Expression, Pseudonymity, Google+

23:06 Sun 21 Aug 2011. Updated: 18:19 17 Sep 2011
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Google+ has come under fire recently for banning users who don’t have usernames conforming to the service’s rules about what usernames should be like. Google’s policies on the matter are wrong, and the reasons why they’re wrong, as well as the potential implications of their policy, are important.

The statements of policy made by Google on the matter have been somewhat contradictory, but the gist is that they want people to use “real names”. Somewhat surprisingly to me, there’s a considerable amount of popular support for this stance, independent of its specific implementation by Google. Which has been appallingly bad, as they’ve been banning people who are using their real names when those names don’t “seem real” to whomever’s dealing with name violations that day.

I don’t think it’s possible to have a system that could enforce such a policy, but implementation aside, the drive for a “real names only” policy is highly objectionable.

Here are some arguments for it:

  • Using real names enforces responsibility. This is often expressed as a criticism of anonymity, i.e. allowing anonymous statements leads to harassment, vulgarity, a lower level of discussion, greater internet fuckwads, and improper apostrophe use, all of which disappear when people have to stand behind their expression.
  • Online social networks are extensions of real-life social networks; since real names are the rule in the latter, they should also be the rule in the former. Google+, like Facebook, is about connections with friends and family (and professional contacts), and since they will all know each other by “real names”, those are what people should use.
  • “I want to know who I’m communicating with; a nick like bloodninja isn’t enough”. Some people are evidently just not comfortable dealing with people without a certain amount of information about those people, and in conjunction with this don’t want to those about whom the only information available is apparently the name they’ve chosen for themselves.
  • Real names “look nicer”. I assume that this means that seeing “normal” names looks more respectable, and hence more aesthetically appealing, than seeing what are obviously usernames.

The last argument is laughably weak; restricting what others can call themselves based on one’s own aesthetic preferences seems obviously ludicrous. The slightly deeper version of this is that a service looks more “professional” when people have to use their real names, and that Google want the service to look this way—but that still ultimately comes down to aesthetics, and I just can’t take it seriously.

The third argument seems extraordinarily weak also, since the easy answer is: don’t deal with those people. You can choose not to communicate with them until you know more about them.

The second argument seems strong at first but is both short-sighted and highly normative. First, the internet is now itself a way for people to form friendships, and so there will be plenty of friendships that didn’t start in the “real world” and are nevertheless important, and it’s entirely possible that these relationships will involve pseudonyms. Second, not all “real world” friendships conform to this rule either—many subcultures, particularly underground or semi-underground ones, don’t necessarily involve full name exchange, and the individuals involved in these should be able to use online social networks too.

The first argument is the most common one, and probably the most compelling. Anonymous/pseudonymous discussion is indeed awful in many parts of the internet (YouTube comments, for example), and it seems intuitive that forcing real-name attribution to statements will ameliorate this. Intuitive, but not necessarily true—I’ve seen plenty of examples of awful discussion conducted with real names, and the price of holding the nasty people accountable for their nastiness is that everyone is also then held “accountable”, forever, and that’s far worse than it sounds.

Enforcing “responsibility” in this way is tantamount to eliminating anonymity; pseudonymity is just anonymity with consistency—a consistency which is extraordinarily valuable, as the difference between being able to read pseudonymous bloggers individually and being able to each day dip into an undifferentiated well of every anonymous blog post online makes clear.

Why is online anonymity so important?

  • Diversity of opinion. If people only write things they feel totally secure cannot be used against them, online discourse is reduced to the non-controversial, and probably to the locally non-controversial, which is even worse. Given the obvious and growing importance of online discourse, this would be a bad thing.
  • Imbalance of power. The people who are more secure about a wider range of expression are likely, almost by definition, to be the privileged in society, and thus forcing real-name accountability for online discourse serves to widen the gap between different levels of privilege.

    Further, without anonymity, online discourse will be even more easily susceptible to legal action, and the ways in which different people are treated in this regard should be made very clear by the absolute lack of any action being taken against those who called for the assassination of Julian Assange.

  • Permanence and accessibility. The internet has a long memory. So, most likely, will Google+. This means that your statements online will be available to all kinds of interested parties more or less forever. Some of these interested parties may even be ones that you consider “legitimate” now, but might be upset about in 20 years when something you mentioned in offhand conversation online turns out to now be frowned upon. Easy access to information has already resulted in some serious abuses. If your online life is very closely tied to your real name, you might have similar experiences in future with employers, police, immigration officials, family law courts, child protective services agents, border patrol agents, or any number of other authorities looking to examine your conduct very closely.
  • Conversation is moving online. This makes the previous point even more problematic. Conversation has historically been ephemeral, highly access-limited, and difficult to use legally due to the absence of a clearly-reliable record. Online conversation changes all of that. Once again, tying online conversation to real names makes this far more dangerous.

If you have any doubts about where this will go without resistance, consider the following:

“The only way to manage this is true transparency and no anonymity,” Schmidt said. “In a world of asynchronous threats, it is too dangerous for there not to be some way to identify you. We need a [verified] name service for people. Governments will demand it.”

—Marshall Kirkpatrick. “Google, Privacy and the New Explosion of Data”. Techonomy, 04 August 2010.

Governments will demand it from the service providers, which will always seem somewhat reasonable—the information is already there, why shouldn’t the police be able to access it in trying to solve some hideous crime? And if they can do that, why not for other crimes, or things that can be presented as crimes if nobody looks closely enough? Other entities may also request it, and future unforeseen business deals may make it available to any number of other parties. Far better, for those with concerns, to be able to speak freely without that hanging over them.

Google may want to please advertisers, and governments, and its own sense of “aesthetics”, by enforcing a real-names-only policy. Google may be happy saying, “we only want privileged people with respectable opinions to use this service”. But we shouldn’t be happy with that; we should reject it. We should make clear that part of the price Google has to pay in return for getting all of us marketer-friendly “respectable” people onto their social network is making that network also friendly to the people who need pseudonymity (an excellent list of whom can be found in this post).

This isn’t merely a question of one small social network. Google is hugely influential, and its movement in this direction will likely be followed by many other services. Schmidt’s statement makes clear that there’s certainly pressure to go in that direction. But anonymity and pseudonymity are and always have been part of written discourse, and have been hugely important, and must be retained, not lost, in the course of technological progress.

Pseudonymity/anonymity should be fought for on every platform, because the more spaces there are without it, the more impetus there is to eradicate it elsewhere.

Finally, a note on my own situation. I maintain a highly-public online presence; I’m under my own name on Google+, on Facebook, on Twitter, and, perhaps most importantly, on this blog. I’m in a very privileged position:

  • I’m in a part of the world that’s rather liberal about expression.
  • I work in a field whose culture considers itself highly averse to censorship.
  • I’m male and thus not subject to the awful harassment so many female writers are hit by online.
  • I have a background that has granted me a lot of awareness of my rights in terms of self-expression.
  • I have the technological knowledge and connections to run this blog independently of some larger service.

I have probably also been lucky in a variety of other ways. So, my position is one of considerable privilege when it comes to online self-expression—and yet I am highly disciplined about what I write online. Through years of blogging, I have always carefully considered what I have published. On this blog and on the various social networks as well. This is not to say I’ve always written exactly what I meant, or that I haven’t made mistakes, or that I haven’t written anything I might regret. No, the point is that I have always been aware of the permanence of whatever I put online and have self-censored as a result[*], and I have never that I can recall posted anything truly unguarded or unconsidered—and I do mean never.

And if the internet moves in a direction to pressure everyone to control their expression as carefully and guardedly as I do[†], it will be a far less interesting, and valuable, place.

[*] I have considered setting up a pseudonymous outlet from time to time, but haven’t gone through with it.

[†] Or, probably, more carefully and guardedly, given that the odds are most of them will be less privileged with respect to self-expression than I am.

3 Responses to “Expression, Pseudonymity, Google+”

  1. Helen Says:

    Completely agree. I think that Google+ is also trying to capitalise on the trend for personal branding, where internet presence is supposed to become more and more a part of career development and job security – M. has been to seminars where she has been told to get her Google+ set up and marketing her pronto. Again, there are massive class and privilege assumptions there too.

    I won’t be using Google+ – my gmail account is pseudonymous and I don’t want to change that, and avernus is a Google app that Google won’t let use Google+ yet anyway (can’t understand their ‘duplicate profile’ policy for the life of me). Increasingly, I’m glad not to be bothering.

  2. Tadhg Says:

    I was initially quite enthusiastic about Google+, because I want to see a serious Facebook competitor and because I like the Circles concept a lot. They’re definitely trying to get in on the personal branding trend, but I don’t object to that per se—or I didn’t until they started the push for “respectability” that seems to be behind the pseudonym idiocy.

    In your position I wouldn’t go near it either, because they have an insane approach where they tie all the services together, so that if they don’t like your name on Google+ they will shut down all your Google services, not just Google+.

    I like its functionality so far, but if they stick to this policy on pseudonyms I might well drop it. (I’m a little ambivalent about this partly because Facebook have the same theoretical policy and direction, but I’m more deeply entangled in Facebook and it would be harder to leave; I say “theoretical” because Facebook don’t seem to be enforcing it with the same zeal.)

  3. Helen Says:

    Yep, I agree. I don’t object to the personal branding trend either, but yes, I agree that Google+’s insane ‘close down ALL the services!’ policy is pushing it in a ridiculous direction. Facebook’s reach is less tentacular (is that a word?) so, while they do have the same policy/direction, they’re not going to steal all your photos and five year’s worth of emails if they don’t like your pseudonym.

    Also, people who use a social network and gripe about it irk me. I don’t want to be on Google+, so I’m not. I do want to be on Facebook and LJ, and I’m prepared to put up with their policies for the product I receive. If their policies become untenable to me, I’ll leave, but I won’t post endless status updates about how evil they are/how you must change your settings or icon RIGHT NOW to avoid internet PERIL.

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