(Actually, there are several reasons I'm not on Google Plus, nor on LinkedIn or Twitter or a bunch of other social networks, starting with "attractive nuisance" and moving on through "waste of time" and "I dislike the amount of spam you're sending me" and ending in "thank you but I don't want you to monetize my personal information": but this is the stuff specific to Google Plus ...)
The designers of Google Plus seem to get that we have multiple overlapping circles of acquaintances — family, friends, schoolmates, drinking buddies, chess club members whatever — and that we want to keep them distinct. This is good, and a big plus relative to Facebook. They also have a hair in their ass about trolling and sociopathic online behaviour, and want to stamp on it before it gets started. This is also good.
But unfortunately they have misapprehended the cause of bad online behaviour. They think that pseudonymity is an enabler and that by banishing pseudonyms they can make people behave themselves.
So Google Plus has a "true names" policy. This is broken by design.
Let me explain the many reasons why Google Plus's names policy doesn't work.
To start with, as Patrick McKenzie pointed out in his blog last year (before all this blew up), programmers almost always get name handling wrong because there is no universal format for a human name. He goes on to list a bunch of things that western programmers [wrongly] believe about names, and I'm going to reprint the whole laundry list here because I think it's important:
- People have exactly one canonical full name.
- People have exactly one full name which they go by.
- People have, at this point in time, exactly one canonical full name.
- People have, at this point in time, one full name which they go by.
- People have exactly N names, for any value of N.
- People's names fit within a certain defined amount of space.
- People's names do not change.
- People's names change, but only at a certain enumerated set of events.
- People's names are written in ASCII.
- People's names are written in any single character set.
- People's names are all mapped in Unicode code points.
- People's names are case sensitive.
- People's names are case insensitive.
- People's names sometimes have prefixes or suffixes, but you can safely ignore those.
- People's names do not contain numbers.
- People's names are not written in ALL CAPS.
- People's names are not written in all lower case letters.
- People's names have an order to them. Picking any ordering scheme will automatically result in consistent ordering among all systems, as long as both use the same ordering scheme for the same name.
- People's first names and last names are, by necessity, different.
- People have last names, family names, or anything else which is shared by folks recognized as their relatives.
- People's names are globally unique.
- People's names are almost globally unique.
- Alright alright but surely people's names are diverse enough such that no million people share the same name.
- My system will never have to deal with names from China.
- Or Japan.
- Or Korea.
- Or Ireland, the United Kingdom, the United States, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Russia, Sweden, Botswana, South Africa, Trinidad, Haiti, France, or the Klingon Empire, all of which have "weird" naming schemes in common use.
- That Klingon Empire thing was a joke, right?
- Confound your cultural relativism! People in my society, at least, agree on one commonly accepted standard for names.
- There exists an algorithm which transforms names and can be reversed losslessly. (Yes, yes, you can do it if your algorithm returns the input. You get a gold star.)
- I can safely assume that this dictionary of bad words contains no people's names in it.
- People's names are assigned at birth.
- OK, maybe not at birth, but at least pretty close to birth.
- Alright, alright, within a year or so of birth.
- Five years?
- You're kidding me, right?
- Two different systems containing data about the same person will use the same name for that person.
- Two different data entry operators, given a person's name, will by necessity enter bitwise equivalent strings on any single system, if the system is well-designed.
- People whose names break my system are weird outliers. They should have had solid, acceptable names, like 田中太郎.
- People have names.
Meditate upon that laundry list: it's a thing of beauty, isn't it? We'll revisit some of the points on it presently, once I've kicked the sacred cow's other kneecaps.
Next, there is the assumption that people want to trust Google with their true name. "Why ever not?" Ask Google's senior systems architects. Well, I can only assume that none of them are planning on a second career as a corporate whistleblower. Or have abusive partners who aren't paying attention to the restraining orders. Or other species of stalkers and vermin. Or are political activists or dissidents in authoritarian countries. Or have a nickname by which they are exclusively known because they hate the name they were born with, to such an extent that even their own family have to think twice to recall their birth name. Or got married but did/didn't change their family name, or told this financial institution that they'd changed it, but changed their mind afterwards and didn't tell that one. Or have been members of some other social network, which encouraged pseudonymity, for so long that a lot of their friends know them by the pseudonym, not the real name.
There are any number of valid, reasonable, and in most cases legal reasons for not wanting to use your real name on Google Plus, or for wanting to use a number of different names simultaneously for overlapping circles of contacts. And there are many reasons why these names may not be known to any official ID-document issuing organizations.
Indeed, having a name that you're willing to be known by to authority and to Google Plus users smacks of unexamined social privilege: you have two names, a personal name and a family name. No accented characters, no hyphens, no intercapping. Nobody is after you with malice in mind, and indeed, you fear nothing because you have nothing to fear. This is probably a reasonable picture of your average nerdish Google senior architect: privileged, naive, boringly conventionally whitebread, and unafraid.
Ken MacLeod is out of luck.
So is Tim Berners-Lee.
So is Conan O'Brian.
Because they're worried about trolls faking up Google Plus identities, the folks behind Google Plus have set up a mechanism to report suspect accounts, have them frozen, and demand verification of identity in order to unlock them. Gary Walker went to work and tested this, with predictably hilarious results (well, hilarious if you haven't just had your GMail account deleted for the temerity of having a name beginning with Mac- or O'-):
Late last week, everyone was surprised to learn that Blake Ross, co-founder of Firefox and a product director at Facebook had his Google+ account suspended. Now Blake Ross' name is obviously not in violation of any of the Google+ name standards, but the general assumption appeared to be that his account had been suspended by an automated process (despite the fact that there are quite a few other users with the same name who haven't been). I am, by nature a suspicious sort, so I decided to find out how hard it is to get an account with a legitimate name suspended.I'm not going to give you a TL;DR summary of Gary's findings; let's just say they're extremely alarming. Send a poison pen email and you can get an account suspended until the owner verifies their identity by sending a scan of some ID. Use Photoshop to bolt together a fake driving license with a fucking spree killer's face on it and you can get an account re-enabled. I'm willing to bet that the process for hijacking someone else's account is not much more complicated.
Seriously, if you have a Google Plus account, Read This Now. Then start working out what you'll do when — not if — some bot farmer decides to harvest your account and use it to slurp out your contacts and GMail.
Finally, after saying all that ... Google are wrong about the root cause of online trolling and other forms of sociopathic behaviour. It's nothing to do with anonymity. Rather, it's to do with the evanescence of online identity. People who have long term online identities (regardless of whether they're pseudonymous or not) tend to protect their reputations. Trolls, in contrast, use throw-away identities because it's not a real identity to them: it's a sock puppet they wave in the face of their victim to torment them. Forcing people to use their real name online won't magically induce civility: the trolls don't care. Identity, to them, is something that exists in the room with the big blue ceiling, away from the keyboard. Stuff in the glowing screen is imaginary and of no consequence.
If Google want to do it right, they're going to have to ditch their naming policy completely and redo from scratch.
To get it right, they need to acknowledge that not everyone has a name of the form John Smith or Jane Doe; that not everyone uses the same character set or same number of names. They might be able to get away with insisting on a name that appears on a piece of government-issued ID; but then they need to acknowledge that people have legitimate reasons for using one or more pseudonyms, allow users to register pseudonyms associated with that name, attach pseudonyms to different (or even overlapping) circles of friends, and give the user a "keep my real name secret" check-button. Then and only then they'll begin to develop a system that has some hope of working.
As for me?
I'm not using Google Plus because (a) my wife violates their name policy, and (b) I violate it too. Because (hint) neither my driving license nor my passport features the name "Charlie" ...