Over the weekend, hundreds of people on Google+ discovered that their accounts were no longer accessible. Google had disabled the accounts over violations of the terms of service. It’s not that most of the users were rude, posting inappropriate material or violating copyrights. It’s because they hadn’t filled out a Google profile with their real names (or at the very least the name they actually go by on a day-to-day basis). Since the initial reaction to Google’s decision to suspend Google profile accounts that violated this rule, the company has produced this document in an effort to clear up the issue.
Google’s philosophy on user identification is complicated. The company recognizes that there are times when a user would wish to be anonymous or use a pseudonym. Google even points out use cases for these approaches — you’d probably wish to retain anonymity while researching a medical condition on the web, for example. And you can use pseudonyms on YouTube or Blogger. But the company is firm in that Google Profiles, the foundation for Google+, is a tool designed to allow people to connect with others. Using a real name, Google argues, allows users to connect with the people they are actually seeking out. Google’s point of view is that the company’s terms of service cuts down on confusion and abuse.
When you build a Google Profile, you can include nicknames or variations of your name in a section called “Other Names.” As long as you’ve set your permissions to allow other people to view that information, it should pop up in searches on Google+. So if you know your buddy Josh Clark as “Scooter McGee,” he should pop up in search as long as he’s included that information in his profile. But this still ties his nickname to his real name. What if you don’t want to do that?
Here’s a real-life example. Kirsten Sanford is a scientist. She holds a PhD in neurophysiology — as a media personality and podcaster, she’s better known as Dr. Kiki. She created a Google+ account as Dr. Kiki and rapidly attracted followers. But Google’s policy includes a prohibition on using titles like Dr. or Prof. as part of a profile name. Dr. Kiki discovered her account had been suspended. While Sanford can amend her profile and include Dr. Kiki as an “other name,” her nickname is the one most people use for her. It might seem odd to a fan to be on Kirsten’s profile page rather than Dr. Kiki’s.
Dr. Sanford doesn’t mind having her real identity out on the web but what about people who do? There are artists, musicians, actors and people of all sorts who may be known by a nickname or other handle. Some of them may not want their real names associated with an online profile. What are they to do? At present, I think Google would say that Google+ isn’t for these people. Google has a different idea of what Google+ is for — it’s not necessarily a tool for self-promotion or connecting with fans. But seeing as how the initial population of Google+ was heavily weighted toward personalities and fans, it’s no surprise that many of us are using Google+ to build fan communities.
Personally, I advocate for using your real name as much as possible online. I believe it holds people to a sense of accountability. But I’m also coming at this issue from a position of privilege. If I didn’t have that privilege — if I lived in an area dominated by an oppressive government or if I were victim of a stalker — I’d probably feel differently. But the truth is that people who fall into those categories may have to give Google+ a pass for now. Perhaps Google will amend its policies and allow people to create pseudonymous accounts in the future.
What do you think? Is Google being unreasonable or do you believe that using real names is key to building a social network that actually works? Should Google make exceptions for some people and what would the criteria be? Let us know!