Nymwars! Part 3 of Google+ and Diversity

Google+ in rainbow colorsKeep the pseudonyms and lose the assholes.

Kathy Sierra

The battle over whether Google gets to police what names people can call themselves rages on.  Ten days after Google VP Bradley Horowitz promised process changes, accounts still keep getting deleted without notice.  And while Facebook Director of Products Blake Ross got his account reactivated almost immediately, Skud’s account remains suspended (two weeks and counting) even after changing the name on her profile to Kirrily “Skud” Robert.


Is Google listening?

Pseudonyms are not in themselves harmful. Yes, they can be used for harm, as when people use them for anonymous, slanderous attacks, trolling, etc., but in the vast majority of cases there is no harm done. Importantly, they can serve to protect vulnerable groups.

— Caterina Fake, Anonymity and Pseudonyms in Social Software

When Bradley’s boss Vic talked with Robert, one of the reasons he thought the current policy was a good one was that “he is trying to make sure a positive tone gets set here”.  Of course, as Caterina, Kathy, Anil Dash (1, 2) and many others explain so well, the key to the tone of a site is good moderation.  It’s easy for people whose only experience with pseudonymity is unmoderated comments on blogs or 4chan to conclude that it invariably causes the discussion to deteriorate, but there are plenty of sites allowing pseudonyms which have excellent and remarkably civilized discussions — like Dreamwidth, for example.

When we decided to start Dreamwidth, I did a lot of thinking about what my ideal online community would be…. One thing we never, ever, ever considered, even for a moment, was instituting a “real name” policy to prevent abuses. Why? Because it doesn’t fucking work.

— Denise Paolucci, “Real Name” policies: They just don’t work

Yeah, really.*   Presumably by this point everybody’s noticed that there’s no lack on Google+ of people throwing around insults and making sexist/racist/transphobic/ablist/etc. remarks, flaming, and trolling under their real names.  And let’s not forget who’s hurt by Google’s policy

Racists love online anonymity…but so do those of us fighting racism.

Latoya Peterson

Many of the people using pseudonyms are women, again, because women are at increased risk of harassment online and have good reason to want to conceal identifying information that could end with someone showing up at their door.

s. e. smith

Please, Google, on the creation of names, be sure to consider a Chinese consumer’s behavior, especially for users in mainland China. Consider the user’s personal situation in China, please do not force them into a real-name system. Otherwise I think this a violation of the principle Google has always pursued, “Don’t be evil”.

Newsinchina_tweeter, aka Tuizong Zhang as translated by Todd Vierling

Once again, all I can say is “yeah really.”  Google keeps assuring us that they’re listening.  Are they?

Sociology, not (just) engineering

When Joseph Smarr of Google talked to Alex Howard at OSCON, he floated another reason for the policy:

If you’re going to make the commitment that we’re not going to out your real identity, that actually takes a lot of work, especially if you’re using your real account to log in and then posting under a pseudonym. We feel a real responsibility that if we’re going to make the claim to people ‘it’s safe, you’re not going to get outed,’ then we really need to think through the architecture and make sure there aren’t any loopholes where all of a sudden you get outed. That’s actually a hard thing to do in software … we don’t want to do it wrong, and so we’d rather wait until we get it right.

The desire not to put people at risk is certainly commendable.  But Joseph’s example misses the point: the accounts that are being deleted aren’t people who want to “use their real account to log in and post under a pseudonym”; it’s people who want to chose the name they’re known by.  The net result is that since the Google engineers can’t make pseudonymity work perfectly yet, they’d rather suspend people’s accounts if they don’t use the names Google wants them to.  And “we’d rather wait until we get it right” leads to an initial community that’s biased against women, people with disabilities, transgender people, and all the other groups in Geek Feminism’s excellent Who is harmed by a real names policy?

This issue of names and being able to choose how and where you express them is about privilege and power and who is free to speak on the internet. What the terms and conditions are of “speech” on the internet. Who gets to decide you are “real” or not?

Identity Woman

There’s been a lot of speculation that the real reason behind Google’s naming policy is that the desire to make more money by making easier to pull together online and offline data about a person.  I’m sure that’s a part of it, but Joseph’s response lends support to the complementary explanation Sean Puckett suggested: they’re listening too much to engineers who have specific expectations of how users should behave, and not enough to sociologists. Like danah boyd** for example:

One of the things that became patently clear to me in my fieldwork is that countless teens who signed up to Facebook late into the game chose to use pseudonyms or nicknames. What’s even more noticeable in my data is that an extremely high percentage of people of color used pseudonyms as compared to the white teens that I interviewed.  Of course, this would make sense:

The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalized by systems of power. “Real names” policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people.

Let’s get organized!

As danah points out, though, the vulnerable people are banding together and speaking out loudly — with the support of a lot of privileged people as well.  The predictable stream of mistakes by Google field-testing an unenforceable policy with bad processes and buggy software have helped keep the issue in the news; Todd Vierling’s excellent list is up over 200 entries, and there’s a steady stream of tweets on the #nymwars hashtag.  And as Skud’s survey of suspended accounts highlights, we aren’t just talking, we’re organizing.

My name is Vorpal Bunny, Solana Larsen, Latoya Peterson, Rachel, Jessical Land

my name is meMy Name Is Me, supporting the freedom to choose the name you want on social networks, is beautifully designed: people’s pictures along with their reasons for choosing their name. As I write this, the two most recent entries are from s. e. smith, telling us why activists and people with disabilities need to protect their privacy online, and Sudanese blogger Amir Ahmad Nasr aka Drima. And there are quite a few others …

My name is Sarah Wishnevsky, Maymay, Jillian C. York, Suw, Francesca Coppa

Why yes, now that you mention it, most of them are women, and/or LGBTQ, and/or people of color. Funny how that works.

Some of the other nascent activism campaigns out there:

There are plenty of other opportunities for activism as well.  If you’ve got thoughts on the subject, please share them on Google+, Quora or the comments here

What next?

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.

— me, last week, in Why it Matters

Why hasn’t Google extended an olive branch by following through on Bradley’s promise of process changes or reactivating Skud’s account?   From the outside, it seems like Vic and Bradley and Joseph are mostly talking to “friendlies” like Robert who endorse their position; so quite possibly they still think that the 80%+ support for pseudonymity in Jillian C. York’s poll is a fluke and all this nymwars stuff will just blow over.  Good luck with that.

Then again maybe everybody’s working behind the scenes to try to come up with a solution.  The business logic remains compelling, and I’m sure that a lot of Google employees are getting tired of hearing how evil they’re being.  So when Google decides they want to get beyond nymwars, it really won’t be that hard.  Here are some good first steps:

Reinstate everyone you’ve suspended. Remove your current name policy. Collaborate with the community on how best to moderate bad actors. If you need some sort of identity policy, let us help you write it. And, finally, apologise to everyone you’ve bullied. There are lots of them, so you might want to start now.


To be continued …


Check out the full Google+ and Diversity series: A Work in Progress, Why it matters, #nymwars!, A tale of two searches, The double bind of oppression, Anxious masculinity under threat, Still a Ways to Go, Booberday, Talk about a hostile environment, The Trend is in the Wrong Direction, and In Chaos There Is Opportunity.

Also posted on Google+

* Autumn Tyr-Salvia has a great explanation of how a real name policy doesn’t work from an anti-spam perspective either

** long-time Liminal States readers know that I’m a pretty unabashed fan of danah’s.  danah boyd joins Microsoft Rsearch — computer science *is* a social science, from 2008, has some discussion about why.