Monday, July 25, 2011

Google+, Identity, and Your Real Name

For many years, a storm has been developing in the hidden recesses of the internet, the darkened nooks and crannies that few dare to enter. The choice of whether to use a real name or a fake one has existed since the very beginning, and as the web became more accessible to the general public, most websites avoided the issue by letting the users choose whatever name they wished. It wasn't a perfect system, and invited quite a bit of abuse from mischievous troublemakers, but it worked out well enough that it's still in wide use today.

Unfortunately, that decades-old practice is finally beginning to show its age. In the nineties, it worked well because the internet wasn't yet an integral part of our real lives yet. People devoted themselves to online hobbies and games, but for most of us, the web was still a resource or a source of amusement. If you applied for something, you expected to get your response via phone or snail mail. Wi-Fi was a brand-new technology that hadn't been widely deployed, dial-up internet was still widespread, and many people didn't even have cell phones. Instant messaging was nothing more than a novelty way of chatting with close friends and distant strangers, and it was common knowledge to closely guard our personal information.

As the new millennium passed, however, the world experienced a massive wave of consumer-level digital innovation that completely changed everything we thought we knew about the internet. While Silicon Valley rode the fortunes of the tech market through its highs and its lows, however, the two extremes of online identity were soon to appear from the most unexpected of places.

In 1999, a Japanese student created a website called 2channel, an innovative new style of message board. Founded under the principle of anonymity, it allowed users to participate without providing any name at all, and didn't even provide unique user IDs to tell who was posting what. Because no two posts could be determined to have come from the same person, users didn't just have anonymous identities - they had no identity at all. The carefree style of posting enabled by that lack of identity was a big hit, and led to many spinoffs and imitators around the world. In the English-speaking world, the most notable of those knockoffs is unquestionably 4chan, which is best known for being the birthplace of Anonymous as well as the origin of many widespread memes.

The other end of the spectrum is, of course, Facebook. Launched in mid-2004, it began as a virtual directory for Harvard students, helping them to meet classmates with similar interests. Although it soon opened to a wider array of colleges and even high schools, its Network system initially restricted people to connecting only with others who had attended the same school. And in keeping with that real-connections-only policy, Facebook was one of the first sites I know of to have and enforce a real-name policy. Although registration has since become open to the public, the rules continue to ban pseudonyms and false names. And by becoming one of the most popular websites on the internet, Facebook got us used to sharing far more than just our names.

Thanks to Google+'s Facebook-esque policy on pseudonyms, combined with the service's rapid rise to popularity and Google's surprisingly strict enforcement, the issue of identity has finally become a major concern. Some people want their identities to be "free as in freedom", while others simply wish to use an identity separate from their real one. But there's nobody stopping you from having control of your identity. Google just doesn't want you to do it on their site.

Like Facebook, LinkedIn, Foursquare, and most other modern social networks, Google+ is focused on the real you. I don't mean "the person that you actually are", I mean "the person that you are in real life". The first reason for this, of course, is because they want to sell your data to third-parties and deliver accurately-targeted ads. However, that's not the only reason. At an ideological level, they don't believe in an online identity that doesn't match your real one. To the people running these sites, a social network is to connect the physical you with other physical people. To quote a Google spokesperson, "Google Profiles are designed to be public pages on the web, which are used to help connect and find real people in the real world"; they don't expect or want you to be connecting to someone you don't know personally. Social networks are made with the expectation that you'll only be connecting with people that know your real-life name.

Most of the arguments for pseudonyms on social networking sites are dubious anyway. Dissidents, the typical example, have much more to worry about from Google than putting their real name on a profile. For example, Google has put a backdoor access system into Gmail for the sole purpose of providing your email to governments as needed, and is known to comply with more than 50% of government requests for user data. If you're really desperate to flip the coin and put your life up on Google, rely on G+'s effective privacy controls to hide any posts you don't want read, and pray that nobody sends them a court order. But if you really need to express yourself anonymously online, there are plenty of better alternatives, ranging from identity-optional boards such as 4chan to anonymized darknets designed to hide one's behavior from governments. The fact that social networking sites don't fit your anti-identity needs isn't an indicator that there's something wrong with those sites, it's a warning sign that you're using the wrong kinds of sites.

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