Google wants you to use your real name on the Google+ social network. Enforcement has been heavy-handed, but some improvements are afoot. Don't expect the basic policy to change.
Google has discovered that identity is the third rail of online services -- just as Facebook did before it. Google's content policy, linked from the bottom of most Google+ pages, reads in part: "Display Name. To help fight spam and prevent fake profiles, use the name your friends, family, or co-workers usually call you."
There are many drawbacks to a real-name policy such as this one. The question of identity on the Internet is essentially fractal (no matter how closely you examine it, all you see are more problems). Here's an overview of the problems and advantages of anonymity and pseudonymity in social software, by entrepreneur Caterina Fake (the comments to that post are also insightful).
Beginning about two weeks ago, word began to surface that Google was disabling the Google+ accounts of users it believed were violating the real-name policy, without any advance warning. Both the disabling and the complaints about it have been rising to a crescendo since that time. Many have claimed that Google has been arbitrary and opaque in its enforcement and in its provision of avenues for appeal.
So complaints have been building both about Google's identity policy itself, and about the company's clumsy handling of it.
In response to all the uproar, Google VP Bradley Horowitz posted that improvements in the process had already been put in place, and that clarifications to the sign-up process would be coming "in a matter of weeks."
Horowitz promised that email notification would always be given before accounts were deactivated, along with "a clear indication of how the user can edit their name to conform to... community standards." He also said that in the appeals process, Google would communicate better about next steps and timeframes.
Why does Google insist that people use their real names in Google+? The company's statements about the matter imply that the rule is meant to improve civility on the site, "Like when a restaurant doesn't allow people who aren't wearing shirts to enter." Various commenters on the identity affair have noted that such a civilizing effect is more theory than proven fact (although I have observed the effect in action in various online communities over decades).
Veteran blogger Dave Winer offers another explanation:
There's a very simple business reason why Google cares if they have your real name. It means it's possible to cross-relate your account with your buying behavior with their partners... To provide identity in a commerce-ready way. And to give them information about what you do on the Internet, without obfuscation of pseudonyms. Simply put, a real name is worth more than a fake one.
Google has shown no signs of budging on its basic decision to require people to use their real names if they want to play in the social network. We asked the company which of the above motivations for the Google+ identity policy is closer to the mark, and a Google spokesperson replied:
Google Profiles are designed to be public pages on the Web, which are used to help connect and find real people in the real world. By providing your common name, you will be assisting all people you know -- friends, family members, classmates, co-workers, and other acquaintances -- in finding and creating a connection with the the right person online.
Not exactly responsive to what I asked. I know which motivation I believe in. I believe that when the network is opened up to brands, marketers will find that they are dealing with people's actual identities. It will surely simplify all the problems of handling PII.
— Keith Dawson , Senior Editor, The CMO Site
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