Online Identity, Google+ and Anonymity.

Whilst we’re still in the very early days of Google’s latest attempt to break into the social networking scene they’ve still managed to create quite the stir, at least with the technically inclined crowd. The combination of a decidedly non-Google-esque interface coupled with the simple fact that it’s not Facebook was more than enough to draw a large crowd of people over to the service, to the tune of over 25 million in the short time its been made available to the public. The launch has been mostly trouble free for Google with their rock solid engineering providing a fast, bug free experience and its straightforward privacy policies. There has been one sticking point that’s been causing quite a stir however, enough so that some users don’t see it as a viable platform.

That issue is the fact that you have to use your real (legal) name on Google+.

Now for most of us this isn’t much a problem, especially if you’ve been on a social networking site before. For the past 4 years or so I’ve been using my real name or some abbreviation thereof online for the simple fact that it helped build my online presence, rather than hiding it behind a thin curtain of a pseudonym. That’s because for the most part I haven’t had the need to hide behind a curtain of anonymity (thanks to living in Australia, for the most part) since if I feel the need to express my opinion online I also feel the need to attach my name to it. Of course I still have pseudonyms that I use (Nalafang and PYROMANT|C are the 2 most prolific) but they’re more part of my gamer heritage than anything else, as I don’t really use them in any other context.

Still I understand that many people have built relationships and authority based upon their pseudonyms rather than their real names and this is where Google+ struggles. A great example of this is Digg’s top user MrBabyMan, who has quite the following thanks to his heavy involvement in the news aggregator, has a much smaller following on Google+ due to the restriction that he use his real name. Of course dedicated followers are able to suss this out but the point remains that people are far more aware of his online presence as MrBabyMan than they are as Andrew Sorcini. The question then is why is Google being so pedantic about real name use on their new social network?

You could trace it back to Google attempting to mimic what Facebook has, where it’s almost a given that anyone on there is using their real name. Of course many people don’t use their real name (for many reasons) but Facebook doesn’t seem to take much of a stance when they do, and will even let you change your name on a whim should you feel the need to do so. Google’s stance, at least according to CEO Eric Schmidt, is that they built Google+ primarily as an identity service not the social network that everyone is making it out to be. That’s an interesting notion but, for me at least, doesn’t answer the question of why Google won’t let people use pseudonyms on Google+.

There are many people who want to use Google+ as another platform for their online presence and for some this means using it under the guise of a pseudonym. Now whilst the case can be made that people will tend towards being fuckwads when given some degree of anonymity many have their online identities closely tied to the pseudonyms which they created. If Google was really serious about being an identity service then these sorts of people should have no issue since their identity, at least online, is their pseudonym. The question then becomes what’s the benefit of forcing them to use their real name rather than the one that they have so much invested in and whether this could become a big issue for Google’s new identity service.

For Google the benefits are pretty clear. Since your Google+ account is heavily intertwined with all other Google services the second you opt into their social network all those other services, nearly all of which are pseudonym supporting, now have your real name attached to them. Whilst Google already had a pretty good profile of you built up already thanks to those other services they now have a vastly more critical bit of information that ties them all together. There’s nothing particularly sinister about this motive however, it’s mostly so they can more expensive ads targeted at you, there’s a non-zero benefit to Google requiring your real name on their social network.

Those seeking to join the network under a pseudonym are at a distinct disadvantage however as they’re basically leaving their current online identity at the door. Of course the argument could be made that they’ll transition fine and it’s just that Google+ is still in its nascent stages, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that Google is doing potential users a disservice by not allowing pseudonyms. There’s a happy middle ground for both Google and potential users in the form of verified accounts (which they’re already doing for celebrities) or say letting users have a nickname displayed whilst having the real name hidden but Google doesn’t seem to be amenable to these ideas, at least not yet.

For a social network that’s basically been issue free since day one it’s a real shame to see Google get stuck on something that’s been so ingrained in the Internet community since it’s inception. I don’t think it will be the nascent social network’s undoing, but it’s definitely not getting them any positive press and has the potential to keep many power users away from the service. It will be interesting to see how they deal with this going forward as right now their focus is (rightly) on growing their network, rather than dealing with edge cases like this. However they could win themselves a lot of good press by simply allowing pseudonyms on their network, whether they will do that or not is something only Google can answer.

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