2011: Nymwars Year Zero

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.

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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

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30 comments
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  • RE: 2011: Nymwars Year Zero

    Google and other companies have the potential to be very good utopian forces, pushing technology forward into something very special, but Google is being dragged down into typical corporate (evil) behavior which recklessly tramples over our freedoms. Thankfully the #nymwars atrocity is nowhere near as cruel or damaging as the Bhopal disaster, but the Google+ #nymwars debacle is a comparable intellectual atrocity. The user-name policy of G+ and others is an intellectual Bhopal disaster. Intellectualism is being killed and maimed when Google and other companies stifle our freedom of expression. The oppression of dictating how a person defines their identity in a social setting is a brutal intellectual assault on individuality. Our personal identities are being mercilessly attacked. This evil perpetrated by Google and others must stop. The internet should not be a place for authoritarianism. Dictatorships by petty tyrants such as Google must be stopped. We need to nip this curtailment of free-speech in the bud before it blooms horrifically.
    SingularityUtopia
    • Google will see many turn away from Android

      if they keep this up.<br><br>Why would I want to own a device where I can be banned and my phone becomes useless?<br><br>Google.. suspend them from Google+ or the service in question .. not all the other services. This policy is your Achilles heal and it will bite hard.<br><br><br>Why would I want to purchase anything from your Store, if step over any of your rules, I get banned and then all my investments on the apps that I bought go down the drain. This is not right in any view.<br><br>I supported Android since the G1, but this, is something that makes me look at IOs, with all defects. And you really dont want that Google.<br><br>The longer you take in doing so, you look more and more like Microsoft, RIM in Nokia, late to recognize you have a big flaw in your ecosystem. And before you know it, what happened? You lost market share because you thought you were unbeatable. This is a HUGE flaw, please address it soon, before its too late.<br><br>From 700 000 daily activations down to 0.<br><br>You must allow users to plead their case, some make simple mistakes. This will cost you money, but if you want to ecosystem, support is part of the game. Change or be forgotten.
      Uralbas
      • RE: 2011: Nymwars Year Zero

        @Uralbas: Your phone will NOT become useless without an Google account or if your account is banned. Less usable, yes, but not useless. Gmail can be swapped with K9 Mail and any mail service of your choice, FDroid and many more alternative markets exist, OpenStreetMaps can be used for maps, etc.
        The Google link will be lost, but that's all.
        Natanael_L
    • RE: 2011: Nymwars Year Zero

      @SingularityUtopia

      I didn't read the full article, but I think the point is to make people responsible for what they say and do, while trying to eliminate bots (there are lots of them where they come over as random letters that yahoo does not address, created daily). While I agree to an extent Google has the right to control this, I just find their verification process is messy, and too many false positives.

      That and when I want to find someone it will be easy through Google+. Hopefully a Serial Killer starts up soon by going through Google+ real name list, because of a bad comment someone made to another, and someone sues Google for this, giving them a chip on the shoulder like the CL and their CL killer (or is it Killers now).
      sharpear
      • You should read the entire article

        @sharpear
        This is way beyond "real names" and the forced use of.

        This borders on a mini SOPA style enforcement.
        Oof. :O
        rhonin
  • RE: 2011: Nymwars Year Zero

    Just noticed your Google Minus logo... genius! Hope you get reinstated soon Violet.
    Stoffershorty
  • RE: 2011: Nymwars Year Zero

    Wow, how hip -- a Dick reference. Perhaps you actually did read the novel, but if you had, you'd know the whole thing was a drug-induced hallucination. Look, just don't use Google+. Maybe all the malcontents should be examining their desperate need for social recognition so social media doesn't end up being Alys to their Taverner.
    Vesicant
    • RE: 2011: Nymwars Year Zero

      @Vesicant Your presumptuousness is epic. Your arrogance is a close second.
      thetwonkey
      • RE: 2011: Nymwars Year Zero

        @thetwonkey Thank yew, thank yew very much. I'll be here all week.
        Vesicant
  • Griping won't work

    In a free-to-play market, the developer has ALL CONTROL of the product and the users have ALL CHOICE: to play or not to play. I have never registered for google plus because ALL my online personas are nyms and so my choice is give a real name or do not play.<br><br>If all the people using their real names chose not to play because some of their friends aren't allowed on that playground, then google plus would fade away, but I doubt the probablity of that reaction. Besides, the only reason that google has a chance with plus is because facebook keeps screwing it up.<br><br>To quote the Bard's Juliet: What's in a name? And more to the Nymwar point (my rephrasing) 'Tis but my name that is thy enemy.
    Thor ins Digri
    • RE: 2011: Nymwars Year Zero

      @Thor ins Digri

      Actually, there is another choice: L A W S U I T! Something that too many people today automatically shy away from when it comes up, thinking that lawsuits are something 'evil' when they are actually your best protection from overreaches in power by various people.

      Google (and another other organizations that insists on 'real names') needs to be spanked for this. Yes, I understand that they are trying to prevent spammers and other things. However, there are better (much better) ways to do that.
      Lerianis10
  • RE: 2011: Nymwars Year Zero

    While I agree that this is horrific and should be highly illegal, why don't people just abandon Google Plus as a sub-par product in favor of another product that isn't such a bi*ch of a product?
    eclipx
  • RE: 2011: Nymwars Year Zero

    I don't get it? If you don't like the rules then don't play the game, it is really that simple!
    vbjack72
    • RE: 2011: Nymwars Year Zero

      @vbjack72 Some people do use their real name and are still banned. That's the problem.
      Exyaster
      • RE: 2011: Nymwars Year Zero

        @Exyaster .............crickets.............
        thetwonkey
    • RE: 2011: Nymwars Year Zero

      @vbjack72 THANK YOU for finally saying it.
      Godmocker
    • RE: 2011: Nymwars Year Zero

      @vbjack72 Violet Blue follows the rules and still has major problems, thanks to her unusual name.

      The rules are broken, sorry - there's no good defense of these rules.
      CobraA1
      • RE: 2011: Nymwars Year Zero

        @CobraA1

        Agreed. Rules like this should be struck down in the courts or by law. On the internet, you have a R I G H T to anonymity, especially if like myself you post some comments challenging the 'consensus' (not really) opinions on some things.
        Lerianis10
  • RE: 2011: Nymwars Year Zero

    I love how some people are for this rule of Google + using real names. Technically Google has no clue what a real name is from a fake anyways. I do have a full alias name that google has yet to ban though because I designed it way too well; first, middle, last, with background history and company information. The only thing it is missing now is a Social Security #, and I would love to have a second one of these like our current President of 3 different SS#, and some linking to states he has never lived in.

    With all the False positives they have it is a wonder they didn't can this project because of lack of support from the user community. I had a name come through my scanning today that I am sure google would have banned. The first name was "Dragon", yes it's a real first name for this guy I had to double take this because I didn't believe it myself. There are plenty of names that are so out there that google would ban them as false names, and it's really the parents fault or reasoning to the unique names.
    sharpear
    • Unbelievable names

      @sharpear
      Yeah, Zappa wasn't the only one like that. *grin*
      Drakaran