Why it Matters: Google+ and Diversity, part 2

Google+ in rainbow colors

Over the past 50 hours I’ve lost a lot of friends here, and all of my transgender friends and family and all the older gay activists I was sharing with have all quietly mothballed their accounts. They can’t have their “real” names out there – they work with human rights organizations and do HIV/AIDS activism, etc.

Violet Blue, in a comment thread on Google+

Just a few days before Google+’s doors officially open on July 31, Google’s latest communications from Vic (via Robert) and Bradley on the raft of account suspensions and “common names” policy seem unlikely to put the “identity crisis” to rest.   It’s certainly a positive sign that they’re engaging, and process changes like giving people with names Google doesn’t like a week to change their account name before suspending them are certainly improvements.  That said, the impression they’re giving is that they’re going to try to hold the line with the current policy even knowing that it targets transgender people, human rights activists, people at risk for stalking and harrassment domestic violence survivors, HIV/AIDS victims and caregivers, people with names that sound weird to Americans (or for that matter people in Hong Kong who would rather go by their English names) …

Hey wait a second, I’m noticing a pattern here.

So yes indeed, as I predicted a week ago in A Work in Progress, it’s a crucial time for diversity on Google+.  Given which it seems like a good time to step back and talk a bit about a couple reasons why diversity matters.  For me, it starts with some very intensely personal things.

From the personal …

“I do not feel safe using my real name online as I have had people track me down from my online presence and had coworkers invade my private life.”
“I’ve been stalked. I’m a rape survivor. I am a government employee that is prohibited from using my IRL.”
“Under [this name] I am active in a number of areas of sexual difference for which it would not be wise for me to use my flesh legal name.”
“This identity was used to protect my real identity as I am gay and my family live in a small village where if it were openly known that their son was gay they would have problems.”
“I go by pseudonym for safety reasons. Being female, I am wary of internet harassment.”

— excerpts from early responses to Skud’s survey of people whose G+ accounts have been suspended

A lot of my friends and acquaintances are women, blacks, Latin@s, lesbians, gays, transgender people and others who have to deal with similar situations on a routine basis.  So I care a lot about diversity, and when I see a company like Google basing their future strategy on creating a social network that excludes my friends and Violet Blue’s and the people responding to Skud’s survey and everybody else like them — or puts them at unnecessary risk — I react strongly.

Of course, personal arguments like that aren’t likely to convince everybody who doesn’t already see things the way I do.  And many people at large corporations feel like their personal beliefs in social justice shouldn’t influence their company’s behavior.  Back in 2005, when Microsoft dropped support for anti-discrimination legislation in Washington, I remember the pained look on the corporate counsel’s face as he talked with a group of gay and lesbian employees, trying to reconcile his personal belief in equality with his defense of the business reasons not to take a stand.  Vic’s own comments at the time reflect somebody wrestling with similar questions.

In the end Vic and Brad and Sergei and Larry et al will make a business decision about what to do.   So I’ll now put on my corporate strategist hat and talk about why diversity matters to Google.  As I do that, though, I hope nobody loses sight of the people who are affected by the issue, because in the end that a zillion times more than the n-dimensional corporate chess match.

… to the strategic.

women at Google logo

Right now, in the early stages, what would help Google Plus most is feedback from female users — ones in both tech and non-tech arenas.

M. M. Faulkner, Why Women Users are Important for Google+, on Pay Attention People

Indeed.  For Google+ to reach it’s full potential and blow Facebook and Twitter out of the water, it needs to appeal to women just as much as guys — after all, women spend most of the money on the web these days.**  So far, the naming discussions give the impression that even when Google gets feedback from women they’re not hearing a lot of it.  As Betsy Hanes Perry says:

Two people who are dear to me have already left. Others in my circle of friends are refusing to join. All of them are established professional women who have excellent reasons to avoid mixing their work-visible streams and their personal streams.

M. M. has a great description of the overall feel she’s noticed with Google+:

Furthermore, although making a joke here or there, posting a somewhat mysogynist photo, or remarking on women’s love of Farmville may seem harmless enough, I think we need to recognize there is a larger picture. What I am speaking of is a collective conscience that forms when people are bombarded with the same images and messages over and over and over. The message for the past week has been ramping up and it seems to be suggesting that we are simply are not as “ready” for Google’s latest social media network. It reminds us, as women, we are in the “wrong place” at Google Plus.

As I was writing this, Hitwise released there latest numbers for the US showing the trend going in the wrong direction: 59% of the visits to Google+ are from guys, up 4% from the previous week.  BREAKING: women who say “we are less likely to use Google+ if you insist on deciding what name I can call myself and don’t allow private profiles” are telling the truth!

True, it’s early days so far.  But community norms set in relatively quickly.  And network effects magnify the impact.  The more of your friends who aren’t on Google+, or only use it in just a limited way, the less likely you are to spend a lot of time there.*   So Google+ is setting out on a path likely to lead it to being a place that appeals primarily to guys who prefer to talk to guys.

There are many other dimensions to diversity as well; Skud’s survey, Geek Feminism’s excellent list of Who is harmed by a real names policy?, and Kee Hinckley’s roundup all highlight how many market segments Google is alienating on just this one issue.  But this post is long enough already, so rather than exploring all the different ramifications, let me just reiterate a key strategic takeaway:

Google’s current approach leaves them at a significant disadvantage with the largest and most valuable demographic.

“Don’t be evil”

Business strategy was a key part of the argument back in 2005, when a grassroots protest, strongly-worded letter from the LGBTQ employees group GLEAM, behind-the-scenes work by the Diversity organization and supportive senior executives, and series of blog posts by a high-profile employee very publicly criticizing the decision all led to Microsoft re-committing to anti-discrimination legislation.    In his email announcing the decision, Steve concluded that “diversity in the workplace is such an important issue for our business that it should be included in our legislative agenda”.  But the underlying principles mattered just as much.  What kind of company did Microsoft want to be?  When we talked to our lesbian, bisexual, and transgender friends and relatives, would we be proud of who we worked for — or embarrassed?

Google’s facing similar a choice now.  Of course, evil’s subjective; but none of the people I know who work there would feel proud of building a future where women, transgender people, dissidents, whisteblowers, and people with unusual names like their colleague Ping are marginalized.

So especially since the business case is pretty powerful as well, and employee bonuses are tied to success in social networking, I’m actually relatively optimistic that a sensible solution will emerge on the naming front.***

If so, it’ll be a great victory for all the feminists, LGBTQs, sex  bloggers, privacy advocates, human rights activists, Second Lifers, usenet old-timers, people with disabilities, security experts, and everybody else speaking up.  And if Google then builds on this by actively all these groups they haven’t been paying a lot of attention to so far, my money’s on them to dethrone Facebook and Twitter.  We shall see….

To be continued …


* a somewhat-analogous situation: in the Washington Post, Ellen Nakashima cites a 2005 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project that “the proportion of Internet users who took part in chats and discussion groups plunged from 28 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2005, entirely because of the exodus of women.”

** Aileen Lee has some great data on this in TechCrunch, although the headline and framing are problematic; see CV Harquail’s  Why women DON’T rule the internet and comments from ptp, Terri, and others on Geek Feminism for more

***Now that his account has been restored, Sai’s “mongopost” has some great suggestions about ways to better address the underlying issues

Orignally posted in draft form on July 26. Thanks to all for the feedback!
Also posted on Google+