Supporting Pseudonyms

tl;dr: Vic's announcement is neither surprising, nor a victory. It remains to be seen what he has in mind, but I fear it may be too little and too late.

When I first heard about G+, it never occurred to me that it would require real names. I assumed G+ wouldn't just tolerate pseudonyms, but that it would encourage people's freedom to be who they want to be and to use the names that they want to be identified by. I thought of a community that would foster and encourage diversity, that would allow people to be judged by the content of their contributions rather than by the baggage associated with their name and photo. I thought of a community that would make it easier for people to communicate and express themselves, one that wouldn't chill speech by silencing those who have reasons to be afraid or hesitant to speak (on certain topics) under names that are directly associated with some other aspect of their persona. It has been clear for a long time that this is very far from the Vision for G+.

I admit I had high aspirations. I recognized that this was important stuff, that it's not just about G+, a fledgling social network. G+ isn't a standalone product; it's the key part of a strategy for integrating and unifying many Google products, including (to varying degrees) Search, Gmail, Picasa, Buzz, and Reader. Beyond Google, other companies, the media, and users look to Google as an example and as a leader (and as an IDP). And Google is a company whose users and employees have historically placed a great deal of trust in. I expected great things of Google and G+, and so far G+ has not met my initial expectations.

Google's Social VP Vic Gundotra surprised some people this week with his announcement at Web 2.0 that "we plan to support pseudonyms in the future". (The actual quote is about 19:16 into the video.) I'm not very surprised. Bradley said something very similar months ago. And Google prides itself in taking a "launch and iterate" approach. Indeed, there has already been some positive (from my perspective) iteration on G+: the gender requirement was modified, some bugs about how accounts function during suspension were identified and fixed, Takeout was enhanced to make people less trapped, etc. And many people, inside and outside Google, have been arguing passionately against the "real names" requirement for months. So I've been expecting announcements about further amendments to the "real names" policy for a long time.

If I've been expecting this, why did I quit working at Google instead of waiting? I tried waiting for awhile, and frankly, it sucked. I was continually disappointed, distracted, stressed, and unhappy. I got tired of waiting.

I'm glad to hear Vic publicly announce that pseudonyms will be supported soon. I'm glad to know this is still on the roadmap. I recognize this as another in a series of positive steps. And this is as good of a time as any to again thank the tireless advocates who have worked to get us this far (if I could, I'd nominate some people for peer bonuses). But, like others, I'm not prepared to join the EFF in calling it a "victory" yet.

Today G+ still (as far as I know) requires "real names", and accounts are still being suspended if they are deemed non-compliant with this requirement. We still don't know when pseudonyms will actually be supported, and we don't know how they will be supported. Meanwhile, other Google products and features are being shut down, and their users are being told to use G+ instead, even though G+ may not be allowing them to join yet (because of their name, age, or other reasons).

Time matters. Every day G+ has denied access to people who don't pass the "real names" sniff test is another day for the G+ "atmosphere" to evolve in directions which are actively hostile to, or at least suboptimal, for welcoming future pseudonymous participation. Every day G+ has denied access is another day when some people who'd like to use pseudonyms or who have "unusual" non-WASP names -- people I want to be able to interact with -- give up on G+ for good. Every day is another day when Google's reputation is further tarnished, when users abandon Google services and when employees consider quitting. Every day is another day that some other sites, looking to Google as an example, decide to impose similar restrictions on their sites (ironically, often using Facebook Connect to do so).

What does it mean to "support pseudonyms"? This is not the first time I've heard this phrase, but I still don't understand exactly what Vic and the other Deciders mean by this. Sadly, I have no reason to believe that what will be offered will come close to satisfying what I want. I fear that for myself and for many others, the support will be both too little and too late.

Here are my suggestions for how Google should proceed: Stop suspending accounts based on their names. Do not drop support for products or features that do support pseudonymous use until this has been done. Unsuspend accounts that have been suspended due to name "abuse". Offer an apology. Write an official blog post that communicates the change clearly. Clarify the ToS, community standards docs, and help docs.

Okay, I know better than to expect an apology, and updating legal docs may take a bit of time, but this should take days or weeks at most, not months. I know that while sometimes easy things are hard, this is Google, and I've seen Google move extraordinarily quickly when it wants to. I believe that the "real names" requirement hasn't been dropped yet not because doing so is hard, but because "real names" have been considered critical to Google's strategy, or at least to the G+ (rollout) strategy.

But in the interest of good faith, I'll assume the G+ team has a plan, and that it really is sufficiently complicated that it will take more time. Clearly then, it's not the plan I outlined. Google is great at solving engineering problems, so it often treats all problems as engineering problems to be solved with clever algorithms and code, even when the problems might be better solved by incorporating some non-engineering aspects.

I can speculate wildly about engineering-driven ways to keep a community with pseudonymous users from being overrun by abuse. It's a hard problem, and one I've thought about before for other communities and services. Most of my approaches involve some variation on rate-limiting account signup flows, tools for moderation that allow users to decide which comments they see, and a robust scalable system for processing abuse reports. It's worth noting that "real names" are not a magic bullet for stopping abuse, and that these sorts of things are needed for "real names" communities as well. Support for pseudonyms isn't something extra to implement; the things which are needed to support pseudonymous use are the same things which are needed to support any use. (Further, if you want to talk about hard problems; enforcing a "real names" policy without false-positives is a hard problem.)

I don't think I'm asking for unicorns and rainbows. I think I'm asking for something simple, but admittedly radical given the direction of G+ thus far: Do not tell users that the names they are using are wrong, invalid, or inferior (except for reasons such as hate speech, which are already covered in other parts of the ToS); support their freedom to choose their own names. Do not treat pseudonymous users differently in G+ or elsewhere on Google properties. Do not flag pseudonymous users with special badges. Do not implement a brilliant karma system that relies heavily on automatically-computed user karma based on a social graph privileging verified and "real names" users. Do not give "real names" users products or features that are not available to pseudonymous users to entice users to provide their "real names", or to punish them, or simply because you just don't care about them as much as the "real names" users. Do not require "real names" and other means of ID verification unless they are genuinely required, and be prepared to think seriously about whether they are genuinely required. When planning timelines and launch criteria, do not prioritize "real names" use over pseudonymous use.

Do not treat pseudonymous use as an edge case. Recognize that there are many pseudonymous users, who, even if they are a "small subset" of users, are worth supporting. Respect them and their desire for pseudonymity. Acknowledge that the subset of users who want the option to use pseudonyms, at least in some circumstances, is significant (e.g., Who is harmed by a "Real Names" policy? and similar documents), and that pseudonymous users are not a disjoint set from "mainstream" users.

Do not relegate pseudonymous users of G+ and of other Google products, including those which previously supported pseudonymous use, to the status of marginalized second-class netizens.

(Sara Smollett, last updated Oct 22, 2011)