2011: Nymwars Year Zero

Summary:In 2011 Google launched social network Google Plus with its "real names" policy and ignited the Nymwars - and the Nymwars are far from over.

Think the #nymwars are over?

Last week in the Google Plus forums a woman made several posts, entreating the admin in desperation to help clear her name and restore her account.

She has, in fact, submitted her passport to Google Plus as proof of identification. To no avail.

Lets hope she treads carefully: Google Plus has a new policy that now limits users to editing their names every 30 days.

Violate it, and you’re suspended from G+ and its tag-along Google services.

2011 is the year Google made its major social network play with the launch of Google Plus – and became the year that imprinted Nymwars onto the map of wider collective consciousness.

Not long after Google launched Plus, it staked its citizens ability to participate in the social network and ancillary Google services on whether or not Google thought its users were operating in Plus under their “real names.”

It pitched many ordinary netizens into longstanding battles surrounding identity and anonymity online – and brought issues of privacy and safety to the fore of mainstream media discussions.

Shortly after welcoming everyone to its new social network, Google Plus quietly embarked on a sudden, mass account purge.

The shutoff of Google+ user accounts spanned from well-known tech figures to generally anyone that didn’t conform to its ill-defined policy.

It was the first strike in Google Plus’ enforcement of its “real names” identity rules. Accounts with pseudonyms, nicknames, mononyms, names that included scripts from multiple languages, names that “looked fake” and stage names were all suspended in a mass purge.

At launch the G+ policy stated, "To help fight spam and prevent fake profiles, use the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you."

Google+ did not warn users before suspending user accounts. Some people reported being locked out of all Google services, including docs and Gmail.

Controversies and raging debates about online anonymity and pseudonyms are certainly part of the online landscape. But Google Plus’ mishandling of social networking in regard to user names pushed pseudonym arguments out of online community spheres, and into mainstream consciousness.

The Google Plus “real names” issue is so deeply troubling, divisive and unendingly problematic that 2011 effectively became Nymwars Year Zero.

Guess what? It’s still happening.

A Wholly Avoidable Community Management Disaster

On July 22, I observed a critical mass with “real name” account suspensions in Google+.

No one had pulled the story together, and it was getting worse. I gathered interviews, research and stories, and brought it to light in Google Plus Deleting Accounts En Masse: No Clear Answers.

At first Google+ remained silent. This made public opinion in the social spheres very dark.

Sadly, they only first responded indirectly in a post made via Robert Scoble whose access privilege in this situation was being a friend of Google Plus’ SVP of Engineering, Vic Gundotra (not his real name).

This silence and indirect public responses combined to make things worse with Google Plus’ contradictory behavior: Google+ was simultaneously, blatantly allowing certain people to violate the policy.

There was no clear path to justice. Some users were able to find favor with Google employees outside of Google+ and have their accounts restored.

Celebrities and people with wealth and influence such as Arianna Huffington got the immediate and personal restoration of her account by a Google+ Community Manager (on Twitter) – while others that needed this kind of help were told to go to the forums, or submit a request for review.

There was conflict in the ranks. Many bloggers noticed and pointed out that some Google employees vocally supported the use of pseudonyms, and opposed the Plus policy.

Soon, entire posts on Google+ became dedicated to documenting double standards its users witnessed. People across the web openly called for Google+ leadership to be accountable, and to restore accounts.

Ex-Google employees were suspended. Writers, musicians, programmers and more were deleted. And if you elected to edit your name you needed to be very, very careful not to raise suspicion or you were flagged for deletion as well.

It seems impossible that the issue around name and identity - and how to implement policy, let alone understand the needs of modern social network users - could have been overlooked in the year and a half prior to launch in which Google+ was being created.

It wasn’t the first time a corporate social network had pushed a dodgy “real names” policy; Facebook’s – and its abuse, and uneven enforcement – are well known.

Nymwars: Inception

People across the internet, including Google employees, attempted to convince the Google Plus powers-that-be that the “real name” policy was – and is – untenable.

The Nymwars backlash opposing Google's stance has been epic. Songs were composed and performed. Comics were drawn and serialized.

There were in-person "Banned from Google Plus" meetups. There have been many blog posts by internet thought leaders. Articles were published in outlets ranging from blogs to newspapers, highlit by the EFF’s cornerstone piece “A Case For Pseudonymity.”

And at least one entire website was created to tell individuals’ stories from the Nymwars front lines. My Name Is Me was created by ex-Google employee Skud – who had been banned for violating the “real name” policy, and told to submit ID for re-instatement.

After publicly criticizing Google Plus for the policy, barely a week after my Google Plus Nymwars story broke – I was selected for suspension, in alleged violation of the “real names” policy.

I was instructed to change my profile to comply with the Google+ “real name” policy - even though I use my real, legal name on the service.

I received a message days later telling me, “we have reviewed your profile and confirmed that Violet Blue is your common name and you may continue using it in Google+.”

It’s more than my "common" name.

I joined the ranks of those who contributed to My Name Is Me: Violet Blue.

Five Months Later: Still Suspended

Well known tech personality, Laughing Squid contributor and nerdcore celebrity Doctor Popular lost his account at the very beginning.

To this day, Google Plus refuses to restore Doc Pop’s account.

Despite the fact that Google claims the policy has been resolved, Doc has met all criteria requested by Google Plus and he has been doing everything they ask - for five months.

Doc just told me,

The last correspondence I had from the Google+ team was November 7th.

I'm still banned and I am in all actuality worried about how that may affect my job (I am community manager/social guy for Sincere.ly). For instance, the account associated with this email address is totally blocked from Google profiles.

I responded to Google’s last email simply asking for the reason I was banned. They still have never told me why I'm banned, just that if I change my name "it may help".

I also asked why so many "featured" G+ users were allowed to use names that don't go by in everyday life, specifically referring to Thomas Hawk because I'd say our cases would be fairly similar... except he uses a pseudonym to hide his everyday identity.

The Philip K. Dick novel “Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said” is about a minor celebrity that loses his identity overnight. He wakes up to find that he has no identification, no record in databases, and a very real problem: He was once known by many, but now is no longer even a citizen.

Google is a utility for so many of us, woven into the everyday fabric of our lives, sometimes invisibly part of how we function. Google is a verb.

What we don’t want is for our friendly helpful utility to plunge us into a dystopian sci-fi scenario where the absence of who we are represents guilt until we somehow prove our innocence.

Or to participate in a social network where our identities – whether benign, necessary for safety, or purposefully created – become punitive.

Because of the way it played out in 2011, Google Plus and the Nymwars moniker now represent conflicting opinions about online harassment, personal safety, political speech, sexual minorities, women and gender identity, privacy, the collection and use of personal information by corporations, identity verification, and online deception.

Google’s acts in establishing the Nymwars as a very real thing this year could invoke and spark the kind of larger discussion that makes a positive cultural contribution to self-individuated identity as a... human right.

Yeah, Google could do that.

Topics: Legal, Apps, Google, Security, Social Enterprise

About

Ms. Violet Blue (tinynibbles.com, @violetblue) is a freelance investigative reporter on hacking and cybercrime at Zero Day/ZDNet, CNET and CBS News, as well as a noted sex columnist. She has made regular appearances on CNN and The Oprah Winfrey Show and is regularly interviewed, quoted, and featured in a variety of publications that inclu... Full Bio

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