Google+ Stumbles Over Identity

by on August 1, 2011 · 18 comments

I started to see hints of it last week, but I now believe Google+ is in full stumble-mode over user identity and naming. It looks as though they’ve taken common sense—everyone has one name—and woven it into their terms of service. You can’t use a non-traditional name on Google+. But naming and identity are more complex than that.

In my book, Identity Crisis, I wrote that an identity is a collection of information other people and institutions have about a person. Others use identity information they have to distinguish you from other people (or to group you) in their minds or records. This makes identity a gating mechanism: you can allow people into a part of your life by making them privy to the relevant set of identifiers, or keep them out by denying them that information.

Commonly, people use varied identities to exclude others, for social or professional reasons, such as when they open a social network account in a false name to keep their parents or their students from accessing parts of social life that are not meant for them to see. Sometimes identity is varied for political reasons, such as when an account opens in a pseudonym for the purpose of avoiding reprisal. This is an area where Facebook’s “real names” policy has stepped in it. The further one lives from conventional life in a given society, or the more contrarily to power, the more important it is to control identity.

Identity Woman—who tells her story at the first link above—uses her non-traditional identity in a non-traditional, but completely reasonable, way. It’s just the name that identifies her better to the community she plans to reach on Google+. But Google+ thinks that the name she is supposed to use is the same one her parents gave her, is the same one on her tax return, is the same one on her college degree, is the same one on her driver’s license.

Google+ has smartly replicated the real-world concept of social circles in its “circles” function. But they haven’t replicated real-world practice in terms of naming and identity. Why? Among other reasons, because doing so would allow users to decide which “circle” Google itself is in. Google doesn’t want that. Like Facebook wants to be your super-friend, Google wants to be your super-circle.

Google+ is seeing like a state, vastly simplifying the use of identity on its platform to serve its purposes. That will be a continuing discomfort and an impediment to its fullest success. But the fullest success of social networking will probably not be on an owned platform anyway.

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  • Vaneeesa Blaylock

    hahaha, and I thought Julian Sanchez was the only smart person at The Cato Institute! :)

    What an incisive, on-target analysis of this horrific, chauvinistic move by Google+

    “Google+ has smartly replicated the real-world concept of social circles in its “circles” function. But they haven’t replicated real-world practice in terms of naming and identity. Why? Among other reasons, because doing so would allow users to decide which “circle” Google itself is in. Google doesn’t want that. Like Facebook wants to be your super-friend, Google wants to be your super-circle.”

    We’ve all been articulating this point, but I have not heard anyone put it so elegantly, Google doesn’t want to allow users to decide what circle Google is in!

    Your analogy of Google to a State also rings true. Some argue that only a stage can censor or block civil liberties, but I believe this is 20th century thinking. Yes we do sometimes still walk into a park and share our opinions with the world, but in the 21st century, our culture and our ideology are both expressed and formed through online interactions. If Google or Facebook or any other monopol-ish corporation controls the communication media then they control speech. If Google creates a privileged class that is allowed to speak and an online underclass to whom they deny speech, then Google effectively functions as a State, and a totalitarian one at that.

    People used to think that Microsoft was evil, or that Facebook was invasive, but Google has outflanked them both by not simply engaging in monopolistic business practices, but by literally telling us how we may and may not live our lives.

  • Jim Harper

    Well, thanks, Vaneeesa. (And I appreciate the unique spelling of your first name — don’t let them regiment what you call yourself!)

    So, the way I look at it, Google doesn’t have anything close to the monopoly on initiation of force that states do, and I don’t think we should minimize the very dangerous power of states by equating it to the influence that big companies like Google have.

    Google is a substantial company, and its behavior is something to keep an eye on, for sure. I exercise my power by choosing among a variety of social outlets, search providers, email providers, and, for that matter, browsers, cookie-acceptance policies, etc. (I don’t use Disqus – hah!) No corporation controls the communication media – the rest of the Internet is nothing but a big exit door for any platform that goes too far with trying to shape how we use it.

    If you’re going to say “literally,” I have to say that I have not received any communications from Google instructing me how to live! There are lots of things I’d like to do that would get me arrested by a government agent, though. The ones telling us how to live aren’t the Googles of the world.

    Sincerely, though, and despite these differences, thanks for the kind comment. I rank up there with Julian! Woohoo!

  • Adam Thierer

    You know you don’t have to use Google+, right?

    You also understand it is a free service, right?

    And you do realize that Google has no gulags, right?

    Sorry, guess I am guilty of some “20th century thinking” here.  Either that, or you are fricking out of your mind.

  • Adam Thierer

    And Harper, you’ll need to explain to me why “vastly simplifying the use of identity on its platform to serve its
    purposes” is something we should care about from a libertarian perspective. It’s just a business decision, and one that others won’t mind. Those who do care about it can also avail themselves of alternative platforms and products.

    You also close by stating that “that will be a continuing discomfort and an impediment to its
    fullest success.” Then why the hell are you so worked up about?

    I don’t get it.

  • Jim Harper

    You obviously don’t. This is a blog where we share ideas, not only ideas that hew tightly to a libertarian public policy.

    I know a thing or two about identity. I share it. Since I didn’t say anything about what libertarian public policy is here, you could live by your standard — only speaking to libertarian public policy — and hold your tongue, to put it nicely.

    Or you could think a little further down the horizon and realize how corporate policies on identity interact with public policies on identity. The relevance is obvious, if you’re thinkin’ about it.

  • Jon Pincus

    Yeah really.  What is it about identity issues that inspires such strong hostility from guys like Adam?

    Good essay, Jim!

  • Conan776

    I don’t believe Google+ will succeed, but it could, and could even someday become the Ma Bell communications monopoly of the 21th century. So if they are going to start off with this anti-privacy mindset, it just doesn’t bode well for the future of free speech on the Internet.

    Likewise, my being banned isn’t that big a deal right now, but imagine if you were banned from using telephones in the 1970s? It wouldn’t be something we could dismiss with a trite “no one is forcing you to use phones.”

    And it is pretty Stalinesque: when you are banned, every thing you ever wrote or posted on Google+, and every Google +1 you made anywhere on the Internet, disappears, You become an unperson. The Soviets could only dream of such a thing!

    Sure, it’s just happening to people with funny names today. But I’d advise people rushing to get onto Google Plus today to stop and think whether you want to give any more power into the hands of this one corporation.

  • Miso Susanowa

     I echo Vaneeesa, Cato Institute rocks! Julian Sanchez just posted an op-ed at the NY Post that has a pertinent sentence in it: “The Constitution protects privacy against government intrusion,
    but it doesn’t stop the government from forcing private
    companies to do its dirty work.”

    This has been the focus and theme of my own work for over a year now. I remember Real ID and the immense resistance from states against it in 2006. Watching Facebook and now Google push the “wallet names only” policy coupled with the FISA Amendments and HR 1981 really raises serious questions about tracking, privacy and Constitutional rights and limits of power.

    For at least the last 15 years, we have been urged
    not to trail our personal data all over the nets for
    security reasons. I question why a company supposedly as aware of internet structure, culture and security as Google would push such a demonstrably ill-conceived policy that is showing incredible backlash, destroying trust in their brand and giving them bucketloads of bad PR (and according to substantiated rumor, people leaving their jobs at Google over this issue) while they take this hard line-in-the-sand stance.

    I do not believe all this is being done for “ease of commercial interests” ie The Marketeers. They can just as easily track my well-known and established pseudonym on the nets; my eyes see the same thing, my wallet is under the control of my typist. A company wants my money and that’s pretty much what all businesses have wanted throughout time. They get it, so what’s the problem?

    This is all being driven by the twin prongs of
    “omgterroristpedophilepirates” and “we just want the data to better SELL
    you stuff!” Two chute walls leading towards a cattle stockade. I don’t buy Justification #2; it doesn’t really make commercial sense. What makes more sense and should be examined is the question, “who is the largest buyer of this biometric data?” That is a legitimate question and would make an interesting study.

    Miso Susanowa

  • Vaneeesa Blaylock

    Thanks Jim, actually, hahaha, I’m “Vaneeesa” everywhere except Facebook where I’m “Vanessa” Blaylock because Facebook wouldn’t allow my real name claiming that I had too many repeating letters and requiring me to become “Vanessa” in order to get an account.

    I was going to write what Adam brought up, but thought it was sort of implied already and that I was going a bit long. Yes, you don’t have to use Google+, and yes it is free. These are, in my judgement, both problematic points.

    First, Facebook has a similar, if less Kafkaesque, policy to Google+ Myspace on the other hand, does not. In fact, back in the day Friendster fancied itself a semi dating site and so it was actively kicking off the “Fakesters.” Part of Myspace’s rise was its courting of the Fakesters and Bands that Friendster didn’t want.

    Today however, Myspace has become a minority player behind the gargantuan communications power of Facebook. All the hearts and minds you’re likely to want to speak to are on Facebook. So, sure you can say, “well, if your kind isn’t welcome on Facebook, just go to Myspace where people like you are allowed to exist.” But if you can’t be heard on Myspace, if it’s a special, empty park reserved for the free speech of the underclass, then it’s free speech in name only. 

    Second, yes, Google+ and just about everything else on the internet is “free.” I think it’s really a problem. “Free” means that the user isn’t the client. Free means that the user is chattel for the service to data mine at the behest of it’s real customers. 

    Essentially the paradigm that Google+ and so many other “free” services replicate is to give you all the Free Beer you can drink, for the price of your Free Speech. There’s so much free beer on the internet we’re drowning in it. And our free speech is drowning along with it. Most people don’t think they care about free speech, but they really want a free beer.

    I’d much rather pay for my own beer. I believe free speech is essential to our way of life.

  • Stephen Wilson

    When Jim says “Google+ thinks that the name she is supposed to use is the same one her parents gave her” he usefully puts in stark relief one of the important things about identity: it is so very personal!

    It’s perfectly normal for people growing up to not “identify with” their parents nor the names they picked for their children.  We all put some distance between our adult selves and our childhoods. The names are arbitrary.  A family name is no more real in any social sense than any other handle we choose for ourselves. 

    What really irks me is that magnates with gigantic personal fortunes based purely on the network value they have amassed from their largely unwitting members can style themselves as social scientists, seeking to impose deep changes on the way people are allowed to socialise. 

  • Jim Harper

    I don’t agree with your premise that corporate leaders are conscious or intentional about, and thus “imposing,” social change. They’re trying to build platforms that work for people and that are self-sustaining (i.e. profitable). It’s worth noting that naming policies are an important part of spam control. Social network authors are striking balances ad hoc, not fiendishly manipulating the society. When they get it right, good. When they get it wrong, they get commentary like this, which is meant to encourage forward progress in solving these problems. We don’t need the dramatic overlay of corporate greed and mendacity to work on this stuff.

  • Anon

    Your right on target. Your old thinking is dying and the 21 century has been here for 11 years. Get used to it.

  • Stephen Wilson

    When Zuckerberg comments that society’s privacy norms are shifting and opines that people with multiple identities lack integrity, and when his business only offers privacy settings that conform to his new paradigm, then I mainatin that he is very consciously seeking to drive deep change. He is actively shaping how half a billion people live a big part of their lives, encouraging them to lose time worn social habits.

  • Yonmei

    Hi Adam – the issue is that not using GooglePlus disadvantages you in Google. Sites with more “+1″ will be ranked higher in the search engines. Because Google’s demand that everyone provide them with their credit-card name if they want to use Google+ is directly discriminatory against people who are unable or unwilling to provide a name which will satisfy Google’s “Real names policy”, which includes trans people, people who don’t have names using a North American format, abuse survivors – many vulnerable and disadvantaged groups – in effect, Google is making their own search engine less useful to people who aren’t part of a privileged group. I can do without another social network. But I don’t want websites of interest to me becoming harder to find because straight cisgendered white men are overrepresented on GooglePlus because they are the ones who overwhelmingly don’t have to care who knows the name on their credit card.

  • Anonymous

    “You also understand it is a free service, right?”

    Actually it is a bartered transaction.  Google provides the service they describe.  In return they receive the crucial raw material which drives their business model — our personal information. 

    The value Google derives from our personal information varies to the extent that it can be used to predict our behavior to advertisers.  Google wants our real identities because our real identities allow them to create much more complete and accurate profiles of how we are and what decisions we are likely to make, as compared to a pseudonymous profile which can’t readily  be used to correlate with information they are able collect about us from other sources outside of the Google+ site. 

    In other words, the terms of service for Google+ are financially motivated, and are not simply in place because Google has a desire for nice, civil, well-behaved conversations.

    I’ve become more concerned about the accumulation of large amounts of very specific personal data than I once was.  It is a giant trove which officials of every level of governmental can access to use… or misuse.  That is a topic for discussion on another day, but it seems like hardly a day goes by without another example of misuse occurring.

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