Monday, July 11, 2011

Google+'s "No-Pseudonyms" Policy is Homophobic, Not Just Anti-Social

So you may have read this weekend that some users of Google+ have already seen their shiny new accounts suspended, and are being told that their user names violate the service's "community standards". As noted over at thinq_ (covered by thechromesource), this means that people who regularly use nicknames online as opposed to their real names are, effectively, excluded from Google+. (The same has been happening on Facebook, albeit more slowly, probably owing to the sheer number of users they already have on board.)

For those who don't understand why it is important to allow people to adopt a pseudonym, I'll point out that pseudonymity far predates the Internet. A very well-known author from the Victorian era was George Eliot, a "pen name" for real-life woman Mary Anne Evans. During that period of time, female authors were routinely not taken seriously, so Evans adopted the pseudonym in a successful effort to get noticed by the literary world. By taking on a new identity, Evans was able to do more in life than she otherwise could have.

The need for pseudonymity goes much deeper than novel authors, however. The modern Internet allows for near-instantaneous access to information, conversations, ideas expressed by anyone, anywhere. So today, everyone on the Internet who participates in online discussions is an author of sorts. In spite of supposed "privacy settings" for any given social networking service, there are plenty of documented incidents of people losing their jobs, or being denied employment, simply for being themselves online. This is a real-world impact from virtual-world conversations, and no "privacy" setting can exist to prevent someone else from copying a post or comment in such a way that it ends up in the wrong hands. So much for "being yourself" online.

It gets worse, though. Forcing people to use their real names can be directly damaging to people, especially people who are persecuted for their political views, or persecuted just for being who they are. Here I'm talking about LGBT people — who still face execution in at least three countries (actually more in practice; these are only the ones with written laws saying so); who face ostracism anywhere in the world, including children being kicked out of their own homes; who face societal disdain sometimes resulting in physical real-world attacks that contribute to the rate of gay youth suicide.

Online networks are sometimes the only safe social outlets for gay people. They can be the only way that some people are able to communicate using their real personalities, even if these same people cannot use their real names for fear of the consequences I've noted (and far more). As a result, pseudonymity is critical to the gay community, until societies all over the world become dramatically more accepting of people who are "different".

Google, you're seriously messing it up. Your own experience with LGBT political causes should be enough to make you know better, but this obvious attack on pseudonymity will result in you shooting yourself in the foot even before Google+ is standing on its own. Here you have an opportunity to stand out, but you're just doing exactly what "the other guy" is doing.

I use my real name online, including in social circles where I had previously used a pseudonym myself — but it's not my place to force others to open up the same way. I am lucky to have a certain degree of personal security that biases against the negative effects above, but most people are not so blessed. The era of the pseudonym is far from over.

I have plenty of friends who use pseudonyms online for these, and other, perfectly valid reasons. Many of these people I've met in the real world, and I personally know their real names. But even some of those go by their self-chosen nicknames in real-world social circles. Who am I to say that their self-expression is not valid? Who are Facebook or Google to say the same?

Google, why are you on one hand supporting progress on LGBT issues, even explicitly championing the concept of the pseudonym, but on the other hand forcing people to be "out of the closet" who may be in imminent danger if they were?

Shame on you, Google. I didn't expect a notion of privacy from Facebook, but I had higher expectations of you.

Finally, to those of you predictably saying "if you don't want to use your real name, don't sign up", I'd be happy to get you a "GAY AND PROUD" tattoo on your arm and a plane ticket to Afghanistan or Uganda... well, maybe just the middle of Mississippi's countryside would suffice. I'm sure you'll find plenty of people, who don't use online social networks, to talk to. No return ticket will be necessary, but I have a feeling that long-sleeve shirts will be a mainstay for you...


  1. Well written, and well constructed.
    Google is indeed "shooting themselves in the foot" after they've jammed it down their throats it seems.

    Like yourself, I have a certain amount of security as well as "I don't fucking care what u think of me personally, so long as you treat me decently when we do have to interact" le c'est fair (sp?), outlook on life. I'm not afraid of death or persecution for being who I am. You cannot fit a square peg into a round whole, as the saying goes; and neither can you be something you are not.

    But I do understand the severity of fear and peer pressure others experience when trying to be themselves and not being able or allowed to, and just how much a pseudonym can help with protecting them from the slings and arrows of others, both online in the virtual world, and in person in the 'real' world. (Which is becoming more "unreal" by the minute it seems.)

    Not having access to that ability, in any form, is not going to make the world a better place. Its only going to cause more and greater hardships, fear and trouble for everybody.

    Our next great leaders, artists, scientists and engineers, doctors, nurses and teachers; are going to be unfairly judged and ostracized, and instead of progressing towards perfection and utopia, we'll be (are?) Well on pur way to purgatory and uniformed dictatorships.

    Google, I hope you read this, and fix the problem.

  2. Todd, to be candid, I'm surprised with the headline. While I personally like using a pen name, I can see why Google would want people to avoid using false identities, and I'm struggling to see how this policy comes across as ardently or inherently homophobic. By the same rationale, it seems like we could say the policy's anti-wikileaks or _any_ group of users that prefers to use a pseudonym. Please help me understand why you feel this policy is squarely targeted at individuals who self-identify as homosexual?

    (On a side note, I would prefer to avoid the language that came after "Pardon my language . . .")

  3. It impacts many groups. This just happens to be one group that is quantifably, and directly, impacted by the demand to use real names in online communication. It's a group I've worked with for years, to the point of helping out with political causes to further the cause of equality for LGBT people. I happen to be the person who brought the illegal police raid on the Atlanta Eagle bar — a case that was cited by DOJ in its brief declaring DOMA unconstitutional — directly into the media spotlight.

    I'm sure that Google's user name policy had good intentions, but it has, effectively, backfired. This post is intended to highlight the fact that there's a bit of hypocrisy to it (see the link about "championing" the concept of pseudonyms).

    It is, in fact, possible to be unintentionally homophobic: here, by excluding people because their need for protection from real-world reprisal/attack is not addressed. Matter of fact, most homophobia is unintentional, caused by lack of sensitivity to the needs of people who are "different".

    Along the same lines, I could very well go into the topics of children using the service (predatory risk), stalkers, etc., but I believe those angles have already been well covered by other media.

  4. BTW, I made the post more "family-friendly" by cleaning up my language in that one sentence. I was a bit angry when I first wrote this, and that outburst was indeed unwarranted.

  5. I appreciate the elaboration and am saddened to hear of anyone being targeted for persecution, so I can see where you're coming from.

    Also, thanks for modifying the language. :)

  6. While I agree that pseudonyms are important, it seems disingenuous to target a system which is by far best in class already, and is not even out of field trial. Pseudonymity is a hard problem. Must it be dealt with in the very first version? What if Google got it wrong in some small way, or did the best possible but someone still got exposed just because the system was unfamiliar? Give it some time, and try praise for progress instead of attacks for imperfection.

  7. Disingenuous? No, not really. Vigorous enforcement of an exclusionary policy is valid material for criticism even for a product in beta. That's sort of the point: make note of the big missteps before the product goes publicly live.

    Yes, this is something that should be dealt with in the very first version. The fact of the matter is that Google is already doing too much now and should back off -- not implement something new. Matter of fact, allwoing pseudonymous access would reduce, not increase, their workload.

  8. If you haven't encountered it yet, the wiki page over at Geek Feminism about who is harmed by a "real names" policy should be instructive for some here.

    To assert that the service "best in class" when Google seem to be going out of their way to cause serious difficulties for some people is incredibly ignorant if not outright disingenuous.

    This kind of policy issue should have been better formulated before a beta release, which is traditionally about load-testing the technology before broad dissemination, not deciding on base approach.

  9. That a site like Google, which has a frightening control of huge portions of the internet now, is resorting to this policy can only go to bad places.

    Suggest all Google 'plus' people change their names to pseudos as a protest. If you haven't already done so.

    I do not use my given name on ANY internet site unless I have to purchase something from it and even that stops now that I'm no longer ever going to use a credcard to pay for anything online - only my Paypal, which is pseudonymous.

    I can see where 'clean' dating sites that charge users a lot of money to background check the dates (seems like a really lame, paranoid, pressury way to meet someone, doesn't it?!) would require given names. THERE IS NO REASON to do so otherwise.

    Damn it, I miss the internet of 1999. It was far more beautiful looking (lots more arty design, on sites that had good authoring; I don't mean amateur Geocities stuff) and far more anonymous-friendly. I didn't have to email-bounce register for every site that I could conceivably participate in or comment upon; we can thank the spammers for that, but why more sites just use CAPTCHA ALONE instead of requiring you to sign up or register and have your @ddress clogged with emails every time the site does some silly new thing even though you never asked and EVEN clicked the 'don't send me mail' box, they STILL update me, even innocent nonprofit sites do this so much I'm actually finding myself spending less satisfying web time every year that goes by.

    And don't even get me started on the Twitter 140-character slab-influenced net. I have an Android and love it, but I wish the whole net didn't try to make itself mobile-friendly, meaning: Short posts. Zero design. Boring.

  10. Calling this homophobic is, I think, inaccurate. Homophobic--at least as it has traditionally been used--has implied an active hostility to homosexuals. You are implying--based upon nothing more than you do not *LIKE* this policy--that this is a policy whose purpose is to discriminate against homosexuals. You may not like this policy, you may be concerned about the effects it might have on homosexual people in nations like, say, Iran but the purpose of this policy is *not* to make life difficult for homosexuals. If you are going to ascribe bigoted intent when it is really a case of unintended consequences, don't be surprised when your pet project is labeled racist or sexist when you don't think through how this might affect, for instance, black lesbians.

  11. I never said that this was about intent. Homophobia and transphobia can be — I would posit often are — side effects of not fully thought-out actions or policies. By ignoring the needs of a sizable group of users, the effect is identical even if the intent is not rooted in bigotry. I daresay that the entire movement to create the concept of domestic partnership in health insurance is based on policies that were not originally written with an intent to discriminate.

    All that said, it's becoming clear that there is some intent here that, while not homophobic, has that as a strong side effect. Skud's post on the topic of pseudonyms, before he left Google as an employee, points out that there was some internal debate about the validity of pseudonyms. Skud later quit Google, partly (but not entirely) over this issue, and allegedly other employees have left because of it as well. The issue is far from settled, as you can tell from the various posts and articles about it thus far.

  12. To correct a Freudian slip in the above... "before she left Google as an employee" (thanks to two people who noticed, with apologies to Skud).