So after spending a couple of weeks talking about why Google+ is so great, we are now in the second week of speaking about Google’s strange policy regarding user names for this new social network. And it really is very strange, perhaps even more so than it is controversial, oppressive, or socially obliging. For whatever you might have heard and whatever Google’s original intention might have been, the way the service and its rules work right now does not boil down to requiring real names. That would have made for a pertinent but simple story; it is a story well worth telling and debating, but it’s not this story.
If Google actually required everyone to use their real names, the case would be somewhat straightforward. It would be understandable why they’d want that to happen, as it would vastly increase marketing potential and cut down on trolls and other kinds of abuse. It would also be easy to see why many people would disagree with that policy, as it might make the service unusable, or worse, dangerous to anyone who needs to maintain solid divisions between different roles they take in life. The “Geek Feminism Wiki” has quickly become famous for collecting a list with many, many plausible instances for such a need, and Jillian York at EFF has made the same case eloquently. The next stops on the itinerary for this discussion are ‘it’s a private service, don’t use it if it’s not for you’, followed by ‘but if this grows as fast as Facebook, or as fast as other Google services, the so-called private service will actually provide a major part of public and private life, and a restriction to fundamental rights there will be a relevant restriction globally’. The final destination of that ride is called ‘is Google a company or a government?’. And I think we will need to go there, eventually, but before we do, let’s take another look at the bus that is offering to take us. Its fittings introduce some basic assumptions about this journey that need to be made more explicit.
Because while many are having just that discussion, some aren’t, and perhaps most strikingly, it isn’t quite the discussion in which Google+ is engaging. The protest site ‘My Name is Me‘ collects people who identify themselves by names, some given and some self-made, in order to speak out against Google+’s perceived desire for everyone to identify. Danah Boyd’s excellent post on this subject points out that
“Real names” policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people.
This hints at the fact that the so-called real name policy won’t just expose some people to repercussions from abusive third parties, but is perceived as a direct exertion of power over the users by Google. James Grimmelmann further clarifies this:
Google wants Google+ to be an everything space: one for informal socializing, rich intellectual debate, political engagement, deep personal and confidential sharing, and so much more. And that’s incompatible with a real names policy, because if you want your space to mirror all of society, you have to accept that society itself has a diversity of named, nym-ed, and nameless spaces.
And Bernie Hogan drives this point home, and Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic illustrates it vividly.
Now here is where the explicit control that seems to demand real names and exclude fake personas turns into an underlying implicit ideology that wants to decide what is real in the first place; more precisely, what reality looks and sounds like. The diversity of named, nym-ed, and nameless spaces translates into a diversity of names in one shared place; and what Google+ is really excluding aren’t pseudonyms. Rather, the rules exclude the diversity of actual names, because too many actual names don’t seem real enough.
Robert Scoble recently posted a short protocol of a discussion he had with Vic Gundotra, a VP at Google, and his post was later recommended in an official Google+ statement, so it’s a bit more than hearsay. Here’s what surprised me:
He says it isn’t about real names. He says he isn’t using his legal name here. He says, instead, it is about having common names and removing people who spell their names in weird ways, like using upside-down characters, or who are using obviously fake names, like “god” or worse.
This is not exactly what Google+’s help page says. They claim that what they want is pretty close to a real name:
Your common name is the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you. For example, if your legal name is Charles Jones Jr. but you normally use Chuck Jones or Junior Jones, any of these would be acceptable.
These two conditions are not compatible. Like most people of my generation, I know several individuals who are commonly referred to by a name including a variety of capital and small letters and unique characters. But as Google+ goes on to explain what is an ‘obviously fake name’, it gets even more interesting:
Use your full first and last name in a single language.
A single language? This is fun for three reasons. First, practically no-one in the Western hemisphere will pass this test if taken literally. My first name is originally Greek, my last name is originally Celtic. Second, my first name is spelled as is currently usual in German, and my last name is currently common in English. Third, although my name violates this rule twice, Google+ has absolutely no problem with ‘Stephan Packard’ as a handle, and nobody really expects them to, because we understand that they’re not really talking about language here but about culture, and the cultural mixes in my name’s past are all established parts of Western normalization.
But selling that norm as adherence to some ‘single language’ is an attempt to naturalize the rule. If your name combines several cultures, surely those are just lingually different realizations of one identity, and you can translate all the parts into one language for us?
We can’t. Why can’t we do that? Because partaking of several cultures is part of our identities and our names. The idea that there is one identity beyond cultural differences ultimately just prioritizes one culture before all others, the one in which reality comes with ‘real’ names, more ‘real’ than many actual names. And the help forums at Google+ are full of complaints by persons whose actual civil names combine languages or hail from languages less commonly recognized in Western society, and were thus denied.
So there are at least three rivalling, incommensurable claims about what a name has to be in order to satisfy Google+’s standards:
- Your real given name, the same that appears on your passport, your driving licence, and your credit card bills.
- The name you ‘actually use’, which might be Chuck or Junior or KirkIsMyHero23, if KirkIsMyHero23 has become a recognized public handle (and many users have been reporting that their clearly self-given handles were accepted once proven to be in general use).
- A name that sounds as if it might well be a real given name for a certain and limited understanding of cultural reality.
In the middle of that contradictory Bermuda triangle rests the assumption that a unified reality can be achieved through names, and that such an appellation must work in order for society to function. This spells out the most common monicker of ideology: Your culturally produced identity is naturalized by binding it to one symbolic system, and that symbolic system’s conventionality and contingency is then denied. So Google+ isn’t just denying the revolutionary, the social worker and the highschool teacher the chance to safely divide their personas and choose just one for an online identity. They are simultaneously denying the reality of many cultures and subcultures and their assorted personas. They are not just telling you that you must only be one person, they are also telling you what personhood can look like.
Mind you, I love Google+, I don’t think Google is evil, and neither do I think their rules will remain quite as confused as they are now. But when this journey eventually arrives at a set of intelligible practical rules for handles, and we all get to decide whether we want to go along with those, it might be worth remembering this original confusion for the clarity it brings to the normalization involved.