Tuesday, July 26, 2011


A rose by any other name... would still be a four letter word.
My thoughts on the naming issues surrounding Google+.

Have you been following the controversies surrounding names, real names, anonymity, pseudonyms, and related issues over in Google+?  No?  Consider yourself fortunate.  It is a messy and complex issue.  I've thought about such issues for nearly 25 years now, and although I have very very firm opinions on it, I don't envy the people who have to wade through the issues to come up with something you can actually implement.  A lot has already been said on the subject, and I'm not going to go into all of it, but I'm going to focus on the issues that resonate the most with me.

Names are complex.  Horribly complex.  Google thought the gender field in Google+ was complex?  Its a cakewalk compared to names.  It is no wonder they messed it up.  They should have known, and should have done much better... but they didn't.  Their goals are noble - avoid the problems that sometimes crop up around anonymous environments, keep people accountable, and create a model that was based on realspace.  Unfortunately, the policy that seems to have been implemented does none of those things correctly.

Many others will deal with all the reasons to use pseudonyms... and all the reasons not to.  But the issue boils down to one fundamental question to me:

In the real world, who should control what name you use when you talk to me?

There are two acceptable answers - and neither of them is the person whose house we're standing in at the time.

If you are modeling the real world, then the first thing you need to model is that my name is mine.  It may have been given to me by someone else, one I created myself, or some combination of the two, but it is my name.  It may not neatly fall into your "rules" for what a name should look like (with a "first" and "last" part) or have the spelling you desire or be easy to parse or display or verify or be unique and distinct from someone elses... but it is my name and I use it for a reason.  Whatever that reason is - you shouldn't care.

When you and I have a relationship of some sort, a negotiation takes place where we figure out what names we will use for each other.  I may have introduced myself with a name you find difficult to pronounce and you struggle with it.  You may choose to use an honorific and I may try to dissuade you from doing so.  You may be more friendly with me and want to use a meaningful nickname.  You may call me one thing to my face and another only in your head.  There are many reasons and ways to negotiate the name you'll use for me - and this is the next place that Google+ needs to try and model the real world and assist us in that negotiation.

As the mediator of this dance, Google+ may wish to enforce some rules, but only because one of the dancers want the rules enforced.  Some of the rules may be particularly important when you and I interact for the first time in someone's comments section, while others may only apply once I have added you to a circle.  The rules may include that you want only Romanized names, because you're not used to reading Chinese or Arabic.  Or the rule should be to use the nickname that you and I have been using between us for 20 years.  Or I might want to use my name from before my marriage with friends who will recognize it easiest.  Or it might be a rule to prevent you from writing your name upside down, because it gives me a headache.  It might just be that I want to make sure I always see the same name for you, no matter what you change it to, since you seem to change it every hour.  At the very least, the rules should allow me to verify that a message I read from you today was written by the same person who wrote that message yesterday.

The latter rule raises an interesting point.  Most of the discussions on the "real name" issue have people supporting exclusive use of common names because they want to "know" who they are talking with.  They want to have a reasonable assurance that the person they talk to today will be the same person they talk to tomorrow and that their words will follow them from today to tomorrow.  In short, they want an identity.  Unfortunately, they treat the name as the identity, when it is not.  We have an illusion that a name somehow tells us who we are talking to, when at best it serves as a handle to a more abstract concept.  Names can, and do, change.  Identities should not.

I can go on and on with the various issues that spring from this point, but I don't think its necessary.  Others have discussed the need to have pseudonymity but not anonymity.  The need to hold people responsible for what they say.  The desire that people be able to use pseudonyms to protect themselves for whatever reason and the counter-desire that only "common names" be used because it makes interaction with people easier and more familiar. The complexity involved in what constitutes a "common name" and how culturally narrow that perception might be.  The desire, on both sides, to not be harassed and to have reasonable trustable conversations.  There are even those (and I am one of them) who are now beginning to ask what the real underlying reasons behind this policy are... I feel like all of these are issues themselves, and that I've already gone on too long on what I see as the core issue.

I will leave this, for now, with one final thought:  Google+ paid a great deal of attention to making sure that we could have separate personas all attached to the same identity.  This is the core feature of circles - that you are completely empowered to determine how you will represent yourself to what set of people you will interact with.  Your profile will show different information to different groups... you can pay attention to different groups differently... you can send or share different posts with different groups... you can even let people change your picture, a much more common method of identification.  There is only one restriction - your name must be the same between all these groups, and it must be a "common name", effectively disempowering you with one of the most personal of your personal info.  Why is this?  Why is Google so keen to making sure that of all the flowers in the garden, only the rose bears the name they want it to be?

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