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The Google+ Nymwars: Where Identity and Capitalism Collide

Google recently tentatively dipped back into the social networking waters with Google+, a network based on the premise of circles; you decide who you want in which circle, who sees what, and who your ‘friends’ versus ‘people I’m adding back just to be polite’ are. It’s a concept I’m already familiar with from Dreamwidth, which has a robust filtering function that serves much the same purpose.

The company learned its social lessons the hard way with the Buzz debacle, and one of the much-touted features of Google+ was the high degree of very transparent privacy configurability. It’s possible to make almost every part of your profile private, and to fine-tune controls. If, for example, I only want people in one social circle to see where I live, I can do that. It also took baby steps; instead of a forcible rollout a la Buzz where users logged in only to realise they’d been added to a network they hadn’t consented to join, Google+ users had to actively join, through what was initially an open beta with highly coveted invitations. (I can’t be the only one reminded of the early days of GMail there…)

Initially, people were quite excited about it. Danny O’Brien at the Committee to Protect Journalists pointed out, for example, that the service had some important implications for journalists in danger:

In emergencies, political or otherwise, one of the first acts of involved Net users is to become a citizen journalist, if only for the duration. Everyone who speaks online potentially shares some of the use cases of a threatened journalist. And the most at-risk journalists are canaries in the coal mine for grimly inevitable challenges that will face any successful Internet site.

The level of fine-grained control was very appealing to numerous users, and I started seeing friends with more private Internet lives flocking to join, appreciating the level of privacy available. I was pretty excited myself when I signed up and the obligatory gender required field included a third option, which, while it didn’t accurately represent my gender, at least didn’t require me to lie and claim a gender that wasn’t mine in order to join. The gender field was initially forcibly public, an issue that a number of users criticised for a variety of reasons, many of which revolved around safety; women are much more likely to be harassed online, and there are good reasons for wanting to conceal gender beyond that. Google responded, and enabled the ability to private the field.

This seemed like a good sign. A service in beta was responding to the test users and evolving settings and functionality to meet the declared needs of people using the site and providing feedback.

But then, the nymwars began.

Google+ users started logging in, only to find that they were suspended for name violations. Only, the site wasn’t making its name policy clear; could people use pseudonyms? Did people need to use their legal names? Users on the site warred over pseudonymous versus identified use, many using strawperson arguments that revolved around anonymous and malicious pseudonymous use in a stubborn resistance to the idea that some people may use stable, well-known pseudonyms. That, in fact, some people are known exclusively by pseudonyms online, and some of those people have very high profiles.

Not just online, either; some people with pseudonyms adopted for web use also use them offline with friends, coworkers, and family. These names are their ‘real names’ in the sense of the names they respond to when shouted across a room, the names associated with their reputations, the names they think of as theirs. Skud, one of the most high profile suspension cases, has been covering this issue on her website and points out that there are a myriad of uses for pseudonyms, and that the enforcement of the names policy on Google+ has been suspiciously erratic. In some cases, users with pseudonyms who have spoken up in defense of pseudonymous use appear to  have been maliciously reported for profile violations.

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. Geek Feminism has a detailed (and editable!) breakdown of who might need to use pseudonyms online.

Meanwhile, what is the official policy on names at Google+? It’s surprisingly hard to find. Here’s one answer: ‘Google Profiles requires you to use the name that you commonly go by in daily life.’ This is  the ‘common names’ policy referenced by Bradley Horowitz in his attempt to ‘clarify’ the policy, which actually didn’t clarify much of anything at all. Documentation elsewhere says ‘your full name is the only required information that will be displayed on your profile.’ Numerous public statements on the policy from Google officials have done absolutely nothing to clear up the confusion.

The site claims that it wants people to use ‘common names’ so they can be found by friends, family, and anyone else who might be seeking their profiles. This makes sense (setting aside, for a moment, the fact that not everyone wants to be found by, say, their family online, or their students if they are teachers, or their patients if they are doctors, etc.); you’re on a social network, you want to be social, ergo, you should use the name people would use if they were looking for you. Which means that someone like Skud would use that name because otherwise, many people wouldn’t recognise her. In fact, I’ve noticed a whole slew of people adding me whom I don’t recognise at all, and I later realised it’s because they were using their legal names, not the pseudonyms I know them by. Yet, people like Skud are punished for following the stated ‘common names’ policy, and are given the runaround when they try to figure out how to fix their profiles to reactivate them.

Google suggests that users put their full names in the name field, and other names in the ‘nickname’ field. This…doesn’t work if people don’t know you by your full name, because other names do not show up on hover or when you leave a comment. Someone has to go to your profile to actively seek out other names for you. When Skud attempted to satisfy the policy and allow her friends to find her by listing herself as Kirrily ‘Skud’ Robert, her profile was suspended again for a name violation.

It also doesn’t work if you need to use a pseudonym that is not directly, clearly, and obviously linked with your legal name. If Jane Credenza writes hentai slash under the name Cupcake Robbins, she might not want those two identities crossing. If Maria Cortez works with undocumented immigrants who are victims of rape and sexual assault, and wants to be able to talk about that online, she might need to use a pseudonym to protect herself and the people she works with. If Greg d’Amici is a trans man who’s been living stealth for an extended period of time but wants to talk about transgender issues under a pseudonym, he might not want people being able to link his legal identity with the name he uses to discuss these issues.

What Google seems to want from Google+ users is their full legal names, although it will not come out and admit this. Not just that, but only full legal names which conform with Western European/North American naming standards. Numerous users have been suspended for using their full legal names, when those names don’t match anticipated standards (the site bans, for instance, the use of punctuation in names and appears to frown on mononyms). Programmers are notorious for thinking simplistically when it comes to differentiating between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ names.

Google claims that the name policy, whatever it actually is, is about safety. It says that forcing people to use ‘real names’ (I use quotes here because the site means ‘legal names,’ not real names; not everyone uses their legal name as their active, daily name) will enhance safety and reduce incidence of abuse. This argument is often brought up in attempts to crush pseudonymity, and it’s very, very wrong. People are in fact quite happy to be extremely abusive in public under their legal names, as Openbook demonstrates (type in any slur you feel like and prepare to be appalled). For that matter, the letters to the editor at your local newspaper probably furnish some examples of people being hateful under their legal names. Furthermore, being forced to use legal names can put others in significant danger. If you are, for example, a rape counselor who discusses your work, it is not necessarily safe to be known by your legal name.

Arguments on and off the site revolve around and around. Some people want to compel users to use legal names, others believe in pseudonymous use whether they engage in it themselves or not, and some just don’t care. Those advocating for legal names are very fond of bringing up false arguments, rather than engaging with the substance of the argument: That legal names can be dangerous, and people may need to use pseudonyms to engage safely with networks like Google+. That people should be able to choose how they identify themselves online.

If Google really cares about safety, it needs strong, effective, and enforceable site policies. It needs to create a culture of safety, because, well, if your website’s full of assholes, it’s your fault. Real names policies don’t work. Good site policies and the cultivation of a culture of mutual respect do.

What this is really about, of course, is capitalism, which some people advocating for legal names will admit, in a sort of roundabout, weird argument. They say ‘it’s not about safety, of course, the service wants real names because then it can sell the data,’ like this somehow ends the argument and the discussion can stop now. This is actually the core of the argument, and it’s the thing that everyone should be talking about, because it has extremely serious implications for online identity, and for the way people use the Internet.

Google+ is not a charitable service run for the benefit of users. It, like scores of other free sites, like Facebook, like Tumblr, like Twitter, like Blogger, etc. is a profit-generating machine. The owners of the site make a profit from user content, and on sites like Google+ and Facebook, there’s also a big potential to make a profit through the direct commodification of user identities. Google makes money when you use your legal name on their site. It makes less when you use a pseudonym. And that is what this about.

Many of the people advocating for pseudonymous use are activists, many of whom use the Internet for online organising and the exchange of information and ideas. They are attempting to work within a capitalist system to create change, which is essentially a losing proposition. As Flavia has already discussed here, social media as a whole is not democratic. It is a capitalist tool. If Google’s approach to this issue takes on, it could make the Internet substantially less safe for activists worldwide.

The standards that Google+ sets revolve around the purchase, sale, and exchange of identity, a multibillion dollar industry worldwide. This is what people should be talking about. This is what the nymwars are about; a collision between capitalism and the rest of us, where identities are bargaining chips and tools.


  1. Sarah TX wrote:

    This problem seems so open-and-shut to me that I’m starting to get quite freaked out that it hasn’t been “corrected” yet.

    I used to be a heavy contributor to Wikipedia – the sort of contributor that they claim to like, someone knowledgeable in a specialty but also interested in lots and lots of different topics. The whole danah boyd kerfuffle about whether it was ‘appropriate’ to have a lowercase name instigated my departure from contributing to their content, and I’m getting the feeling that I’ll be leaving Google+ for a similar reason.

    Wednesday, August 3, 2011 at 6:56 pm | Permalink
  2. Laila wrote:

    The policy is not clear because it’s still evolving, just exactly like their policy on gender and privacy. Last I heard (in an essay I can’t seem to find again), the project leaders had acknowledged most of your concerns and were “discussing.” They’re in beta, things are changing. Plenty of time to criticize them once they’ve made final decisions AND have become unwilling to re-evaluate.

    Wednesday, August 3, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Permalink
  3. Thank you for doing this post, which covers most of the points I was planning to. Now I can link to you instead of doing all the work for myself!

    This has only solidified my own attachment to Dreamwidth. I like Dreamwidth because they have a business plan in which *I* am the customer. All the other social networks have business plans in which I am the product, the thing which is sold (to advertisers, generally). Or else, like Twitter, they got their business plan from the Underpants Gnomes.

    I absolutely agree with your analysis of what Google means by “real name” — they mean “the name on your credit card”. *That’s* the name that counts.

    Wednesday, August 3, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Permalink
  4. In addition to the main point about how this policy treats certain folks crappily, what baffles me is that Google *ought* to be able to track pseudonymous folks *better* than many of the “real” named. What’s easier to track, all the various cookies created by someone named Skud, or those by someone named John Smith?

    I sincerely hope that some small number of high-ups at Google are being hardheaded about this, and are being persuaded otherwise. I want to use and enjoy G+, but I have other ways to communicate that don’t cut me off from lots of my friends.

    Wednesday, August 3, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Permalink
  5. John OKeefe wrote:

    Enjoyed the article. Not sure I agree that Facebook is some sort of charitable entity. The problem is while Google acts like a bouncer at a club door G+ still not a real social network as it lacks the fluid dynamics of a diverse membership.

    Wednesday, August 3, 2011 at 10:35 pm | Permalink
  6. Barley wrote:

    John, reread the sentence. It says that Google, Facebook, and other free sites are NOT charitable.

    Wednesday, August 3, 2011 at 11:43 pm | Permalink
  7. Yonmei wrote:

    And this is why I will never get a Google+ account.

    Of course Google wants to maximise its profits from Google+. But I want to be able to use Yonmei, an online ID I’ve been known by since 2002. And I don’t want to risk losing access to my Gmail account as Yonmei, which I’ve used for almost that long.

    (I don’t do Dreamwidth because it’s run by the same person who banned me from Livejournal for publicly supporting a woman’s right to publicly breastfeed. Strange but true. Sometimes the Internet is a very small place…)

    Thursday, August 4, 2011 at 3:20 am | Permalink
  8. Documentally wrote:

    Great post. It doesn’t make me feel any better about being kicked off G+ myself but it has certainly reminded me of some home truths.

    Thursday, August 4, 2011 at 5:26 am | Permalink
  9. Dennis wrote:

    There’s one big problem with the notion that “Google’s policy is still evolving”. This relates to the “it’s in beta, everything’s cool” argument.

    Google is crushing the good faith of some of the most hardcore, tech-advocating users before “beta” is even over. Their “suspend first, ask questions later, maybe, maybe not” behavior is fast destroying any attempt at fostering mutual respect on the site.

    That people with western, white male names are in little danger of ever getting suspended and frequently set the tone by attacking, belittling, and even outright trolling users who advocate privacy control… is terrible. The site’s own “block user” function doesn’t even really do much good, as it permits offensive users to still be seen in most views as one browses around. And their offensive content.

    The result is that G+ is turning sour fast for scores of users. There have been estimates that over 10% (but growing) of the initial users have selected “chosen” names. Pseudonyms. In statistics, that is not an insignificant number. Especially depending on who that 10+ percent represent.

    They sure seem to represent the leading edge of the internet and some of the most prolific online authors, bloggers, advocates, and people-who-say-unpredictable-fresh-and-interesting-things.

    If certain trends from the Internet hold true, a large bulk of the other 90% (and falling) of G+’s users won’t be the type who will go “out there” and socialize outside their immediately family or school friends. They’ll be invisible. You’ll never run across them at a casual glance – or even trying to find them.

    So the people who are apt to turn their nose up at Google for not being treated with the expectation of good faith, are the ones most likely to keep G+ interesting to a public audience and make it stay in the news.

    Yeah. Let’s make them hate us and drive them away from our service. Good game!

    Thursday, August 4, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  10. Mazarine wrote:

    I’m on Google+. Right now it’s mostly pictures of Chris Brogan’s vegetables, and it reminds me nothing so much of facebook, except a facebook that sits atop my gmail and shows me “updates” and when I google myself it’s THE FIRST RESULT. So…

    I’m using a name that’s not my legal name. Have experienced no problems. But hearing that Google is trying to take away people’s right to privacy, pseudonyms, and endangering people who need to be anonymous to protect themselves or their clients makes me feel icky.

    I don’t like Google+ anymore, I’m going MINUS myself from that whole scene. It’s my info. They want to sell it? They’ll have to get it another way.

    Meanwhile, on an adjacent island, if you would like to block tracking software on various websites, I suggest the Ghostery plugin for Firefox. It blocks hundreds of trackers a day for me. And it’s free.



    Saturday, August 6, 2011 at 1:22 am | Permalink
  11. Tanya wrote:

    Totally agree with you on the main thrust of the article. Just wanted to query your initial point about the circles. I’m no expert on social networking, only on Facebook and don’t even understand how Twitter works, but I’ve effectively been using this technique on facebook for ages. I have my friends grouped into ranked lists and customise privacy settings for each. I guess maybe it’s easier to manage on G+ and maybe the privacy settings aren’t constantly changing and impossible to work out? I’m not really sure what my point is, just surprised that this “circles” thing is being trumpeted like it’s a new idea.

    Saturday, August 6, 2011 at 6:35 pm | Permalink
  12. Melinda Fleming wrote:

    I’m not tech savvy: but isn’t it possible for the activist community to create our own internet? Surely there are lesser known search engines that rival Google in terms of effectiveness? Using such an engine as a starting point: doesn’t the Community At Large have enough talent within itself to create such an alternative? Like WikiPedia, except a whole World Wide Web just for people who need to do their thing – without profiteering getting in the way?

    Monday, August 8, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Permalink
  13. Frank wrote:

    Two words: Rolling Thunder

    Google+ is just a Tiwtter service right now, but it will evolve fast with weekly if not daily incremental changes…

    Google is competing with Facebook and others in wanting to be the world’s identity register. This is an enormously strategic and lucrative play.

    As an aside, unless I am missing something, the Google+ privacy settings, preferneces and controls aren’t very fine-grained at all. Circles are just distribution lists with a new interface.

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Permalink
  14. Melinda Fleming wrote:

    The World’s Identity Register: that’s it in a nutshell.

    If they can identify you (find a tag that points to you, and only you) they can define you, label you, target you, and pin you down like a dead butterfly.

    I lead a very uninteresting life, with no intention of ever making it interesting (watching the world is “interesting” enough), yet privacy intrusion of any kind makes me feel like I’m under house arrest or something!

    Monday, August 15, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink