As it rolls out its Google+ social network, Google has been cracking down on its requirement that users have “real” names, just as Facebook has — but are we losing something valuable as a society as a result of this stamping out of online anonymity?


Updated: As Google rolls out its Google+ social network, it is struggling with the same questions about identity that have caused problems for Facebook in the past: namely, how much should it force people to use their “real” names? The web giant has been disabling user accounts on Google+ for a variety of reasons over the past few weeks, but it has caused an outcry from many who feel it is being too strict in some cases and not enough in others. The big issue at the root of this battle, as we have pointed out before, is that in many cases anonymity (and pseudonymity) has real value. Are we losing that as a result of Google and Facebook’s real-name obsession?

Those who have seen their accounts suspended in the recent crackdown by Google+ include some prominent members of the hacker community, including one programmer who goes by the single name “Skud,” as well as one well-known iPhone developer who’s usual moniker is “MuscleNerd.” According to some reports, certain users have had their accounts restored despite the use of obvious pseudonyms, including Limor Fried — also known as Lady Ada of Adafruit Industries, who was recently profiled in Wired magazine, according to ZDNet writer Violet Blue (also a pseudonym Note: Violet Blue is not a pseudonym).

Like wearing a shirt in a restaurant?

Google senior vice-president Vic Gundotra, the man who is in charge of Google’s social efforts, said in response to a post by blogger Robert Scoble that Google doesn’t necessarily want to force people to use only their legally given names — he says the web company is fine with users setting up accounts under “commonly used” names, although it’s not clear how this is defined. This would presumably cover celebrity users like 50 Cent or Lady Gaga (Gundotra noted that even he doesn’t use his legal name on Google+). The Google executive said he simply wants to maintain a “positive tone” on the network, and compared it to requiring people to wear shirts in a restaurant.

While this is an appealing metaphor, it’s not as simple as that, unfortunately. In a lot of ways, identity is like the “third rail” of online services — a hugely charged issue that splits many online communities down the middle and causes vociferous debate on both sides — and there simply are no easy answers. While the internet used to be the place where no one knew if you were a dog, now services like Google not only want to know whether you’re a dog, they want to see your papers too.

As observers such as Jillian York of Global Voices Online have described, a real-name policy like the one that Facebook tries to enforce and Google has adopted can have real consequences for dissidents in countries in the Middle East and elsewhere. If they try to use these social tools to rally support and plan activities, they run the risk of either using their real names and being tracked down and targeted by the authorities, or using pseudonyms and then finding that their accounts have been blocked or deleted without notice.

Real-name policies have negative consequences

It’s not just dissidents in repressive countries either — gay, lesbian and transgender advocacy groups have also noted that many users may wish to go by pseudonyms when they are online for personal reasons. Another commenter on a post about the issue noted that he works in law enforcement, and could be targeted by criminals if he uses his real name, while someone else said that she has been the victim if sexual abuse and is worried about her family members being able to track her down.

Christopher Poole, the founder of the 4chan community, gave an eloquent TED presentation last year (embedded below) in which he argued that anonymity has very real benefits online, and that we would be wise to consider those before we switch to exclusively “real name” policies. And as we’ve pointed out before, many of these arguments also apply to comments on news stories and forums: many people believe that requiring real names will solve the problems of trolls and bad behavior, but they don’t — and that policy can have negative consequences in terms of suppressing dialogue about important topics.

As a number of users have pointed out, Google and Facebook aren’t just focused on requiring real names because they want to improve behavior on their networks — there is also a very real interest on their part in being able to build a profile of a user for advertising and marketing purposes as well. And more than one user of Google+ has raised concerns that Google’s crackdown on pseudonyms or fake names has apparently resulted in users being blocked from using any of Google’s various services, including email, because their profile is tied to all of the company’s other products.

At this point, the company seems to be trying to find a happy medium between blocking or disabling user accounts that don’t belong to actual human beings — or are set up to spam or otherwise cause problems for users of the service — and allowing those who routinely employ “persistent pseudonyms” to continue being members of Google+. But when we’re talking about a service that has grown to 20 million users in less than a month, that’s going to be a difficult and potentially even impossible task. And even if Google is successful for the most part, as Facebook has been, what will we as a society lose because of this focus on eradicating anonymity?

Update: Brad Horowitz, the VP of product at Google, has posted a statement about the company’s real-name policies with respect to Google+, in which he says that the web giant is trying to be better about notifying users whose names don’t meet the requirements and giving them a chance to change them. The Google VP also says that there are other fields in the profile that can be used for nicknames, and that no user would ever lose access to all of their other Google services just because their name didn’t meet the specifications. Horowitz adds that Google+ is still in development and that the company hopes to build in support for a variety of different use cases and accounts.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Kat B Photography and Richard Engel of NBC

  1. Over the next few years as competition heats up among social networking sites such as Google+, Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin. Content, features, and services will be important but the two most important deciding factors will be Privacy, and the sharing of Ad Revenue.

    Privacy regardless of social and/or information is not as protected as most people think on social networking sites such as Google+ & Facebook. If you have an email address or real name, there are companies today who are able to track this information. Most search engines that crawl these sites are able to atleast get Jane Doe’s User Name.

    Both Google+, Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin have excellent privacy settings, and different ways to protect it’s users privacy, but both fail to address the real issues at hand.

    The real issues most people have today about privacy is the amount of information these sites are collecting about its users, the way this information is being collected, and how this information is being used.

    One thing that social networking sites today don’t want to tell you, is that any site can be hacked! The only way for sites to combat this problem is to not ask it’s users to provide their real names, and email addresses.

    As to the sharing of Ad Revenue, there is only one site today that allows it’s users to place their own Ads on both personal & business profiles.

    ONLYMEWORLD is less the 20% complete, and may not be as savvy as some of the other social networking sites, but early on seem to realize that Privacy and the sharing of Ad Revenue is paramount to both longevity & success in the industry. Their platform is similiar to Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and Linkedin, yet differ because of their willingness to protect it’s users privacy, and the sharing of ad revenue. The best part…It’s Absolutely Free!

  2. Nice article!

    I had the same dilemma myself, when setting up a Google+ account. The clearest challenge in all of this is simply that none of us really know exactly how to use these new tools to manage different facets of our identity. I have multiple gmail accounts that all fold into a single account, as a way of managing work, play, etc. How do I replicate that gmail structure in Google+ and is it even necessary?

    As you start to dig into those issues, the complexity of identity management quickly becomes apparent. How do I keep my work friends distinct from my coworkers and so on.

    A real challenge in all of this is that the definition of “public” is too broad. Consider the following groups: an old college acquaintance, a prospective employer, a lawyer, a government organization, a person reading this post, and a corporate data crawler. All of these groups are “public,” but they are different in very meaningful ways to us. How do we address that?

    1. Great questions, Jack. Privacy and friendship aren’t binary principles by any means, and the various shades of grey in them are different for different people — managing those via an online service may be one of the most difficult issues we have to deal with in social networking today.

  3. Christopher Poole did say that the freedom on 4chan has some serious negative downsides, along with the positives such as identifying the cat abuser. It seems to be impossible to determine whether the positives or the negatives have the greater effect; therefore I’m not sure how you can take a stand supporting the freedom allowed by pseudonyms.

    1. TheLoneDeranger Monday, July 25, 2011

      Criminals living in your neighborhood will follow & track you Mr. Real Name. They’re already learning to do this. Have anything worth stealing?

    2. To me it’s an important principle that’s worth standing up for regardless of which is shown to be great, Rich — just like we support democracy despite the fact that the evidence shows it often results in useless and/or corrupt leaders.

    3. Especially if it is hard to decide which has the greater positive/negative effect, why should we decide against more freedom+anonymity???

  4. Vic Gundotra’s statement at Robert Scoble’s Google+

  5. Great story, it’s only a question of time before google will start selling this information

  6. The best place to hide under a pseudonym or “pen name” is not someplace where everyone uses pseudonyms, but someplace where most everyone uses real names.

    In this sense, Facebook and Google+ can offer higher privacy, as there is not an automatic assumption a pen name is being utilized.

    However, your pen name must look like a real name, not a AOL-style screen name. e.g. Steven Tyler, not “MuscleNerd”. Respectfully used pen names (common names) are accepted on Facebook and Google+, especially those that are not disclosed as such and wouldn’t automatically be suspected of being an alias, which is much stronger pseudonymity.

    Pseudonymity != Anonymity. I do see a war against the practice of being hiding behind AOL-style screen names. Using screen names, especially throw-away names and/or multiple aliases generally leads to less respectful communication than either a real name or a “pen name” in which someone has a vested interest and reputation to protect.

  7. A simple solution for me would be if they add a ‘post under pseudonym’ option to all Google+ elements. I would like to set up circles as myself, but keep the option to contribute anonymously to discussions as well, maybe with some reasonable maximum number of aliases. This should be relatively easy to code. Of course all users should prepare for the day that those aliases are discovered by hackers, so it couldn’t be used to shield anything too sensitive. Which congressmen would not realize until the first scandal.

    (Posting anomymously here – seems appropriate)

  8. After spending hours of looking at bloody photos from Norway, and 40 years of doing it on the ground for the mainstream media, there is more at stake than anonymity. Safety. If you have something to say use your name. Exceptions can be made for people in dictatorships.

    1. What tells you that real names would have helped? Looks like Breivik used “Andrew Berwick” as a pseudonym for his “manifest”, which falls into the category “almost real names” and probably wouldn’t have been noticed. But even if he used his real name – it very much looks like the motivation for the massacre was to draw attention to his text (he put it online just before).

    2. Bullshit. In real space, you are able to express yourself according to the company you’re in; you can choose the degree to which you are unguarded regarding your sexual orientation, your politics, your thoughts about your boss etc etc (and the language with which you express yourself) depending upon who you’re talking to. If you’re in your brother’s house drinking beer on Christmas Eve, you can let your hair down to an extent that would be completely inappropriate in the workplace. If you’re in the company of fellow survivors of sexual abuse, you can feel encouraged to be honest about issues that you would never dream of discussing with your grandmother or with your future employers. Online pseudonymity allows people to connect and engage with others and get support with addictions and traumas and all manner of stuff without having to worry that their boss/granny/wife is going to stumble across it, because they are able to compartmentalise their online interactions. It also levels the playing field in a way that’s impossible in real space, obliging one’s interlocuters to judge you on the merits of your intelligence and ability to express yourself, rather than shoving you into a pigeonhole on the basis of race, gender, accent, sexual orientation, (dis)ability or any other physical issues.

      Is there a downside? Yes, of course. Any system of communication that has ever existed or will ever exist can be used by people for unsavoury purposes, both trivial and serious, and there is NO way to prevent that. None.

      It is not only people living in dictatorships who have valid and innocent reasons to find pseudonymity empowering and supportive; I’m not going to assume off the bat that you’re a straight, white, middle-class, cis-gendered male who has never been sexually assaulted, but I am going to say that you have to be pretty damn privileged to be oblivious to the ways in which pseudonyms are invaluable to a huge number of normal people for perfectly innocent reasons.

      1. Totally agree with Nic on this one. Many good points here.

  9. For the trillions of bits of data about each of us that flow through Google’s servers, there are a handful or core weaknesses. Identity is one. On Facebook, we provide our real identity. When we buy anything via Apple stores. Google is missing that. Google+ is their attempt, along with Checkout, NFC chips and a host of other (free) products to try and extract our actual identity from us. Which can then be sold to advertisers and whoever else wants to buy that info. If people are comfortable with that bargain, so be it. I’m not.

    1. Good point, Brian — thanks for the comment.

  10. While I have been using my real name like since forever, I am for others to have the choice if they want to. It is on my side where i have to determine how I work with these kind of users or not – and I for example choose mostly to ignore these people.

    What I cannot understand is how people seriously bring up the argument of “it will make for a nicer place” and “it will help keep the spammers away”. If history teaches us anything, those guys will be the first ones to figure out how to trick the system – but in the meantime we loose too much.

    I might not want to use it today, but I’d like to keep my options open for the future, thank you.


Comments have been disabled for this post