Dear Google, Online Identity is Complicated

Over the weekend, ZDNET posted an extremely negative critique of Google+ with the undeniably angry title: “Thanks for nothing, jerkface.” The post discusses Google+ and its non-user-friendly policies. It starts with the “real names” policy that Google enacted with the launch of Google+ in July 2011 and the mess it caused for some users. The author, Ms. Blue, called out the policy that “can best be described as a confusing, velvet-glove-cast-in-iron policy where users of Google+ are required to use their birth or government ID names — and when flagged, must prove it, and submit official documentation as proof.” After starting to enforce the policy, Google followed up with “mass Google+ account suspensions and deletions […]  Ex-Google employees were deleted. Writers, musicians, programmers and more were deleted. Editing your name raised suspicion and still risks getting you flagged.”

Google+ is not just a social network. Eric Schmidt said it best: “Google should be considered “an identity service” with Google+ as the foundation across all its products.” Google+ is not a competitor to Facebook and Twitter. It’s a way to unify users’ experience and participation across Google properties like YouTube, Android and Search so that Google knows more about each user, knowledge that they can sell to advertisers.

It’s a fair game, in my opinion, for Google to collect as much information about me and my online activities in order to sell that to advertisers. I consider that part of the bargain I made when I signed up to use Google’s free services. But I think Ms. Blue’s post is spot on and hints at two problems Google has with understanding their users.

First, a major misunderstanding of what online identity is to their users and the different “shades” of identity that depend on the privacy level of the application. Maybe this isn’t so much a “misunderstanding” as a “conscious decision to force people to be public in everything they do” in the manner of Facebook. Google has some great public applications, like YouTube, where content is shared on a one-to-everyone scale. It’s more of a broadcast than a share, it’s as public as television. But Google also has some very private applications, like email, calendar, chat and task lists where most interactions are one-to-one or at most one-to-few. What Google seems to misunderstand is that we cannot use the same standards of identity for both ends of the spectrum.

Said a different way, it’s OK for Google to identify a single user as the owner of Gmail account X, chat account Y, and YouTube account Z but it’s not OK to require that user to use the same public name for all three applications.

Second, users perceive Google as a bully and Google is not addressing that perception. As Google has grown, it has added new services to its offerings to users and as a result, changed its T&Cs. The “real name” requirement was not made at the launch of Gmail in 2004 and definitely not part of the T&Cs when search was launched. What users are angry about is that Google is using their dependency on private applications like Gmail and Calendar built up over several years to push them into new T&Cs that they don’t agree with. Their anger stems from an understanding that Google would not significantly alter the T&Cs after they signed up for the service. Be that understanding fair or not, when Google ignores that and pushes for more invasive requirements (such as requiring users to submit “official documentation” as proof of their name) they come across as bullies. It is a perception that needs to be addressed.

Google is not the only company to experience backlash against T&C changes and it may not be fair to single them out as making the worst (from the users’ perspective) changes either. But they are a very big company who is part of almost every aspect of our online life, something that neither Facebook or Apple can currently claim.

My Google+ profile: legally me.

My Google+ profile: legally me.

Finally, my personal take on the “real names” requirement. I have always used my real name online. My Twitter and Instagram handles are @hagit, my Facebook is Hagitk and my Gmail identity includes my real name “Hagit Katzenelson.” When Google launched Google+ in 2011 I was in the middle of a job search and I included my nickname “Vickie” on all of my online profiles and my resume. It was a name that while it was not on any official documentation it was on all of my social profiles and it one I was known as among my colleagues in the US. Google decided that Hagit “Vickie” Katzenelson violated their naming standards and threatened to close my account if I did not change it to be only Hagit Katzenelson. This meant that not only would my Google+ profile change to Hagit Katzenelson but also my Gmail name. I would introduce myself as Vickie, but my emails would arrive from Hagit. I appealed Google’s decision but they were firm that I be called only by my given name.

What irked me was that even though I had taken time to appeal their decision and provide other places where I used my nickname, they still decided what my name would be, regardless of my personal choice in the matter. They relaxed those standards after a while and “allowed me” to use my known nickname, but the bitter taste has remained.

That experience altered my perception of Google+ and changed how I use it. I like Google+ as a social network and I also like the conversations and interactions I have on that network. I share all my blog posts there because of this. The Google+ team has done a great job at building a social network with features that I find useful.

However, I don’t really use Google+ any more for any social interactions because I am terrified that one day some other user or some Google employee will decide that I violated some guideline or another and shut down my account. The problem is that “my account” is now my email, my calendar and my contacts and I depend on those three way way more than I value my online Google+ presence. I know that if my account will be cancelled by Google, it will be devastating professionally and personally and I have a feeling I won’t have a chance to appeal.

As I said in the title of this post, online identity is complicated and we don’t all fit the same mold. I hope Google takes Ms. Blue’s article to heart and takes a deeper look at its actions.



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