Google Plus, Pseudonyms & Activists

Google Plus' stringent real-names-only policy appears to be hurting the new social networking site's popularity among activists worldwide. Will Google ever change their approach?


Social networking sites are intertwined with revolutions and unrest these days. Protests organized by Facebook played a key part in bringing down the Egyptian government. Protesters in Egypt's Takhrir Square used the microblogging service to organize community services at their rallies and to stay in touch with sympathetic outsiders, there. Syrian rebels are using YouTube to disseminate atrocity footage to the outside world. In London, rioters are organizing via BlackBerry messages. Why not Google+ then?

Several structural issues, some intended and others probably not, have so far kept activists and protesters from embracing Google's new, fast-growing social network. That's despite the facts that: Egyptian Google executive and revolutionary Wael Ghonim has a presence on Google+; and tech activists worldwide have been clamoring for a decent alternative to Facebook, whose habit of changing privacy and security features, terms, and conditions rankles hackers and the EFF.

When it comes to starting and keeping a revolution going in the right direction, Google's (usually) unambiguous real-names-only policy for Google+ gets in the way. Google might even be breaking its own Google+ policy, but we'll get to that in a minute.

Google+ requires users to use their real names. Accounts using pseudonyms have been deleted and organizations (including Fast Company) have no framework with which to create Google+ accounts in their name. Social media ethnographer Danah Boyd of Microsoft Research New England has made a compelling case that Google's requirement is an abuse of power. According to Boyd, activists, abuse survivors, women, young people, and LGBT people are effectively victimized by real-names-only policies for social networking. It is not hard to imagine a situation where, say, the victim of stalking, a homosexual in a small town, or an activist in a repressive country might feel marginalized by Google+'s real-names-only rules.

Disappointing privacy policies are part and parcel of online culture. Free social networking sites such as Facebook and YouTube stay in business by profiting off the personal information of their non-paying users; it's a devil's bargain that sustains the web these days. But these policies also harm activists in repressive regimes.

Thomas Rid, a lecturer at London's King's College who frequently writes on cyberwarfare at the Kings of War blog, tells Fast Company that Facebook's privacy policies are making the site less attractive to activists. According to Rid, "Facebook's bungled privacy policy has cost them many friends among early adopters and tech-savvy people in general. Many leading activists are certainly part of that group. When using Facebook many will weigh the privacy downsides with the outreach benefits."

Other features in Google+ could be very useful to activists. The site's Circles functionality allows users to restrict messages and shared items to a small circle of contacts. As Rid puts it, "Google Plus' circles better reflect the way we organize knowledge and contacts in regular life. The smallest circle is you alone, then partner, family, close friends, the like-minded, all the way to the largest circle, the public. In between there are shades of grey. If you're taking large risks when you're communicating, you want to have as much control of these circles as possible. Google Plus may therefore be superior to Facebook."

Google+'s embrace of data liberation—the ability to share data used on the social networking site with other services—is another factor which may encourage activists to use the social networking site.

Maybe there is hope for activists who want to use pseudonyms on Google+, though. As of August 8, a profile appeared on Google+ that looks like it may have come from Google itself, and appears to break the company's own Google+ pseudonymous users policy. With this profile, it appears that Google is using a pseudonym to recruit college interns to a series of open house events in the Bay Area.

Whether this signals a turn of policy at Google+ is also unknown; as of press time, Google had not replied to Fast Company's queries.  

Update: A Google spokesperson informed Fast Company that the most current edition of their Google+ policies are available here. No official comment was given on the pseudonym-using Google+ page shown below; the page was taken offline shortly after Fast Company's article was posted.

[Top image: Flickr user _dchris]

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here or find him on Twitter. Yes, he's on Google+ also.


Add New Comment


  • nazdaboville

    People getting so enraged about not being able to use pseudonyms on Google+ is ridiculous!! Fair enough if they banned it from the entire world wide web - but it's one platform, nobody is forcing you to go there and put down your real name so don't use it if you don't like it! It's as simple as that.

  • henry

    "Free social networking sites such as Facebook and YouTube stay in
    business by profiting off the personal information of their non-paying
    users; it's a devil's bargain that sustains the web these days."

    Is this a joke? That's not the devil's bargain that sustains the web these days, it's the actual bargain that has sustained all manner of free services for the last 50 years. There's nothing new about this swap -- if at this point, you're not aware that if it's free you're the product, the problem isn't the devil, it's you. Pay attention.

    Putting 'social media' at the beginning of your title, company description, or white paper doesn't invent a new way for the world to work, and you're sort of dumb if you think it does. Radio, television, catalogs, hulu, FB, google -- it's all exactly the same: someone's delivering you to an advertiser, with as much selectivity about who hears the message as possible because that increases the likelihood of purchase. There's nothing new under the sun, and that includes the narcissism of individuals who think they alone are present, and they alone understand, a thing that's so new that everything before it can be hucked out the window. Thus this article, and the hundreds of others just like it.

    This particular complaint about G+ is kind of like the complaint, "I hate that new hotdog guy because he won't give out hotdogs to people who refuse to pay him. He's never going to attract the business of people like me!" Hey, guess what? That hotdog guy doesn't care. If he can't attract the attention of people who *are* willing to pay, he's going to go out of business, and he should. G+ depends -- for its existence -- on its ability to provide useful information to marketers. If you aren't willing to pay that price, it simply doesn't need you.

    Which brings us to our final point, the one that's most coarse but which needs to be said if we are actually looking for clarity on this 'real names' issue: unless these activists are bringing along with them large swaths of the advertisable -- by which I mean the identifiable, *buying* public, people with names and shipping addresses -- Google does not and should not care whether the activists find G+ useful. Unless the click-through and conversion rates for the activists and their friends are above some internally-defined break-even point set by Google and its customers -- BY WHICH I MEAN ITS ADVERTISERS -- then G+ does not need, and may not want, to attract those eyeballs.

    Google is a business. It is not a force for change, except in pursuit of business goals. G+ is a product, designed to put buying eyeballs in front of ads. If it has other uses, those uses are in service of this primary purpose. No disrespect to the people marching in the streets, but unless they're clicking and buying, or attracting people who are clicking and buying, G+ would be doing its customers and its shareholders a DISSERVICE by attracting those users to the platform because they reduce the ability of Google to target an ad which will lead to a sale.

    I'm not saying this is how it should work, but this is how it does work. You can ignore this, but you'll be saying crazy things about insidious new devil's bargains when really, it's just business, it's still business.

  • nealu


    I've got to disagree. The fact is that social media is completely different from radio or television -- we're talking about a two-way communications medium instead of a one-way medium. The fact that ordinary individuals are being transformed into impromptu content producers... yeah, that's important.

    But getting down to brass tacks, you have to remember that the average social media user is unaware of the wizard behind the curtain. They're unfamiliar with data mining, ad targeting and the million other small components that make Facebook/YouTube/whatever work.

    Google and Facebook don't provide their services to make friends. They offer them in order to make cold, hard cash. Is this a devil's bargain for users who use their (free) products to communicate with friends and family? Absolutely.

  • Shava Nerad

    We're dancing at Google on Fridays in Cambridge MA (http://plusinclusive.blogspot.... until our banned friends come back.  'Nyms are there to protect people, not hide behind.  Wael Ghonim, Google's own staffer in Egypt, used a couple pseudonyms ("the martyr" and "admin1" in an attempt to dodge authorities as he organized Egypt's Arab Spring. 

    Facebook's real name policy is a joke, and besides, everything on Facebook is ephemera.  LinkedIn really has more of a "DBA" policy -- if you do business as Glitteractica Cookie, testify before Congress as Glitteractica Cookie, and get on the Daily Show as Glitteractica Cookie, then by all means why shouldn't you be on LinkedIn as such?  Your connections will find you and recommend your work.

    The only real name policies I know of in social networks are civic networks where one poster is one voter.  G+ is not that.  The idea of Google setting up a global network of government ID certified real names is actually terrifying.  After all, they aren't evil, so that couldn't be what they're after.

    As a former marketing VP of an Inc500 e-commerce company, I can tell you they aren't trying to appease that segment.  If there's a gay DA in Texas, and he has a marketing profile for his day job that buys office supplies and law journals, and a 'nym that browses Bermuda all-inclusive resort vacations -- then I *want* the laser focus of that 'nym to sell him a vacation, and I do not want to risk losing his business by popping up the wrong graphic on his desktop at the wrong time.  This is as old at dirt in marketing.  The catalogs you get at the office in your role as purchasing manager for your department and the catalogs you get in your mailbox at home have always been different -- and the marketers have always wanted it that way.

    So, can *anyone* out there tell me why Google is doing this?

    Google VP of Social Vic Gundotra says a nym is like "going into a restaurant without wearing a shirt."  (Being female, myself, this is a particularly ripe image...!)  But Google has been shutting down people who have not been using "western" style names, who have been using names where the languages of the first and last names do not match (my name and Vic's might both qualify), where the character sets are mixed (this excludes most of my associates in Hong Kong), where punctuation is included (which caused several of my circles in France to be banned for hyphenated first names).  Due to this policy, I came to know a neologism:  WASPonym.

    O brave new world.

    We tell our kids not to use their real names online.  Yet Google wants to tell us to use our real names in an unrestricted social environment.  Last week, on the basis of a clue from a photo album on a Google exec's "real name" profile, I was able to not only track down both of his elementary age school children, but their G+ profiles (completely unwise, against the Google TOS, and unlike their father's profile, without their circles locked down, so I could explore their social networks and family ties).  Within 90 minutes, I got enough information such that I could have probably -- if I weren't a white hat security researcher -- have picked up particularly his 8 year old daughter from her school and spirited her off.  I suspect considering how safety minded he was with her G+ account, she probably isn't well trained to resist a well-prepared abduction either. 

    His kids were in danger because he used his real name (which also told me all sorts of interesting things, like that he owns a house assessed at well over $3M exclusive of this year's solar panels, and a car with hundreds of thousands of dollars of add-ons), and because he thought he had properly used the security built into the G+ system -- and he had.

    But he doesn't think like a security researcher -- or an attacker. (Please note, as I post this, he had been warned and all this information has been since well secured.  I'm a mother myself.  I did this to put his kids out of danger.) 

    And that's scary, and we don't like to think about it.  But phishing and other threats are far more mundane, and Google's opening up every one of us to these threats by aggregating us and all our digital lives under one umbrella.

    You think Facebook and Zynga are bad?  The lack of transparency and flexibility from Google are starting to make me think that G+ is this decades ultimate expression of "The Product is You."

    And unfortunately, Google's not likely to be the only shark in the water.

    I personally don't know a young engineer online under the age of perhaps 35 who thinks this "real name" policy makes sense.  The "digital natives" find it puzzling to embarrassing.  One young woman of my acquaintance calls herself an "internet native," taking it that much farther, and my generation the "Internet founders."  Although I started online nearly thirty years ago -- at DEC in 1982 -- I am with these young people.  What Google is doing is embarrassingly dense at best, and evil in the worst interpretations.