Long essay on the value of pseudonymity. From the conclusions:

Here lies the huge irony in this discussion. Persistent pseudonyms aren’t ways to hide who you are. They provide a way to be who you are. You can finally talk about what you really believe; your real politics, your real problems, your real sexuality, your real family, your real self. Much of the support for “real names” comes from people who don’t want to hear about controversy, but controversy is only a small part of the need for pseudonyms. For most of us, it’s simply the desire to be able to talk openly about the things that matter to every one of us who uses the Internet. The desire to be judged—not by our birth, not by our sex, and not by who we work for—but by what we say.


I leave you with this question. What if I had posted this under my pseudonym? Why should that have made a difference? I would have written the same words, but ironically, I could have added some more personal and perhaps persuasive arguments which I dare not make under this account. Because I was forced to post this under my real name, I had to weaken my arguments; I had to share less of myself. Have you ever met “Kee Hinckley”? Have you met me under my other name? Does it matter? There is nothing real on the Internet; all you know about me is my words. You can look me up on Google, and still all you will know is my words. One real person wrote this post. It could have been submitted under either name. But one of them is not allowed to. Does that really make sense?

Behind every pseudonym is a real person. Deny the pseudonym and you deny the person.

This is, of a course, a response to the Google+ names policy.

Posted on August 22, 2011 at 6:01 AM66 Comments


Gweihir August 22, 2011 6:14 AM

I am in IT security and some of our customers do observe the media and in part the Internet for the names of their employees or contractors turning up. We found this out when complaints came in and we were facing complete loss of business from a large customer.

As an effect, it is impossible for me to post anything related to a large area of IT security publicly under my real name. I know that there are other companies here with similar rules. As a consequence, requiring real names is a complete no-go for me. I expect this will get far worse and at some time will basically affect anybody working anywhere.

I am really surprised things like this are unknown at Google. There cannot have been any real market research behind their decision. I suspect they were too lazy (or unable) to implement a good pseudonym system. Consequentially, their stance is pretty stupid and does not reflect the real world.

soror nishi August 22, 2011 6:52 AM

Very good and exactly why this policy has attracted so much interest. The idea that pseudonymity should “just go away” suits only those wishing to capitalize on our data and does nothing for the overall health of discussion and interaction on the web.
The fact that G+ works for the Government has recently come to light as the driving force behind this move.

gregorylent August 22, 2011 6:56 AM

syria, egypt, china .. google+ is incredibly narrowly focused on usa .. and i assume it is the feds who want the no anonymity rider, and google says, of course, sir!

Dean Procter August 22, 2011 7:01 AM

Google are doing exactly what they plan to do. They are a company which relies on marketer’s dollars to provide ‘free’ services. The ‘real you’ is worth money to marketers. The pseudo you is not so much.

I’m with you Bruce, on the ‘pseudo’ honesty we have to present without a ‘pseudo’ self who won’t be hounded out of a job or opportunity for an honest but perhaps equally valid differing opinion.

There is a way. Different thinking. more open, but more private with real-time consumer sentiment measurable by all, right down to individual items.

That is the future. Anonymity, persistent pseudonyms, privacy, accountability.

Slightly different than what g has in mind.

Paeniteo August 22, 2011 7:07 AM

@Gweihir: “I suspect they were too lazy (or unable) to implement a good pseudonym system.”

What do you need to implement there?
Just don’t manually lock/delete profiles with apparently non-real names.

Anyway, you can be pseudonymous on google+, just select a name that plausibly looks like a real name (you may want to back it up with a corresponding email address).
That alone makes the whole “realnames only” policy a farce, IMHO.

Adam August 22, 2011 7:12 AM

Here is one example of what happens when you write under your real name:

Short story – an epidemiologist made some tweets someone didn’t like and they’ve managed to harass him into silence through complaints to his faculty, management etc. This was made easy in part because his real name was fairly distinct allowing the attacker to find his target.

It may be that the harasser could have still gone after him if he used a pseudonym but the effort required would have been larger and likely acted as more of a deterrent to frivolous complaints.

Eric TF Bat August 22, 2011 7:13 AM

Paeniteo: I have one word for you: Stilgherrian. That word happens to be a name, a full, legal name, found on its bearer’s credit card, driver’s license and all the rest. And he had his account closed without warning by Google because apparently it’s not real enough by their standards. Check him out for a very passionate rant on that topic.

The real names policy is indeed a farce, but for many more reasons than just the spoofability of plausible-sounding names.

djehuti August 22, 2011 7:15 AM

Pseudonymity is required for some sort of privacy but G+ requiring real names and same for Facebook or other social websites “requiring” real names can simply be defeated by making an account under anyone’s name as it can be really hard to check the authenticity of the names. Not only can this system of real names be easily defeated, it can lead to misunderstanding or even sabotage of another person by falsely using fake names.

My main point is, real names can easily be faked and misused. Damages if real names can be bad. Pseudonymity is a way to disassociate names and identity or at least to buffer it to some degree better than real names.

GeorgeB August 22, 2011 7:16 AM

Google are doing exactly what they plan to do. They are a company which relies on marketer’s dollars to provide ‘free’ services. The ‘real you’ is worth money to marketers. The pseudo you is not so much.

That was what I thought at first, but then it occured to me that it might actually be to their advantage to just treat the persistent pesudonym as a different person from the point of view of their advertising, then they could show different sets of targetted advertising to the “real” you and the pesudonym depending on who you are being at that point in time. Since the persistent pseudonym is more likely to match your real (n.b. no inverted commas there) tastes, that’s surely got to be better from an advertisers point of view.

Adam August 22, 2011 7:19 AM

On the subject of Google & pseudonyms, the reality is they already have various systems that permit them. For example YouTube, Google Groups and so on.

At the same time Google probably know most people’s real names anyway since they will have revealed it at some point, e.g. to use Android Marketplace, or GMail, or Adsense, or Google Checkout, or whatever.

I really do not see how it benefits Google in any way to force people to expose their real name through Google+. Some probably would expose their names, others may have legitimate reasons to stay incognito. Some might prefer to use their real name for one circle of people, and a pseudo for others. Or to be “off the radar” being able to hide from prying eyes but still available to people who know they exist. It also seems pretty stupid and unfair that someone called John Smith could literally hide in a sea of John Smiths and enjoy some level of privacy yet Rybald O’Brienowicz is likely to be unique and trackable.

Yeah it takes some extra thought to implement a system properly but it’s clearly possible.

NobodySpecial August 22, 2011 7:50 AM

I really do not see how it benefits Google in any way to force people to expose their real name through Google+

Google are an advertising agency.

Value to marketing of a Mr J Smith that lives at address X, and visits the following websites = high.

Value of l33t who may be a 12year old kid in India or a 50year old prof in Denmark = low.

uk visa August 22, 2011 8:00 AM

Google as a company only allows a very small percentage (less than 0.1%) of it’s workforce to have personas that incorporate the fact that they’re a Googler and even those people are kept on a short leash.
Google also has a tendency to like to create rules for the web as though it were the creator of it rather than a benefactor.
So now Google wants to outlaw anyone using an identity that allows that person greater freedom of speech; is it because Google can’t sell marketing access to that person or just because Google hates free speech?
Is it just me or is Google becoming more disjointed, unhinged even – recent (unfounded) accusations against MS trying to do it down over patents – are just another sign that Google’s power is leading to paranoia; Google+ is a misnomer… IMHO it would be truer to call it Google-.

John Q. Public August 22, 2011 8:32 AM

Following on Gweihir’s comments:

Most of us have to compartmentalize parts of our lives. If I were to post about my thoughts of the U.S. banking system, it would jeopardize my career within that system. If I documented my antics in college on a web page, I’d have some ‘splainin’ to do to some current relations.

And back to a point in the article: Bruce may really be Kim Kardashian, or the other way around, and I’d still read this blog.

x August 22, 2011 8:37 AM

Just as the [relatively] recent and relatively quiet implementation of login-rules asking for a cell phone number[!], Google does things that in the end are far more important to them (or to the US government which relies in external datasources to manage population threats) than they are to the users.

The issue is just that Google maintains its PR roughly in the same manner as the Church of Scientology.

HJohn August 22, 2011 8:38 AM

I think it is one of those cases where we take the good with the bad. It enables better expression with less potential for repercussion, but also enables some people to be much more vile without embarrassment.

Similar to how people behave in person versus in their cars. Someone cuts you someone else off in the hall and they nod and go on their way, do it in a car with repercussions largely removed and the angry epithets come out.

Overall, the trade offs lean positive.

Adolf Whittler August 22, 2011 9:05 AM

Google. They’re spending God knows how much to do Street View in the Amazon, and they haven’t even done parts of Florida yet. Tells me everything I need to know about their decision-making.

sbi August 22, 2011 9:35 AM

Well, that just means that, should I ever consider signing into G+, I’ll do it as John Doe. Of course, the downside is that the rest of the net knows me as “sbi”, and won’t know who I am.

echowit August 22, 2011 10:11 AM

@John Q.

Nah. An hour-and-a-half on Photoshop and she still doesn’t look good in a beard …

Doug August 22, 2011 10:18 AM

The Internet is large. There will be places to post, whine, reveal government secrets and wank, all without using your real name.
Google is only one company. If the market needs to talk using a pseudonym, someone will start the service.
Comments like these always make me wonder. “A large company gives me something I find valuable for free. They should do and act the way I want them to act. How dare they put a restriction on how I use and abuse the free services.”
There is a business idea, NamelessG+. Go get rich.

Clive Robinson August 22, 2011 10:23 AM

In the main what the poster of the article is talking about is “roles” the most comon of which we know as “job titles” in the work place.

I’ts something regular reads of this post will know I bang on about from time to time for a numberr of years (oh and other blogs such as the CambLabs lightbluetouchpaper ).

In other walks of life we have roles like

son/daughter, father/mother, brother/sister, husband/wife/partner/squeaze 😉

But we also have other roles due to our hobbies and other interests.

member of club A, member of team B, player of instrument C, maker of item D, etc

And importantly in our financial arangments,

Holder of CC A, CC B, CC C, with accounts at Bank A, Bank B, Bank C, etc

Which for good and proper security reasons we need to keep segregated.

Oh and the of course we are customers of various emporiums, we visit dentists, optitions and Doctors, none of whom in the ordinary course of events need or should have knowledge of each other.

Then there are social groups, some people (myself included) have “nic names” by which people know us and in some cases people I’ve known for many years have to think realy hard to remember one of my real names if they ever knew it. But importantly I’m a member of several groups of friends etc but I don’t have the need unlike some to “cross pollenate” them, I don’t want to make a monoculture of people I know.

For some perverse reason some people belive that the name we are given at birth is some kind of universal identifier…

Again as regulars here know there are atleast five people on the Internet in occupations closely related to what I do that actually have the same name as me and live/work within a fairly short distance of me. Some of them know me and we have had the occasional laugh about it.

Worse I look like quite a few people, which was a bit of a surprise because if you ever meet me you are unlikley to forget me as I kind of stand out from the crowd in a number of ways (which is embarising because people I don’t recognise come up and say hello and in some cases they do actually know me…).

But in each case I’m a unique individual, that is there is a single person me behind the name and look, but they are shared by others so are not a reliable way of identifing the unique individual me.

Now there appears to be a bureaucratic perversion to have some unique identifier to which every facet of your life must be indelibly tied too from birth until the universe ends (which in my view is very very unhealthy).

It assumes that all roles in your life must go back to this unique identifier that due to their reasoning must be available to almost every one (which makes ID theft oh so much easier).

Unfortunatly this is also reflected in technology.

I can only assume most software writers don’t appear to get out much because they fail (especialy in browsers) to support a role based model of human existance where an individual might have many (twenty or more) roles in life they might wish to segregate.

For many of these software writers they appear to believe ROLE=IDENTITY (eg deva-geek) and they apply this assumption to every one in the way they make their software function.

If back in the late 90’s early 00’s when PET first started being discused seriously, they had put in proper support for proper roles in browsers as sugested by myself and others, then we would not be having this conversation because it would have become the defacto viewpoint to every individuals benifit.

Shava Nerad August 22, 2011 11:01 AM

Actually, Google doesn’t need your real name for their data market. In fact, your real name has so many variations, as a former marketing VP, I can tell you, a customer number is far more useful. The average female in this country has changed her name legally several times by middle age these days with marriage, divorce, remarriage, rinse/repeat. Add to that, she may be known as Mrs. John Doe on one mailing list, Mrs. Margaret Doe on another, Peggy Doe on another — all “real names.”

What I want is a marketing profile, and she may have several, and I want to segregate them. She may buy machine parts for airplanes in her job, and she may buy arduino kits at home for her and her kids as a hobby. Different marketing profiles, different customer numbers, and that’s ok.

In the internet world, take another case — say Bob is a gay DA in Dallas TX. In his day job, he’s buying law journals and office supplies. At home, under a nym, he’s looking at all-inclusive gay resort vacations in Bermuda. If I’m trying to sell him a vacation, I do not want to send him a gorgeously formatted HTML email to his work address. I will lose his business.

Pseudonyms are laser focused marketing profiles. They improve my likelihood of efficient marketing, and that the customer will get my message at the time when he or she is prepared to buy. The money is just as good.

This is as old as dirt. The Sears catalog goes to the home address. The office supply catalog goes to the business address. This is not new.

What is new with “real names?” Neuromarketing tells us that people who feel uncomfortable with nyms (the online equivalent of the “driving while black” intrusion in a gated community) are the literalist type who respond really well to the social game messages: “Oh no! Cousin Anne’s strawberries have wilted! Won’t you save her crops? Buy some unwithering compound right now!” These folks are tribal — they will respond to these messages viscerally, and spend real money on game currency to save Anne’s crops pretty consistently, and yeild more money per account. Did you know that Zynga, with their tribal games (Farmville, Frontierville, Cityville, Mafia Wars,…) made more money on Facebook last year than Facebook did?

So, consider that there may be more to this than some misguided attempt to preserve civility on the Internet. Follow the money.

I wrote about neuromarketing and social games (vs the older Bartle Test) on Gamasutra last year and got some really disturbing emails from social games marketers in response — sort of “man was not meant to know” stuff that made Cory Doctorow’s FTW (which you should read and toss him money for btw) look tame.

Sadly, G+ is an amazing tool for intellectual discourse. I am having more fun there than I have since 1980s USENET. (And, I am using my real name, but I’m also fighting the policy).

And even more pitiful, they are shooting themselves in the foot. Every young engineer in Google has got to be ashamed of the management decisions that went into this. They’re betraying their famous motto. And they’re going for a short term gain, when they could be stealing the disaffected digital natives from Facebook — instead, they’re competing for a territorial conservative gaming market who are the least likely to jump ship.

Mike B August 22, 2011 11:02 AM

Google’s Real Name policy (which is pretty much as enforceable as a “click here to confirm you are over 18” policy) doesn’t have to be at odds with pseudonymity. What Google sees doesn’t have to be with other people see. In fact if Google allowed people to present different screen names to different Circles then Google eliminate the need for people to fragment their identities across multiple accounts or services.

The real name policy actually has little to do with selling information to marketers as they don;t need your name to determine everything about you and then sell you stuff. What Google cares about is that it is easy for people to find their friends and build a network, just like it is in Facebook. Google doesn’t want some trashy My Space atmosphere that represents the lowest common denominator and accounts with little or no reputational value. The truth is that most people use internet anonymity to be a dick, not to be more real. It’s been well studied that without real world contact people can turn into jerks and such behavior has ruined many many unmoderated forums.

Anyway the point of the policy is to prevent abuse and Google isn’t going to spend much effort trying to verify that people using the service are using their real names unless they get complaints.

vlion August 22, 2011 11:06 AM

It is worth considering that it is in tyrannical governments’ best interest to be able to trivially keep tabs on their population.

It is a poor idea to develop company policies which help tyranny. Probably good for the bottom line though…

Travis Retzlaff August 22, 2011 11:11 AM

I wish there was more room for “alts” or pseudonyms on Google Plus. Absent that, anyone who wants to be able to write under a pen name still has a thousand other ways to get your ideas out in the ether without attaching your name to it.

Realistically if you do have a message you want others to hear a blog is probably a better platform anyway.

Ted August 22, 2011 11:33 AM

There was a news item a month or so ago about a firm, Social Intelligence Corporation, who traces EVERY post you make on the internet and reports it to prospective employers, a guy who posted on a blog for “ENGLISH ONLY” for US was denied the employment he sought. I realize some people feel very strongly that other people shouldn’t earn a living if they are the OTHER side, whatever “side” that is, but that is really over the top.

I was reading a local newspaper online and the paper changed its policy on posting they now demand to know who you REALLY are, and by that I mean you have to PROVE who you really are, well some, who’ve done that, use handles that do not include their real names, well there are posters who consistently post under these “anonymous” posters demanding they use their real names. Very unwholesome.

John Smith August 22, 2011 11:35 AM

Has anyone started an “I am Spartacus” type action? I’m thinking of hundreds of thousands of people registering using the name “John Smith” (sorry to all the real John Smiths out their).

jon August 22, 2011 11:56 AM

John Smith, there was in fact an “I am Spartacus” action a few weeks ago with existing users changing their name. Google responded by modifying their name policy to limit people to one name change every 30 days. There’s been some discussion about another action with new accounts signing up …

Daniel August 22, 2011 12:09 PM

Let me offer dissenting view.

If the OP is correct in his thesis then IMO everyone should just kill themselves right now or we should start a nuclear war and be done with humanity, forever. Because the Internet is a cesspit. It is a foul, polluted place that is inhabited by trolls, the sexually obsessed, wanna be murders, racist, sexist pigs. If what the internet has to offer represents the “real you” of humanity then humanity as a species deserves utter annihilation.

I don’t believe that the purpose of society is to create a shit-hole of self-expression. The WWW should have a larger vision than being a digital instantiation of group therapy.

I remember back in the 90s when the Louvre started digitizing their collection. I thought to myself, “at last. The greatest expressions of the greatest minds, for free, to anyone.” Instead, what we got was the triumph of Oprah. A virtual reality shows that makes TV reality shows pale imitations.

I think self-restraint is a virtue. I don’t think anyone in a /civilization/ has a right to say anything they want; to express themselves however they feel. Frankly, as a means of social communication the internet is a failure. Instead of ennobling humanity, it has degraded it. Instead of promoting peace, it has encouraged war. Instead of being a source of enlightenment, it is a source of narcissisms and propagandas.

Don’t misunderstand me. There are viable defenses for supporting anonymity both in real life and on the internet. But “self expression” of the “real you” is bullshit. It’s a stance that goes beyond mere silliness to an actual psychological sickness.

wes August 22, 2011 1:02 PM

maybe this is why there is so many users but very little valuable conversation. I still spend most of my social media time on twitter.

Richard Steven Hack August 22, 2011 1:16 PM

Daniel: “If what the internet has to offer represents the “real you” of humanity then humanity as a species deserves utter annihilation.”

By George, I think he’s got it! 🙂

Seriously, when I first started posting on the Internet in Usenet and elsewhere, I decided immediately to use my real name – despite my felonious background. I did this so my name would have “credibility” – whether it was bad or good. Whatever anyone finds out about me as a result is just too damn bad for me.

OTOH, posting under my real name got me mentioned on the “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” TV show, among other things.

It’s sort of like the discussion about lying we had recently. I think everyone should post everything under their real names and take the consequences for their opinions and behavior.

That said, there are things I don’t push on Twitter because I know clients are watching. And I don’t think people should be forced to use their real names if they don’t want to.

And I think this notion that Google is somehow “good” is just ridiculous. It’s just another big corporation, and it will end up the same as every other big corporation. Don’t expect it to do anything unless the corporation and its shareholders benefit and the hell with the users. It will also do many things that are just stupid like every big corporation does.

I do like the idea of an “I am John Smith” movement scuttling Google’s policy in this regard. But I’m not sure enough people care to make it happen.

Perhaps Anonymous should pay another visit to Google+. It would be appropriate given their name.

Trichinosis USA August 22, 2011 1:20 PM

Google is the world’s largest government data mine and has been from the beginning. Google+ doesn’t have anything I want. I will never willingly use it unless they change their privacy policy.

Anonymous 1 August 22, 2011 1:57 PM

Anti-discrimination laws should really be changed to ban employers (or prospective employers) from firing or refusing to hire someone based on what they do on the internet in their own time (of course usual rules about trade secrecy would still apply).

That would probably help a lot, especially in cases such as cranks harassing a person’s employer (such as the one mentioned by Adam and Casey).

Neeneko August 22, 2011 2:23 PM

Though there is another element to this debate that I do not think gets brought up enough. Entitlement.

The majority of the internet is pseudonym based.. most social network sites, forums, groups, channels.. all are dominated by pseudonyms.

So here we have a couple of sites, major ones yes, that are trying to use real names. Not happy with already having most of the internet cater to their preference, many users are also demanding that THESE sites also do.

Security and such are rationalization, but in the end, many of us like Facebook & linked-in’s real name requirements because it makes finding and connecting to people who you know (or knew) on real name terms easier. Is it really that horrible that we have this?

Wanting pseudonyms are fine, but this campaign to insure people who want a real name environment can not have it reaks of entitlement.. the attitude that all of the internet should fit their model and any site that they want to be part of that doesn’t should be pressured into doing things their way instead.

Moribund Cadaver August 22, 2011 2:38 PM

What’s going on at Google is one part data mining, and one part social experiment.

Some of the higher ups in charge of these decisions, such as Vic Gundotra, believe in a particular ideology that they wish to enforce on online communications. They think that the social sphere of the internet will be more marketable to an elite class of user if that sphere is dragged into an “enterprise” mindset.

By their lights, “enterprise” mainly means north american, assimilated, first-class business seating with suits and ties required. Also the right kind of shoes, and the right sort of cufflinks.

Their goal with G+ was to achieve critical mass early on in discouraging people from signing up on the service with the expectation it’d be like “the rest” of the Internet. From some perspectives, there’s an argument to be made for their goals. The problem is that they’ve set themselves up to be the judge of what “being social” even means. And to tell people what a “real name” is. The scent of the executive level cocktail party surrounds the affair – they want G+ to be a place where people feel reassured you are “serious” by having a “serious whitebread name” attached to your posts. Ironically, it’s not even really about the content you add to their service – it’s about -looking good while doing so-, so that you help their marketing image.

I suspect there were probably some pushes internally to even force people to use a real photograph of a human face with every profile, attached to every post. Even though that hasn’t happened… yet.

Then Google hit the wall of reality. They invited, as beta testers, the leading edge of the internet – geeks, nerds, technologists, and people who push the envelope. These people are often the sort who have either self-defined themselves in ways that defy the stately culture of upper class wealth and conservative society, or they’re people who must post using pen names because they’re so far on the edge of their industry they’d be punished for those unpopular opinions.

Richard Steven Hack August 22, 2011 2:43 PM

Neeneko: I agree to some extent. Basically if you want freedom you have to allow people the freedom to be butt-holes.

But that cuts both ways. People can advocate for real names on a site OR they can advocate for NOT having real names on a site.

It’s not “pressure” until it shifts over to people applying actual economic or physical pressure.

People complain about all sorts of things. Google is big enough that it needn’t care unless and until it starts affecting its business model.

I complain a lot about Google’s “Instant Search” which sucks rocks. Not to mention “Safe Search” which is on by default. Every time I log out of Google, on the next login I have to go in and change my settings because they don’t persist in my Google account since they are search settings only. This sucks rocks.

But Google has made it clear they aren’t going to change that. So while I and many others have bitched and moaned about it, Google just ignores us because it thinks – just like Microsoft and many other big companies – that whatever it does is justified no matter how bogus the reasoning.

So this “campaign” as you put it is irrelevant until such time as Google sees some economic or social benefit from changing its policies.

More importantly, this “campaign” is just as acceptable as Google’s own desires. It’s just a(nother pointless) disagreement. Some people want real names everywhere, some people want pseudonyms allowed everywhere.

Bottom line: Neither are going to get what they want.

Moribund Cadaver August 22, 2011 2:56 PM

Also, a note on “entitlement”:

The reason why people were upset at Google attempting to construct this kind of system was because they’re Google. They’ve seen a decade trying to become the Internet. This isn’t like some random specialized site that started up with no prior connections or even a prior userbase.

Google sets trends. People pay attention to them and even use them as an excuse to change policy and direction. With Google attempting to model themselves after Facebook, it threatens to set up a duopoly on the internet that dominates more and more of its social and technological infrastructure.

There’s a very real chance of people who are forced out of Google’s sphere as they tighten it up further and further, being at a disadvantage in online dealings. “Just go elsewhere” is a more problematic bit of advice when you’re talking about a company that has set the standards for much of what we think of as the Internet today.

There’s also the fact that Google dropped this policy in place and are trying to remake themselves, dragging a massive existing userbase along with them. Plus isn’t a bold new site that people can simply ignore if they don’t like it. They repurposed profiles and have already created consequences for other systems and functions if you choose to opt out of Plus. That’s a questionable practice when it comes on how to treat your userbase at best.

The argument about “why should we put up with pseudonyms when we want an exclusive real name!” site also presents a bit of a problem.

In mainstream culture, the tendency already exists to automatically default to what culture considers a “real name” (which is to say given birth name in western culture – again a bias you can’t assume too much about! The west is not the world!).

If one knows all one’s friends and family by what you think is a “real name”, why would you be worried about those people all signing up on a website using a random handle? Most people automatically sign up with a given service as the name they consider themselves known as, or want to use. In fact, this was a big reason behind the confusion in Google’s original TOS phrasing – where they say “use the name you’re known by”.

In our current culture, people who use a chosen name rather than accept without question the one they were given at birth, are still a relative minority. They are not the mainstream. There’s no reason to assume that a random cross sampling of mainstream persons would, when presented with a site that says “sign up with the name people know you by so they can find you” would go “GBLUMP!” and type out CarGuy5848.

In spite of Facebook’s “real name” policy, they didn’t have to work hard to get most mainstream persons to just sign up as Jane Doe, John Smith, or Susan Brown.

Insisting on a draconian enforcement of what actually amounts to government tracked ID names (because that’s the “real name” as far as one can attempt to enforce any concept of such a thing) actually smells like entitlement in the other direction. Less like “I need to find my friends” and more “I don’t like seeing people who, at a glance, don’t fit my concept of real life posting among people talking about real life.”

And even so, the problem isn’t that there shouldn’t ever be a social network or website devoted to that – one could even ask “why is it so crucial that G+ duplicate Facebook when we already have Facebook? What’s the point?”

The real issue that gives people pause is that Google, with their mission to shape the Internet itself, has taken up this as the next stage of their mission. The resistance they’re meeting is, by and large, from people who don’t like the long term prospects that raises.

Krud August 22, 2011 3:13 PM

By the time Google+ came around, I’d given up worrying about a psuedonym, partly due an online writing gig that required I change my GMail name to my actual, “real” name. (Which I was willing to do since they were paying me.)
I still use my pseudonym on Twitter and elsewhere, but for the most part I’ve gone with my “real” name now. But I put real in quotes because technically, it’s not my real name. That is, it’s not on my birth certificate, or on my driver’s license for that matter. But in every other respect it’s real to me, as I’ve used it my entire life, and it is how I’m largely known.
Point being, they have no evidence that it’s my real name (which many have already pointed out), and if they ever take issue with it, I simply won’t use their service. shrug I survived before without G+, and I likely will in the future as well.

Skukkuk August 22, 2011 3:21 PM

Complaining about the “real names” policy isn’t just about getting Google to change. It can also convince others to stay away from Google+ because not all of their friends will come with them. Most people focus most of their attention on one or a very few social networking sites, even if they maintain accounts on others as well; moving or not moving to a new one is in many ways a collective decision.

x August 22, 2011 3:31 PM

@Shava Nerad
“In fact, your real name has so many variations, as a former marketing VP, I can tell you, a customer number is far more useful.”

Which is possibly why Google (just like FBook) recently started asking for the cell phone number (works ok as a relatively unique ID number).

So I guess with the ‘real names policy’, request for personal phone number, and implementation of ipv6, both G+ and Fbook are building the Inet into something that would be useful for future nazis.

Richard Steven Hack August 22, 2011 3:44 PM

How Google could dig itself out of the Google+ real-name hole

Quote: “As Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation has pointed out, Google has publicly stated its support of several different levels of identity online — including unidentified (i.e., not logged into a Google account), pseudonymous and identified — because of its belief that users should be allowed “the freedom to be who you want to be” online. But Google+ is not following through on that promise, and it is making Google look bad. If the company truly wants to support that freedom, it needs to figure out how to accommodate all kinds of users, not just those whose names sound real or who happen to be famous.”

pfogg August 22, 2011 6:44 PM

There’s a whole raft of problems that can be ameliorated or addressed by requiring real names (assuming that most people follow the policy, and of the people who use pseudonyms, hardly any do so undetectably). In a world where it’s increasingly unwise to attach your real name to substantial collections of data, using ‘real names’ as a fix looks like an odd choice, especially when Facebook privacy concerns could otherwise be a big bonus to any competition.

But Kee Hinckley has hit on what might be exactly the wrong argument for pseudonymity. In a world that’s also being buried in ‘TMI’, demanding pseudonymity so that that people will be more forthcoming about personal information and will reveal themselves to a greater extent makes me wonder if there’s a better case for ‘real names’ than I thought…

Anonymous 1 August 22, 2011 6:57 PM

Neeneko: Is there really any problem with allowing people who prove to the service provider (somehow) that they are indeed using their real name to say so (and have the provider provide an icon or something to back it up) and then just provide a setting of not showing pseudonyms if they select to only see those who use their real name?

Dean Procter August 22, 2011 9:27 PM

After reading all these comments I am glad that there is a way for us to be ourselves, using whatever label we like, build trust in each facet of ourselves & even exchange payments.
It isn’t, however, on Google.
I hope it will be coming to the matrix near you.

Richard Steven Hack August 22, 2011 10:49 PM

NZ: “I thought “Richard Steven Hack” was a pseudonym…”

And if I signed up with Google+, they probably would do.

This used to be an issue for me back in the BBS days. I would apply for an account with a BBS and would automatically be refused based on my last name because the software had a check for “obviously phony” names. I always had to leave a comment for the sysop explaining that it really was my name. None of them had a problem with that once I did so, interestingly, despite the fact that they couldn’t verify that.

Similarly, using standard false ID methods, one could easily make an identity that passed Google’s checks and still be totally false. Once again, the “security protocol” only works to keep out the “riff-raff” who don’t know how to game the system.

John Smith August 22, 2011 10:53 PM

Another option would be to flood Google with complaints about the “verified” profile using the name “Sergey Brin” – after all, his real name is “Сергей Михайлович Брин” (source wikipedia)

Tom August 23, 2011 8:23 AM

Some asked what use real names are for google, and the answer everytime is: advertising. I don’t agree.

For google+, advertising is (at the moment) a small concern. What they need is members and time being spent on their network, they need what facebook already has. And this only works when people find each other. And people find each other, when they are registered with their real names. Sure, there may be some bloggers who are known by their pseudonym, but 99.x% of potential users are known by their real names. I will never find a friend calling himself “Pe Ter” in facebook or google. Social networking works way better with real names, and google needs this one to work. Easy as that.

I do not see what’s wrong with that. Google’s network, google’s rules. In germany, there are some politicians who want to enforce real names throughout the internet. That’s something to stand up against!

Pete August 23, 2011 10:43 AM

Tom: you’ve overlooked that most people will enter themselves under the name by which people know them, which isn’t necessarily the name that appears on their ID or one that Google is willing to approve. There are all sorts of trivial examples of this: if you’ve known someone as Bob for 20 years you’re not more likely to find him if Google makes him put his name in as “Robert”, in fact you are less likely to find him.

Sling Trebuchet August 23, 2011 10:47 AM

e.g. Posted by: Mike B: “Anyway the point of the policy is to prevent abuse and Google isn’t going to spend much effort trying to verify that people using the service are using their real names unless they get complaints.”

  • names (for 200+ 400+ Million are unverifiable
  • Google wait until someone complains about behaviour before checking
    How has the name policy prevented the abuse?

    My name is John Smith, or whatever name doesn’t give the insecure people a fit of the vapours. In the unlikely event of that being challenged, I can apparently ‘prove’ that by giving Google the number for an anonymous pay-as-you-go sim card. I can also photoshop an ID if they want that.

    If Google eventually nuke my account, they would do because of behaviour – which is independent of whatever label I might be using.

    If I’m a scammer / identity-phisher / con-artist, Google will help me by creating a false sense of trust in my non-challenging fake name.

    Whatever name I might be using, I can pass that name to anybody that I want to find me.
    If I have a Gmail address, and I want people to email me on that…. I’ll tell them what it is. If I don’t want them to email me, I won’t tell them. Simple!

    Here is some free advice:
    If you want use a given service to contact a co-worker or friend that you know in meatspace, ask them if they use that service and what their email / ID on the service is. You do actually know them don’t you?
    Searching for them rather than asking is creepy. At best, it’s impolite.

    You used to know them 10 years ago?
    That’s not a friend, that’s a stranger, and you are a stalker.

    You really want to find them after years of silence? No mutual contacts?
    Listen. If someone wants random strangers to find them easily by name, they can choose to put their name up on the Net.

  • Dean August 23, 2011 11:29 AM

    Mike B said: What Google cares about is that it is easy for people to find their friends and build a network, just like it is in Facebook.

    ^^^^ This. Another couple commenters have said something similar.

    At the end of the day, it is Google’s sandbox. If they want you to use real names then that is their prerogative. If you don’t like it, don’t participate. There are any number of ways to express yourself using a pseudonym on the internet.

    John Campbell August 23, 2011 11:46 AM

    When forced to use one’s real name, people find themselves silenced from expressing their real feelings.

    Perhaps this is another part of the drive towards Political Correctness by making each of us accountable for our words.

    “Political correctness is an effort to abrogate the First Amendment under the assumption that there exists a right to not be offended and that it has priority.” – The Toberman

    So, I guess, there’s the argument that “Silence is Golden” especially w/r/t dissenting opinions.

    NZ August 23, 2011 1:22 PM

    @John Smith

    “Михайлович” is even more interesting, since (strictly speaking) it is not a given (first, second, etc.) name and it is not a family name.

    As a sidenote: legally (so you can prove it to Google) changing your first name to “Agent” might be hilarious.

    Bob O`Bob August 24, 2011 1:58 AM

    Thank you, Mr. Schneier, for chiming in.

    I believe it would be greatly appreciated if you could add a comment on the fact that we have branded their policy “real name theater” and particularly whether you think we created the term appropriately

    Tom August 24, 2011 6:42 AM

    Pete: I think everyone would think of trying “Robert Doe” if he didn’t find his friend when searching for “Bob Doe”. But you are of course right: What’s important is the name people know. That’s what I meant with “real names”: I need to be able to find other persons I know.

    But if I’m looking for my friend “Albert Dudemeister”, I will never find him if he has called himself one of these:
    – “Albert D.”
    – “Al Bert”
    – “A**** Dude”
    – “John Smith”

    (I know, I will also never find a real “John Smith” only by his name, but I would find him if he’s in my friends’ circles and that’s what’s important.)

    Kee Hinckley August 24, 2011 8:50 AM

    (Thank you Bruce for linking to my post.)

    I’ve enjoyed reading the comments here. I don’t have a lot to add that I didn’t already cover in my post, but a number of people here have taken the common view that it’s Google’s playground, so why not go elsewhere if you don’t like it? I address that in my post, but I don’t expect everyone to read 10,000 word blog posts, so I’ll just quote myself here. This is why I believe it’s important to draw a line in the sand:

    …the forum for public discourse is no longer the town hall, or newspaper, or fliers on the street. It is here on the Internet, and it is happening in communities like this, hosted by private sector companies. Freedom of speech is not guaranteed in these places. As Lawrence Lessig once said, “the code is the law.” The code that Google applies, the rules they set up now in the software, are going to influence our right to speak out now and in the future. It is imperative that we impress upon Google the importance of providing users with the same rights (and responsibilities) as exist in the society that nurtured Google and brought about its success.

    For more on the ethical issues surrounding requiring real names, the Oxford University blog, Practical Ethics, expands on the idea here:

    Peter da Silva August 24, 2011 12:21 PM

    It’s depressing to see how many people are buying in to Google’s arguments. If it was about people finding and recognizing each other, then they would let people use any name they wanted if they had even a smidgen of evidence that it was the name people knew them by. The fact that they forced Skud to use “K Robert” completely demolishes that argument… her friends know her as “Skud” and I do a double-take every time I see “K Robert” in the stream. That’s just not the name I know her by. On top of that, half the employees at Google can attest to that because that’s the name she used when she was working there!

    Until they back down on that, I can’t give a skerrick of credence to the argument that they’re interested in helping people find each other.

    Tom August 25, 2011 6:27 AM

    @ Peter da Silva:
    I’m still buying what google says. Simply because Skud is an exception. They know they’re losing some customers with their restrictive name policy, but they think (and I agree), that the benefit outweights the problems. I’ve seen social networks turning more and more anonymous and finally going down and I understand Google very well on that point, I’d do the same.

    Paeniteo August 25, 2011 7:30 AM

    @Tom: “But if I’m looking for my friend “Albert Dudemeister”, I will never find him”

    Well, if Albert would like to be found by you, I suppose he would provide you with his pseudonym. OTOH, if Albert wanted to be found by everybody who searches for his real name, he would have chosen that as his pseudonym.

    “Simply because Skud is an exception.”

    Here’s another one: Paeniteo (maybe not as famous 😉
    There is a significant number of people who have no idea about my real name and I have no clue about theirs, either. We won’t find us on google+, although the platform would be really nice for the hobby we share.
    The point is, having a pseudonym is not so exceptional at all.

    Robert S August 29, 2011 2:51 AM

    If people can’t figure out how to sign up for Google+ under a pseudonym, they deserve to have their internet license revoked.

    It’s not that hard, people.

    Google isn’t some bastion of white privilege. It’s mostly Asians and Indians. Don’t you people know what geeks look like?

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