Google+ Name Policy Leaves Users Unsatisfied

Google tweaked its pseudonym rules after people complained--but some still-frustrated users say the company didn't listen well.
Having weathered considerable criticism for requiring that Google+ Profiles bear the name by which the user is commonly known, Google last week appeared to be warming to the idea of pseudonyms.

Bradley Horowitz, Google's VP of product, said "we've listened closely to community feedback on our names policy" and announced several features "that will address and remedy the majority of these issues."

Google may have listened but its response has left many users doubting that the company actually heard them. Google introduced support for nicknames, names in non-Roman scripts, and established pseudonyms--those used by celebrities and well-known Internet figures.

Google+ users aren't buying it. "We are seeing a lot of rhetoric along the lines of 'we have learned' and 'our attitude is different now' but that has yet to translate into anything concrete which actually addresses (member) concerns about what sort of communities are possible on Google+," said Google+ user Simon Bridge in one of more than 400 comments posted in response to Horowitz's announcement.

[ Phishing may soon be much harder. Read Google, Microsoft Say DMARC Spec Stops Phishing. ]

If the statistics provided by Horowitz are accurate, then indeed the majority of name policy issues have been dealt with since 60% of name appeals submitted to Google--a majority--seek a nickname. Only 20% of name policy appellants want to use a pseudonym.

But if it is a minority that remains unsatisfied with Google's policy, it's a vocal minority. And among those Google+ users responding to Horowitz, the majority appears to believe that Google's changes are inadequate.

In the comment thread, Google+ chief architect Yonatan Zunger articulates the reason why Google's name policy is what it is: Google wants a name-based system rather than a handle-based system.

"This isn't a matter of functionality so much as of community: You get a different kind of community when people are known as 'Mary Smith' than when they are known as 'captaincrunch42,' and for a social product in particular we decided that the first kind of community is the one we want to build," he explained.

But supporters of pseudonyms, or nyms, dispute the claim that name-based communities are more civil than handle-based ones. Google's changes, they say, are not enough.

Free speech is not free from retaliation, in the U.S. or aboard, without at least a pseudonym for protection. When authoritarian governments favor real-name policies, the need for pseudonyms should be apparent.

If Google has grasped that idea, its hold on it seems tenuous. Google's acceptance of established pseudonyms appears to be so narrowly defined that only celebrities, or those famous enough to be impersonated, benefit from the policy shift.

Consider the case of Seebs.

Seebs wrote to InformationWeek complaining that nothing has really changed with regard to the way that Google handles pseudonyms. Seebs's legal name is "A Peter Seebach."

"No one calls me that," Seebs said in an email. "My spouse calls me 'Seebs.' My website is" He has a Seebs email address and a Seebs Tumblr blog. His lawyer calls him "Seebs."

Google, however, won't accept that name for a Google+ Profile.

Seebs says Google's automated system requires more than one name. "The UI simply won't accept an attempt to enter a single name," he wrote. "(And yes, I know people whose legal names have only one component.) But if I enter my actual legal first and last name, "A Seebach", it requires me to submit an appeal--where in theory I can use the name I really use, "seebs."

As for the appeals process, Seebs says, "Basically, it's a joke. There is no provision for any commentary. At all. Submit documents or don't."

Seebs goes on to fault the appeals process as excessively automated--this is a longstanding complaint about Google's customer service in general, which isn't surprising given the absence of a Google Account fee to support a full-time call center for non-advertising customers. Google, he says, mistakes data for reality. "They are assuming that all real things have written documentation," he wrote. "...Google's Web crawl does not include what happens when I call my lawyer and his wife asks who's on the phone and he says "Seebs."

Seebs contends that Google's claim that it will recognize pseudonyms from people with an established online following just isn't true. "If you're not as famous as Lady Gaga, it doesn't count," he wrote.

In fact, Google does support some pseudonyms: Zunger acknowledges--rather remarkably--that Google will not attempt to verify fake names. "In fact, we do not give a damn whether the name posted is 'your' name or not: we will not challenge you on this basis, nor is there any mechanism for other users to cause you to be challenged for this," he said.

The problem Seebs faces is that Google+ requires an appeal for any mononym, a one-word name. However, Zunger suggests that the failure of Google+ to recognize mononyms may soon be resolved. Acknowledging that mononyms still trigger an automatic appeal, he says this is a known issue and it will be dealt with.

Horowitz in his post stresses that Google+ is still evolving. Yet, for a company that makes a fetish of speed, the evolution of Google+ isn't moving fast enough for those unable or unwilling to accept Google+ as a work-in-progress. Identity is fundamental, whether online or offline, and Google can't afford to offer only identity lite if it wants a happy, engaged community.

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