeing to let them mine your data. They’re making money just fine off “giving away” Google.

    So yeah… there’s a good reason for people to be concerned at the trend this represents. This is not people griping because someone made them change the name of their World of Warcraft character, though it seems common to view any and everything on the internet in such flippant terms.

  • my-name-is-irony

    “Most people don’t notice what black and Latino youth do online.”

    I completely agree! I’m tired of reading forum posts only to realize it was written by a black or Latino. They should be forced to preface their forum and blog posts with their age and nationality, wouldn’t you agree? Better yet, let’s ship them off to Auschwitz.

  • miker

    Starting with MySpace’s many self-inflicted wounds, Facebook seems destined to benefit from the terrible mistakes of others. For the life of me I can’t grasp why Google would so willfully choose to piss off a large percentage of their potential user base before Google+ ever had a chance to get going. Google had a great opportunity to find the sensible middle ground between MySpace and Facebook. They could require one’s real name to sign up and strictly limit the ability to change a username without requiring that the real name be exposed to everyone with whom one has any interaction on the network. There are just too many cases where a real name could be used to threaten, intimidate, harass or attack someone outside of Google’s limited world. Being a solid citizen within Google+ does not in any way imply that a person might not elect to do very bad things to other Google+ users in the offline realm, and having the real names of other users makes that task a simple one. Unless the miscreant happened to be caught by law enforcement, Google+ would continue to view them as a solid citizen.

    Facebook won out over MySpace because MySpace was pathetically incapable of controlling spam, not because Facebook was some sort of brilliant, life-altering application. The Facebook user interface is still not that great as far as I’m concerned, and their privacy controls are still confusing and needlessly complicated. Why am I a Facebook user if I find a lot of fault with the site? Because that’s where everyone else is. Social networks just don’t work very well if you’re there by yourself. Mimicking Facebook on the issue of names and privacy was the wrong choice and I’m skeptical that Google+ will ever recover from this fiasco.

  • Andrew

    sneJ: “use the name that you commonly go by in daily life” is not “use your real name’. Besides, Google has no idea what the name you commonly go by is. Therefore, the “requires” is really a “we request this of you”. They’re not going to say this, but is implied.

    Like many rules in any community, it is vague, but helpful. I do understand that geeks often have difficult with vague social rules, but such is life.

    I’m thinking that Google would like people to feel comfortable using google plus. I for one know that many of my friends (especially those crossing into senior citizenship) would be more likely to participate on a site where most (not ALL) people use names instead of bbs-style handles.

    On the customer service side, I wish people had more sympathy for the workers. People who handle reviews of accounts for abuse are probably the lowest paid people (and often outsourced) at tech companies, and they get hammered when they make mistakes, even if it’s one out of a hundred cases. They are the people helping to keep your accounts mostly free of spammers and griefers–and I can tell you from experience that all popular free services get thousands of spammers trying to create millions of accounts and often it is very difficult to tell them apart from legit users. Running large online communities is hard, but these are people keeping your online lives sane by sacrificing their own sanity!

    If I had one request to make of all people, it would be to think beyond themselves and consider the needs and deeds of others.

    Everyone is not out to get you. Most people are GREAT!

  • Dave w

    For all you people that dont want to be harrassed. Lock your site down. Dont accept invites to be friends from stalkers. Hide your profiles. And stop whinning. Its their sandbox, they make the rules. You want to follow them, you get to play, if not go to another playground.

  • Ian

    It appears that you need to define pseudonym to defined the difficulty.

    What appears to be being said, and identified in some of the responses here, is that an ‘acceptable name’ is what is required, not something determined in some way as obviously a no-name.

    Having said that there is also undoubtedly an ongoing process being illustrated here (in a similar way to the country codes -.uk, .tv, .ui) which appears to be attempting to distinguish between social classes, or to put it another way filter people who fit the terms and conditions (determined values) of the site owners, hence facilitating more focused customer management models. Is this indicative of a class distinction for the information age!

    In a singularly people focused world model of that type if/when the ‘acceptable name’ issue is found not to work it should not come as a surprise if concrete identification and references of some sort, or vetting, become required; As some web sites already do in various ways.

    So the question should perhaps be – on social networking sites is social sorting acceptable, and how can everyone respect others values without those values being used to make everyone submit to them.

    Those dangers and misuses of transparency which have been historically documented are illustrated admirably in this subject matter and yet the only problem openly perceived is privacy or anonymity which in itself says a great deal.

  • The Geek Feminism Wiki has a good list with currently nine different categories:
    1. Marginalised and endangered groups
    2. Political activists and related groups
    3. Subject-related considerations
    4. Employment-related
    5. People whose “real names” are more complicated than you think
    6. People with long-standing pseudonyms
    7. People whose “real names” are extremely common or extremely rare
    8. People who are comfortable using their uncomplicated “real names”
    9. Other

    http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Who_is_harmed_by_a_%22Real_Names%22_policy%3F

  • Andrew: the way the rule is written sounds like it allows pseudonyms. However that’s not how it’s being enforced. The latter is what actually matters.

  • Sewicked

    I am a pagan. I am in the broom closet; ie only certain friends know about my religion. Of my family, only my sibling knows. I am very careful to self-censor what is visible on-line under my real name. I have a FB account, under my real name, and I never, ever say anything about my religion. The only clue is certain groups and certain friends. My blog makes mention, but it’s under a pseudonym. I can be honest there, not anywhere else.

    As it stands, I certainly can’t be honest on Google+. And if someone thinks I’m being paranoid, they haven’t heard the stories I’ve heard, 1st hand, of harassment. One pagan friend almost got kicked out of his apartment.

  • gregorylent

    china, egypt, syria, bahrain .. and someday america .. places where using your real name will get you disappeared.

  • Jay Hollenkamp

    This is a question of market. Google+ can target whichever market they prefer. In this instance, they target me – the person who doesn’t visit sites without real names because of the lack of accountability and the resulting degradation of content.

    The could take away the real names requirement, but that’d create a different market. I imagine they looked at both options (as well as the option of creating separate groups based on the option of real names), and decided that the group preferring real names is a better market. That’s rational and well within their right.

    The interesting question for me is why they chose the real names group. I speculate that it’s because real names permits more targeted marketing. It may also be because the real names group consumes in a greater amount.

    I recognize that their are people out their that require anonymity for perfectly valid reasons. However, that group is likely very small and so has no effect on business decisions. Google’s managers have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders to maximize value, so expecting that they’ll base decisions on the plights of a few is not realistic.

  • Real Name

    How is the real names thing any different on the internet to real life. I have joined heaps of organisations in the real world that required my real name. Of course I could lie and give a false name, the only limitation being that the false name would have to sound like a plausible real name. Hi, I’m “Tony Vasquez”. Who are you to say otherwise. If I wanted to, I could also change my name by deed poll. If I went to a hotel, they’d ask me for my real name. Why, then, shouldn’t Google?

    Yes there a situations where people have legitimate reasons to conceal their identity. But there is nothing I have seen of using the tried and true method….lying. Isn’t that just obvious?

  • Peter Hess

    Anyone with enough motivation, who is really seeking anonymity, can get around the ban (or go elsewhere). These real fight is about people who want to be identifiable to their friends but not to anyone else. This just doesn’t seem to me to be a fundamental human right. Aren’t there other things to agitate for more worth the time?

  • Rhys

    Incidentally, my gut reaction when people first began pushing back against the real name policy was, “It may need some work, but I like the policy. I want to see real names, not names like ¸·¤¨LadySparklyUnicorn¨¤·¸, or iCeL0rD822, etc.”

    However, this was a purely aesthetic objection. I don’t want to look at stupid internet handles. It makes me feel like it’s a junk network, an anime forum, or something. I also know, because I work in the industry: (1) how hard it is to deal with data when users input junk rather than what’s requested and (2) how hard it is to render beautiful, functional design when users insist on inputting junk.

    Obviously, I still feel this way. However.

    After reading about it, and thinking about it, I realized how nuanced the issue was and how difficult it is to draw a straight line at any point and say, “This policy would be fair.”

    I primarily use my real name online, now. Rather, I use it on social networks and in my official online presence. I frequently don’t use it when I comment. I have this thing where I don’t want someone searching to be able to find everything I’ve ever said. Not because I say rude things. I may, like anyone, inadvertently give offense sometimes, but I’m not in the habit of trolling. It’s merely because I have a tendency to be a private person and sensitive to social context.

    When I first got online over a decade ago I chose a pseudonym to write under. I primarily used that pseudonym for more than 10 years. Even when I began using my real name, it was my username. I have, and have had, many friends who used a shortened form of my pseudonym as a nickname. That name was (and is) ME. You could easily track its path and relationships on the web, it had history, validity, and reality.

    And in that decade I’ve had many great interactions with other pseudonymous or anonymous people. So I’ve never had much real concern about the go-to point, “People behave badly when anonymous.” Some people behave badly while anonymous. Some people behave badly when using their real identity. To me, real names have no significant connection to trolling or spam.

    This is what I’d like to see on Google+:

    1. You enter your real, or semi-real first and last name.
    2. You enter other names you go by under “Other Names” or “Nicknames.”
    3. You choose which name is visible to which context. You might display your real name to ‘Family’. You might display your handle to ‘Following’, and you might display a different pseudonym to ‘Public’.
    4. However, there are realistic character limits and characters that are not allowed.
    5. When Google+ rolls out its version of fan/business pages, you can enter pretty much whatever (still with character limits) as the proper name of the page. So if you go by “somethingsomething.tv”, that’s where you do it (not in your personal profile).
    6. You can hide your gender.

    There would be a number of issues of security to hash out under that plan. It shouldn’t be easy, for example, for anyone not allowed to see your real name to trace your display name to your user id (and thus, to your core identity).

    I think such complications are what Google+ is trying to avoid, moreso than spam or trolling. They’re basically saying, we only want people on this network who are comfortable being their real selves publicly, because those people won’t have as many privacy concerns. I sympathize with this, but it de-legitimizes Circles as an improvement in social networking.

  • None of these companies have a “real names” policy, not really – not an enforceable one. If your name is Jefferson Smith and you sign up for Google+ with the name Joanna Franklin, they’re not going to know. They’re not requiring a scan of your driver license, they’re not after your social security number. You want a pseudonym, by all means, create one! This whole argument is, for the most part, pointless.

    Are you a rape victim named Jennifer Jones? Create an online profile named Samantha Smith or Gregory Collins. Are you a high school teacher that doesn’t want his students to know where he “lives” online? Okay, your new name is Vincent Scolaro. You’ve lived at 382 Tall Oak Dr. in Middletown, New York for the past 15 years… at least, that’s what you’re going to tell the services. The fact that you’ve lived in Seattle for the past 20 years doesn’t matter.

    Why are people still talking about this?

  • Henry Quinn

    I so don’t get this. You can *absolutely* opt out of using your real name, by opting out of *using the product*. 100% effective. Google has *zero* power to compel anyone to give their real name to anyone, ever.

    What am I missing? Their policies clearly apply only to individuals who use their products, and until ‘the vulnerable’ as so vulnerable that they literally cannot choose to *not* be on G+, where on earth is the grounds for complaint?

    There’s no right to social media. It’s a tool, and you’re the product it delivers to advertisers. If you’re talking about ‘abuses of power’ you’ve forgotten this simple and, i would say, pretty obvious fact.

  • Sling Trebuchet

    I think that this YouTube is a very good explanation of what is going on with Google Plus
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=flodMkWu8-U

    Comments above note that it is actually possible to sign up with a pseudonym, against the rules, as long as the name looks normal – conforming to what some geek with limited exposure to the real world considers to be a ‘real’ name.
    This is possible because there is no other validation of what people enter. Anyone can sign up as something like “John Smith” and no questions asked.
    Even if their name really is John Smith, they are constantly at risk of having the account suspended at any time if someone decides to harass another by clicking the Report profile button. God help them if their driver licence says “Jack Smith”.

    Blake Ross , the creator of Firefox had his account suspended http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/google_plus_bans_creator_of_firefox_for_using_his.php “After reviewing your profile, we determined that the name you provided violates our Community Standards”.
    He was lucky to get reinstated. For him there was a PR foot-shot for Google. The other 7 Blake Ross’s currently signed up would not find it so easy.
    Ditto for William Shatner.

    People who have been suspended and reinstated have been suspended again.
    http://infotrope.net/2011/08/04/google-plus-names-policy-explained/

    The policy is a dream for scammers and spammers. No longer have they to appear under strange handles like JohnSmith123ZthDf – which are forced on their automated signups by the need to volunteer a unique ID. They can sign up as any non-unique normal-looking name.

    Until such time as Google can examine the real paper documentation of a few hundred million people, the notion of ‘real names’ is just plain ridiculous.

  • I claim that, despite the fact that I largely exposure my full name publicly, application providers should have absolutely no right to try stop any persons from using any preferred identity! The identity decision should be the concerns of the people participating in social media and no one else.

  • Have you used G+? There is no context collapse there – users arent forced to be the same person to everyone like they are on Facebook. While using your “real name” you can be a spy to your spy friends and the banker to your neighbors without anyone knowing the difference.

    Google’s crack down on real names was to preserve the space for individuals by keeping companies out of it. I think that is a good thing to keep corporations and individuals in separate spaces.

  • A

    I’ve been stalked for years by a dangerous nutcase with some hacking skills. It’s made it impossible to participate in most social networking stuff, and as the world becomes twittish, I feel more and more left out. Most cellphones come with GPS trackers and the newest i-phone apps apparently track your whereabouts so that you can be constantly fed ads about nearby restaurants etc. Very convenient for those nearby hot dog vendors. But what about for the girl whose privacy is a matter of life or death?

    All of this stuff is about control. I don’t want to be stalked by anyone, whether it’s that creep I know wanting to harm me, the nearest Taco Bell wanting to sell me mystery meat taco, or the government collecting data on eveyrone. this erosion of privacy may start with businesses wanting to advertise to us, but it ain’t going to end there. Read 1984 again,

  • sudo numb

    Do not forget that Google is very much in bed with the US Govt in their information collection practices. See analysis from the HB Gary Anonymous email leaks

    There is big money to be made by doing business with the govt.

  • The Arcadian

    “Privileged white Americans”… sigh… You almost had an interesting analysis up until that point.

  • Scarp Godenot

    First of all, “Love it or leave it” is not an argument.

    Secondly, I can not think of a single non nefarious reason to require passport identity on any social networking site.

    Even commerce can be conducted with alternative names as it is on eBay. You don’t have to know anything about me in order to be paid by me through PayPal.

    Security and safety and freedom from political consequence are valid reasons for not having passport level naming requirements, but they are far from the only valid arguments for alternative names.

    All people have varied parts of their personality and have multiple identities depending on who they are dealing with. You are a different person with your boss at work or with the local religious leader than you are with your best buddies at the bar. The internet allows those multiple identities to have their own names. This increases your expression of true personality into multiple areas. I have several alternate identities that I use on the internet. Each has its own niche and I am ‘known’ by those who call me by those names in different contexts.

    Lastly let me loudly advocate that “allternative identity should not be described as ‘pseudonym’”, because there is NOTHING false about it. It is a chosen name by a real person that identifies them to the group they are speaking to.

    It is a true expression of personalily usually far more than the random name chosen by your parents and assigned to you by accident of birth.

  • Tessa

    @Anthony Prattico,

    You’re missing the point.

    Some of us just want to be able to communicate online with our friends without inviting trouble.

    I am transgendered. I’m out to my SO, but not to my children, employer, coworkers, neighbors, extended family, etc. I’m not planning on publicly transitioning, due to the practical constraints. But I do currently enjoy the freedom to be myself pseudonymously online.

    Social networking terms of service that require real names are frankly scary to me. I hate the idea that a service whose goal is to be a ubiquitous means of communication amongst friends states that it will throw me out if it bothers to discover who I “really” am.

    Sigh.

  • David Warren

    As part of my work I’m involved in the administration of a number of web sites that are social in nature, and also some sites that have basic social capability such as commenting. In the past few years we have tried both “real names” approaches as well as letting people use any name they want. Our experience has been that the level of discourse is much higher when people are using real names.

    The lack of anonymity does indeed lead people to worry about their own reputations and therefore they seem much less likely to flame others, make racist remarks, or in general resort to insulting/inflammatory remarks. This works for us as our sites are primarily for business people who are trying to get things done, and the discussions are less opinion oriented and more fact based.

    However, I do see the need for the ability to express opinions anonymously, especially in the area of political speech.

  • Rusalka

    “Why are we still talking about this?”
    Well for starters we who choose to go public despite the danger did so for a reason.
    I have for years cultivated relations online under my handle, people know me by it, not by my given name. I use services all over under this handle, it is part of my identity, of my political work. It is what I use for all google services.
    This is by choice.
    When I was raped 8 years ago I entered hell, not just in the abusive act and the circumstances surrounding this. I had to erase my online presence since I was targeted and threatened by the rapist. I lost friends, contacts, references. I had to hide from the man knowing that he would continue to be a threat for me.
    Last year I got a daughter, I have a known rapist and pedophile who might find me and her because of this name policy.
    I choose to be partly open because I will change that name legally within a year or two.
    Also because I hope that this policy will change if I show the danger to me publicly.
    Because it is an unreasonable policy that targets the wrong people.

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