Pseudonyms on Google Plus? Wrong.

Google Plus made a small change to its "real name" policy but it still doesn't support pseudonyms.

Today Google Plus VP of Product Bradley Horowitz posted that Google's social network is adding support for alternate names in the next few days.

Everyone announcing that G+ now supports pseudonyms is wrong.

Don't read the headlines - or Horowitz's post - and crack open the champagne thinking that people who use pseudonyms are now able to use the service.

Google Plus is now only supporting "nicknames" and names in another script in addition to the "real name" users are require to register with the service.

UPDATE: Read the results of my conversations with Google after its name policy change: Google’s Pseudonym Problem: New Implementation Revealed

Users' birth names (or names on ID) are still rooted to the account and displayed with the added name.

The change they made on this explosive issue is minor. The implementation makes it clear that this is "nickname" support and not true pseudonym support.

Clarified: You can add a nickname, but pseudonym use is not freely available. The new, very limited, G+ pseudonym application option primarily applies to new users [and can be enjoyed by those with a Google-determined status that backs up the user's claim to use that particular pseudonym].

A G-'nym is not connected to a user's pre-existing "real name" only when a user signs up for a new account using a pseudonym. According to Google, if you are able to change your name to a pseudonym from a pre-existing account, your comments and old posts will still have your "real name" on them.

The change to its pseudonym procedure is that when someone tries to use only their 'nym and it doesn't look like a "real name" their new account goes into an "appeal" to seek approval - and they may approve it, and then officially some people can run around G+ with pseudonyms. It was not previously an option. (To be approved, the 'nym must be considered "established" and get approved in Google's hazy appeal process - unless you are famous or known, like Horowitz's example, Madonna).

The significant change is that a new field will be under your Profile/About page. This is where users can now enter a "nickname."

The nickname appears either in the middle of the user's name (Example: Amy “IHaveAnAbusiveStalker” Jones) - or at the end in parenthesis - Amy Jones (IHaveAnAbusiveStalker).

There is no option here for users to show only a pseudonym.

Let's be absolutely clear here: there is a big difference between a nickname and a pseudonym, especially online. A nickname is a name someone is known by in addition to their regular name.

A pseudonym is a different name that is used in place of someone's real name, for a wide variety of legitimate reasons.

In Horowitz's Google Plus announcement post Toward a more inclusive naming policy for Google+ he acknowledges that there will be more shaping to Google+ naming policy saying, "To be clear - our work here isn’t done (...)"

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.

In his announcement, Horowitz said:

On Google+, we try to flag names which don’t represent individuals, such as businesses or abstract ideas which should be +Pages. Sometimes we get this wrong, so starting today we’re updating our policies and processes to broaden support for established pseudonyms (...)

But even for pseudonyms, Google Plus still wants you identified on its records and tied to your government name - and the request to have use of your 'nym goes under review for days, with Google requiring proof and evidence that it is your pseudonym.

Bizarrely, this evidence could range from a URL to your scanned driver’s license. And your account remains visible with your "real name" throughout the review process.

Google+ is not accepting new pseudonyms. This apparently only for “established ones.”

Before we announce the change, let me tell you no one really needs it

Most disconcerting in the announcement was the downplaying of the "real names" issue (also known as #nymwars).

Their announcement presents the statement, "The vast majority of users sail through our signup process - in fact, only about 0.1% submit name appeals."

This might suggest that 99% of Google Plus users don't want, or need, pseudonym support.

The 99% appears to be normative in this statement - this creates an image that contrasts a "normal" user (i.e. a "real name" person) versus one that wants something unusual or weird (a person that uses a pseudonym).

Whereas, look at Twitter and we see that pseudonyms are actually quite normal - far more than .01% and not necessarily a cutesy nickname choice.

I believe it also incorrectly asserts that the need for pseudonyms can be measured by the amount of Google+ name appeals Google's system is processing, or willing to classify as legitimate by its standards.

Is everyone filing appeals, or do they just give up?

A new lesson about social networks and "real names" from China

The timing of Google Plus' weak announcement comes just after Chinese authorities announced plans to expand their trials of the newly revealed "real name" regulations last week.

Like Google Plus, China's cyber authorities want to attempt to enforce online accountability, by requiring and tying user accounts to real names, especially within social networks.

Also like G+, microbloggers and social site users in China will be forced to verify their accounts with official ID under the regulation.

As Hana Stewart-Smith writes about China's new "real name" policy in Unboxing Asia,

For those that favour anonymity in order to discuss or report on topics that might otherwise be censored, this would force them to face accountability in the eyes of the Chinese government.

Considering that a woman was charged with a year in a labour camp just for retweeting an activist message, these concerns are certainly not unfounded.

I shudder to think what these global "real name" policies could mean for innocent internet citizens.

For instance, take the case of web programmer Saeed Malekpour, who has recently been sentenced to death by the Iranian government for what amounts to writing an open source script for photo uploading.

The Canadian citizen will be killed for crimes against the government because the script was used by an adult website (without his knowledge) - and Iranian officials claim that because his name was the only name tied to the software, he must pay the ultimate price.

I wonder, if he had simply released the package under a pseudonym, would he not have been tortured for three years and now face execution?

Just a thought.

Google Plus and its truly problematic pseudonym policy encompasses issues of 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.

So if you left Google Plus because you couldn't safely use a pseudonym - don't come back just yet.

Photo by Jon Lee Clark via Flickr used under Creative Commons 2.0 License.

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