Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Why JoeSchmo1976 isn’t allowed to join Google+: It’s not behavior, it’s aesthetics

a typical thread of comments on Google+

I joined Google+ before it rolled out to the public last year, in its initial trial. At first, I was pretty excited: In the beginning, my fellow Plussers (for lack of a better term) were mostly San Franciscans, geeks, journalists, and policy wonks, and for a few weeks it felt like some weird elite playground (or a first class airport lounge). Once the platform opened up to the public, it was still fun for a little while, and as you know, I was flattered to be added to Google+’s “recommended users list,” not least because it gave me a taller pedestal from which to shout about digital rights.

And then the #nymwars happened. And while I’ve always been staunchly in favor of online anonymity, I tried for awhile to see it from the other side. Except, as my following on Google+ grew, it became more and more difficult. Why? Well, here’s the thing:

People with “real” names say lots of stupid stuff too.

With over 450,000 followers, you’re sure to get some spam and nonsense. But what I’ve found is that, on Google+, most of my comments are spam and nonsense, despite the fact that I’ve spotted myself in the circles of some pretty great people. More notably? Most of the nonsense comes from people with “name-shaped” names, be they “real” or otherwise.

Last week, Google+ announced two new things: The first, support for pseudonymous people with a significant following, to even out the criticism that “Snoop Dogg gets to use a pseudonym but fairly well-known hackers/artists/geeks don’t.” This is great news for those folks, but most of those folks aren’t too secretive about their identities. We’re talking Xeni Jardin and Violet Blue, not Chinese dissidents.

The second thing is that people with “name-shaped pseudonyms” will no longer have to go through the rigamarole of Google’s name appeals process. This is great too, and here’s why: I used to criticize Facebook’s real name policy by saying that it was unevenly applied, in that famous folks like Michael Anti would get removed while hundreds of Santa Clauses were allowed to remain. Now, on Google+ anyway, a Michael Anti (a “name-shaped pseudonym”) can stay up, but JoeSchmo1657 probably can’t.

Now, this does indeed solve my biggest pseudonym concern, which is that dissidents/activists often need a level of pseudonymity to remain safe online. So that’s good. But my views on anonymity–which shifted a bit last year when tested by Google+–have become more militant of late, and here’s why:

There are hundreds of thousands of people, using either their “real” names or “name-shaped pseudonyms,” that are providing little to no value to my network.

The above represents a good day. On a bad day, the comments are filled with spam, sexual harassment, and other nonsense. And sure, I could stop posting publicly, but what’s the point of having 489,000 followers if you don’t share with them?

What this demonstrates, to me, is that Google really has no reason not to allow JoeSchmo1576 and HaCkeRdUdE from starting up accounts. What Google is trying to do isn’t “maintain civility.” It’s trying not to be MySpace. It’s not a matter of behavior, it’s a matter of aesthetic. So long as you “look like a name,” you’re fine.

Except I’m not. I’m allegedly one of your most valued users and I’m unhappy with your service. It’s bringing attention to my work and EFF’s work for sure, and I thank you for that Google, but it’s not giving me any personal enjoyment…for that, I continue to turn to Facebook and Twitter.

14 Comments

  1. Good read…I have objections to the Facebook solution, as I feel children who are Kneejerk in their nature, can hav
    e a smudged existence based on a drunken party. Servers and the viral nature of the internet can permanently scar an individual caught in its crosshairs.

    I recently setup freaky Snail on Google plus. I was surprised this was accepted. o now however. want to change my name to reflect my online name Fr3kysnail, and Google doesn’t want to accept. LOL

    @fr3kysnail twitter

  2. Great argument, Jillian. It helpfully adds to some of the critiques I had about the implementation of Google’s policy. Thanks for sharing.

    One conclusion I draw from this post, though, is that other systems, such as Twitter, where there are many spammer accounts, make it much easier for legitimate users to determine which users are genuine or not. It’s one thing for ‘Jack Dima’ to say, “Lol… this has made my day!” and leave you wondering for a second what their motives are, and another for ‘Kimmi6969′ to say the same thing and relieve you of precious time determining whether or not to reply.

    So, in short, Google+ actually could make spam more likely to succeed in baiting people. I don’t think this is the type of community they want to foster.

  3. Jillian,

    When I look into my G+ I see barely any such spammy comments. Most people I have circled stem from Western countries.
    The problem about the nonsense comments, in my experience, only comes up with people from Middle/Far-Eastern + South-Asian countries. Wait another 5-10 years and they will be more familiar with online discussions and things will change.
    This problem applies to all networks, including Facebook, LinkedIn and SALAMBC.

    R.

    • I post mostly publicly – so I’m leaving my comments section wide open for randomness :) But yes, I’ve noticed that as well, although the examples I posted show that it’s not unique to that part of the world.

  4. How weird that you’re having that experience. Mine has been exactly the opposite on g+. I’ve had some very intelligent conversations on that space, and the few throw-off comments came from people who have also commented more completely on other posts, so in my mind they’re more the “keep in touch despite lack of time” kind of comment, rather than spam.

    Might it be that the choices of who to circle have something to do with it? I do circle fairly broadly, but I can understand that with what you do you need to range much further and wider than I do.

    • I post mostly publicly – so circles wouldn’t help in this case. I figure – if 489,000 people could potentially read my public posts, then I should share news publicly (I do share more personal items within my circles, which are carefully curated).

  5. I don’t have a problem with lists of spam comments on my G+, however I have the issue of not being answered or responded to by people who do.

    I have the real name issue. For years I was CASUDI on Google, then added clarification for some to the last name. CASUDI=first, (Caroline DiDiego) = second. This is where my #SM friends could find me via CASUDI, a name I have used for over 30 years for all ONLINE & artistic endeavors, including producing documentaries for TV. However there is a business (only) segment that knows me by my other less “REAL” name so I added it at one time to my Google account. When I started G+ I was automatically CASUDI (Caroline Di Diego) and then my account was frozen for the use of CASUDI (BTW this is the first 2 letters of my 3 other names) ~ When I recently read that G+ was relaxing this issue I looked for this option to revert back to what I had when I started G+, but couldn’t find it. Do I understand this option is only for people with vast followings?

  6. Toward the end of his long and deeply productive life, George Carlin repeatedly pointed out, in virtually every public forum he was given, the loss of choice in American consumer life. Being a comedian, his joke was that while you’re limited to a few major banks, 3 oil companies, and Coke or Pepsi, you can have your 31 flavors of ice cream and 30-odd variants of jelly beans (I’m doing this from distant memory, I’m sure you can find him telling this online someplace). The implicit point was: it’s not that there can’t possibly be more; it’s that interests with vast piles of lucre fueling them blot out all the others. Like all other social problems, it’s a personal psychological problem at its root (those who bend toward that kind of thinking will be fascinated to read 19th c. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s work, esp. “The Sickness Unto Death”). That is, when we limit ourselves to dichotomous solutions in our own lives and with the most intimate choices we make within ourselves, then yeah, it will be google or bing, twitter or G+, Mac or windows, iPhone or Android, etc. To borrow the urgent point of Thoreau, that’s the root we have to strike at while a thousand others hack at the branches above — the one root we can really reach. The one within ourselves.

  7. Before I switched off my Profile (and Google+) for being afraid that Google would cancel all my accounts if they disliked my pseudonym for some reason, my experience was mostly how tiny Google+ actually was. This was a strange feeling about a social network where you had a potential of being a user — because, well, Google+ would correctly find all those Gmail contacts and suggest you to add them on G+ too — but in actuality, few would join. They were all probably having fun on Twitter, Plurk, and Facebook. Most of them — in my case at least — all have pseudonyms.

    So the conversations had this “early adopter” feeling. They were geeky, not mainstream — but that’s just because so few people used it.

    Then the #Nymwars spread like wildfire, and before getting kicked out, I voluntarily removed myself first — but I keep a “real name” profile, which is just known by a very limited amount of people. Because of that, again, there is no “garbage” in the messages from people following me.

    The conclusion I reach is that my group of intellectuals has no time for writing “garbage” — but that’s just the way I perceive my Circles. So few people were actively using Google+ that it just sort of felt a tiny, private environment.

    When Google “claimed” that 400 million users had joined, I was skeptic: didn’t they mean that 400 million Gmail users had an easy option of adding a profile? Many did so, for sure — but that didn’t mean they became “users”. Or rather, active users. They just registered. Quite a different thing!

    As a Second Life user, and doing often some presentations, I’m known to quote that Second Life has over 25 million users and has been around for a decade. But I’m aware that just a million logs in regularly. Of those, few are very active in the sense of being logged in several hours a day. This makes all the difference: as a consequence, most of the people I meet in Second Life are polite, considerate, and write well (no matter what country of origin they are). I might just have a thousand or two of “friends” there, with perhaps a third moderately active.

    By contrast, Facebook “claims” that half their users are, indeed, active every day. It’s possible. I don’t really believe it, but I also have no basis to contradict Facebook’s claims — specially because my pseudonym was kicked out of Facebook, too :)

    Where I see “pollution” in the messages is, however, on YouTube. There — how many users does YouTube have? 400 million? I would not be surprised — the comments are definitely showing how angry and insulting people are, all the time. The more popular a channel is, the more insulting the comments (the actual quality of the channel means little). And there is absolutely no reason to believe that so-called “anonymous” users are worse than the others. It’s a cultural trend to be insulting online. The name behind the login matters little. Google should have noticed that already, except that in YouTube most people do not have a real name as their account. So that’s perhaps where their experience with “insulting and abusive comments” comes from?

    There is no way to “enforce” people NOT to be insulting online. There used to be something called Netiquette — a few forums and very. very few social platforms still enforce them: be polite, or get kicked out. This used to be the pillar upon which the Internet was founded: anonymity or pseudonymity was allowed — often encouraged, as typing “a/s/l” was usually enough to get you kicked out of a social environment enforcing Netiquette strictly — but insulting behaviour was not. (One of the nice things about Second Life is that griefers, trolls, and generally abusive people are still routinely kicked out — even if they come back later with a new account, they can be kicked out again and again, until they give up and go insulting people… on YouTube :)

    So perhaps Google is tackling this from a stereotypical perspective, believing that “nice people” always use “their real names”. If they think that, I wonder where they have been in the past decade or so: anyone with the least experience with the Internet should have a pretty good idea of how people behave in it. Larry Page is a child of the USENET and IRC days — he ought to know what it means to be under Netiquette, and what to do with abusive people. He also knows very well that “real names” mattered little (if at all) on the USENET, IRC, or other early forms of social networking. I can believe that he has had little time for participating on online communities since launching Google, but… surely he has hired some “social networking consultants” that are, in fact, familiar with the Internet at all?

    This is definitely putting the emphasis on the completely wrong idea.

    I applaud “getting rid of insulting people” on the Internet in general: I’m a girl of the Netiquette age. As recently as 2005, I still gave occasional seminars on Netiquette; in 1995, by contrast, learning Netiquette was almost mandatory, and I used to do Netiquette training sessions for corporations just starting to join the Internet: the purpose was to teach new Internet users how to behave properly on the ‘net, lest their email addresses started getting blocked (that really happened back in 1995!): what people learned in my classes is that the Internet was a marvellous technology for communication, where freedom of speech and expression were unrestricted; privacy, anonymity, and pseudoyimity were a granted right; but where politeness, as a form of social interaction, was not only encouraged but actively enforced.

    As we “lost respect” of the Netiquette (ironically, it’s still a RFC — and that means that each and every person or network connected to the Internet is supposed to follow all RFCs or risk exclusion!), we became to be more and more subject to “pollution” in the content we find on social networking sites: it resembles more and more a huge kindergarten where no adult is present to oversee what the kids are doing. That’s not surprising: most people are very low on the scale of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, meaning that they require active enforcement to behave properly, or revert to their basic childish instincts — there is nothing we can do about that. We can teach people how to read and write, but that doesn’t make them morally more responsible :) Kohlberg might remain a polemic author, but at least his research has been based on real samples of real people, back in 1958.

    The thing that grates most on my nerves on this whole issue is that Google is making “assumptions” (linking “pseudonyms” to “unruly behaviour” and “comment pollution”) without any sort of data collection or analysis, but merely based upon a perceived (and erroneous) “feeling” of someone up the hierarchy. It’s almost ridiculous to see how one of the largest profile-gathering companies in the world apparently ignores their own profiling data and just defends a decision based on “feeling”. Google can certainly sponsor peer-reviewed scientific assessment of their data to find some conclusions that pass the test of academic scrutiny. But perhaps such rigorous data analysis proves the opposite of what they wish to know, and that’s why they resort to “feelings” and “opinions”.

    My whole issue is that Google allowed me to join their vast network of services, encouraged me to upload a lot of content (on Google Docs) and even profit from it, via AdSense. They have my real name, address, VAT# and bank account number on record — I’m fine with all that. Now they change the rules and wish me to reveal publicly pretty much everything in order to continue to do business with them. In some countries (like my own!) this is basically fraud: allowing users to join a service based on false assumptions, and then change the rules for joining in the middle of the game. That’s a no-no. Sadly, the US allow that all the time. I’d be fine if Google separated the two issues. For example, on YouTube, you can either behave as a jerk, or you can be in good standing, follow the rules, and join their Affiliate/Partner Programme and make some money out of the videos you publish. The choice is the user’s. That makes sense to me: Google doesn’t want to have “jerks” making money, and that’s a very good way of actually “enforcing” Netiquette via a monetary incentive. But by tying together all their services under a single account and a single ToS, it means that previous legitimate users — and I certainly consider myself one of them, I’ve been even an early adopter of Gmail — are now flagged as “rude criminals” just because their policies have changed. That’s cheating and subverting the game in the middle of the play, and I denounce that strategy as being fraudulent.

    My whole issue is that I might be able to get my Google Profile back under the new rules. Might. But what happens if I’m unlucky and get an idiot at Google who flags it as unappropriate and wipes my account? There is no real “appeal” inside Google; Google is a private corporation and, as such, their “rules” work outside the legal system (i.e. no protection, unless Google does something criminal to you). They can take all your money if they wish and are not even required to give you any compensation. You lose the right to sue them. They’re not liable if they kick you out under their ToS. So that’s a huge dilemma for the likes of me: should I risk to activate my Profile and G+ again, and face loss of business and of data if a stupid Google employee doesn’t like me, or should I remain hidden in silence, refusing to use G+? (I never used Buzz or Orkut either)

    This is a strange world, where paying customers have absolutely zero rights.

  8. “But what I’ve found is that, on Google+, most of my comments are spam and nonsense, despite the fact that I’ve spotted myself in the circles of some pretty great people.”

    Most comments in *any* social context are spam and nonsense, which Google well knows and couldn’t care less about. The real (as opposed to the stated) reason they want your real name is to build a profile on you and your interrelationships for a whole array of commercial and Big Brother-partnered reasons.

    • I don’t buy that argument either – they can advertise to a user based on the user’s posted content, interests, plusses, etc. And furthermore, a “real” fake name won’t help them either. Your supposed reasoning doesn’t actually explain why they’d allow me to hide under Jane Doe but not JaneDoe42582.

    • @Jillian

      “…they can advertise to a user based on the user’s posted content, interests, plusses, etc.”

      Sure, but they can do so much more effectively using a single name across multiple contexts — especially when it happens to be the same one under which you do, for example, all your financial transactions — rather than a variety of unlinked pseudonyms.

      “Your supposed reasoning doesn’t actually explain why they’d allow me to hide under Jane Doe but not JaneDoe42582.”

      The main reason for allowing fake real names and not obvious handles is that the former are much less likely to actually be used. Before the spy-on-your-customer real names movement began its current sweep through the online corporate world, when someone could choose any pseudonym, it was considered way cooler to use a customized nom de plume versus a fake real name which likely already belongs to a number of people anyway. This remains true today.

  9. I found you on Google+ when it went public; I found the link to this article there as well.

    Like many others I vastly prefer Google+ to Facebook but my circles are in the double or triple digits. That said, I like the “circles” and I feel less coerced by Google policies than Facebook. That feeling is rapidly fading as I learn more about Google and their evolving practices/policies but if privacy is dead at least make it prettier…and psychologically I’m more comfortable without having to call people “friends” just because I know them. That may seem petty but it my understanding that Facebook adopted the varying degrees of association based on Google+ circles.

    Anyway, thanks for doing what you do, your writing is always thought-provoking.

  10. well….there’s always the option of limiting people who can comment on your post to your circles or extended circles. It’s not ideal, sure, but I think extended circles in particular has enough reach to cover most people that have been active on Google+ for a month or so, but excluding people from commenting on their first day. I don’t need it, but then I’m not on the recommended users list :)

    People can still reply to you, but they’d have to either +you in a new post, or share your post and reply to you in a post; far too much hassle for “LOL” comments I reckon.

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