Google's "Real Names" Policy: A Bed of Procrustes

The Bed of Procrustes in Greek myth: It was the only inn along one stretch of highway. Procrustes the landlord would make people lie down on his bed, stretch them if they were too short or chop off their feet if they were too tall.
The Bed of Procrustes in Greek myth: It was the only inn along one stretch of highway. Procrustes the landlord would make people lie down on his bed, stretch them if they were too short or chop off their feet if they were too tall. | Source

Usernames, Privacy, and Online Anonymity

[Oct '11] Anonymity is a vital way to protect online safety for some of the web's most vulnerable populations, yet Facebook and Google+ are pushing a "real names" policy that endangers or silences these groups. Officially, Facebook and Google will not let you use their social services unless you are prepared to use your real (legal) name and photo. [Update 3/12: Google now allows some people to use well-known, established pseudonyms, which must be vetted by Google, but this does not solve most of the privacy and protection issues raised in this article.]

Sites that insist we use real names online claim it's for internet safety, to keep bullies, hackers and predators from...what, using pseudonyms? But Google+ has kicked out members for using their real, legal names, while Google has no way to verify that "Jake Lester" is a real person or a pseudonym. When kicked out, you don't simply lose access to a social network where most peers, colleagues and friends are sharing their lives. You lose access to other Google services like Picasa and Reader. (To be fair, both of those high-profile cases got their accounts back after appeal. But those were their real, legal names, not pen names.)

The use of usernames, online handles and pen names has been a vital means to safeguard privacy since the web's beginnings, and it's one worth fighting for.

Usernames as a form of protection

I have been on the internet since 1989. During that time I have met thousands of people around the world. I have also had run-ins with a few creeps whom I did not want to have my real name, photo, and personal information. There are many women — and some men! — who do not wish to be stalked, who do not wish particular individuals to be able to look them up online and see what they are doing. A need for self-protection should not disqualify you from being able to communicate with friends and associates on the social media platforms most people use.

Young people also need the option of usernames. As a forum moderator, I saw kids from age 10 to 20 sharing their opinions, personal lives, and creative writing under pen names. These usernames protected them from later embarrassment. Their early oversharing and clumsy writing would not turn up a search on their real name by employers, college admissions officers, landlords, or new boyfriends/girlfriends.

In countries with internet censorship and repressive regimes, it is impossible and dangerous to post under your real name. Even in less repressive countries, there are times when something needs saying under the online equivalent of a witness protection program. For example, before Don't Ask Don't Tell was repealed, a gay soldier could not speak on what it's like to be gay in the military without losing his/her job. In a business with unfair labor practices, someone might wish to speak about deplorable conditions without being fired. We can't know all the situations where someone might need to be anonymous, but we know they EXIST, and it is wrong to deny people that option.

Ask Mark Twain why he had a pseudonym. Or Deep Throat. Or Marilyn Monroe. Or Rawhide. There are many reasons for pseudonyms and pen names, some pre-internet, some unique to the internet.

Of course, if someone posts under a pseudonym instead of with (you assume!) a real name, you should take that as one of several clues about trustworthiness. But there may be good reasons for it. Google, and all savvy web users, should judge online content by its CONTENT, not by the (possibly faked) author photo and plausible-looking name.

As an ex-moderator, I know full well the deplorable things people do online under the shield of anonymity. But a "real names" policy won't stop hacking, harassment and abusive activities. The bad behavior of a few is not sufficient reason to endanger or silence the many who need the protection afforded by usernames.

Update 3/12: Google allows Pseudonyms... Or Not.

Thanks to Hikeguy in the comments below for alerting me that Google is now allowing a limited form of pseudonyms. Here's the official Google+ announcement detailing the policy.

As I understand it:

  1. New users can apply for a pseudonym, but must go through a stringent application process proving your pseudonym is famous, established, and has a large following. So you can't establish a pen name on Google... you start by getting active on other social networks, at which point why turn over your personal life to Google?
  2. Existing users can apply for a pseudonym, but must go through the same application process, and again may be turned down if you're not sufficiently famous or Google deems your pen name isn't established enough as your web identity. AND if/when you get the pseudonym approved, your older posts will be under your real name, and your real name will still appear on your profile, thus destroying the pseudonym.
  3. Anyone can add a nickname in quotes to your real name: Ellie "Greekgeek" Brundige, E.G.
  4. Some people are beating the system by establishing multiple Google+ accounts linked to different email addresses. Is this allowed? Will Google crack down on them someday? Can anyone find an official Google Plus policy re: multiple accounts?

See this excellent discussion by ZDNet Tech Blogger Violet Blue for problems with the new Google Plus pseudonyms policy.

Usernames as a communication filter

There's another very sound reason for usernames which has less to do with safety and more to do with communication. The web tears down ALL barriers to communication: you can communicate instantly with anyone in the world. If you post publicly, anyone in the world can read your post. Death to privacy!

Usernames paradoxically allow you to take advantage of being able to communicate with anyone who shares your interests without having to tell them everything about yourself. The username acts as a filter. You can geek about Star Trek with friends, yet ten years later (or even tomorrow), you won't be embarrassed by an employer looking up your real name and finding photos of you dressed as a Klingon. Personal messages and email don't serve the same function, because they require you to choose a recipient, rather than sharing with anyone who shares your interests. Usernames are privacy barriers, like the partitions in a clothing store's changing room, which are not required in your own house.

Google+ almost gets this right by allowing you to share different things with different circles, but it forces you to share the most personal information you have — your legal name and photograph — with everyone on the planet.

I have been actively participating in the web under two usernames since before Google existed. I would wager that more people know those two pen names than know my real name. Yet Google refuses to acknowledge those pen names exist, or that my readership might wish to look me up by them, or that I might communicate with them under a nom de plume.

Real Names Policy: The Bed of Procrustes

Instead, Google, Facebook and its ilk seem determined to make us share everything about our lives with everybody. Likes, shares, interests, hobbies — a timeline of our lives — every comment or thought we have is now on record and searchable by banks, employers, relatives, lawyers, and anyone who might harbor any sort of resentment against us or be our adversary in any kind of legal or business affair.

For that reason, I, like millions of people, won't use Google+. Instead, we use pre-Web 2.0 sites like dreamwidth and livejournal to express ourselves. When a social media site gives us the same rights and protections as those sites which have been around since the 90s, we will join it.

The real names policy is a Procrustian Bed that Google and Facebook are trying to force upon the web. It's most useful for advertisers who are trying to gather as much information about you as possible. Most people have given in, because those are the two big inns beside the road— you can stay outside, but then you must sleep in a ditch.

Personally, I am waiting for a new inn to set up next to the road with beds that will accommodate all of us.

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Comments 24 comments

ktrapp profile image

ktrapp 4 years ago from Illinois

This was extremely informative. I appreciate the level of knowledge that you bring to the topics you discuss. I feel that I always walk away having learned something that I didn't already know. Thanks for sharing about Google+1.


quotations profile image

quotations 4 years ago from Canada

This is a significant threat to our privacy and freedom of expression. Most hubbers here use pen names as I do. In my case, I do not want what I write about to in any way reflect on my professional life. Hubpages has wisely not enforced a similar rule, but if the trend is to force people who write anything to use their real names, it will open people up to more harassment (when someone does not like what you write), unwanted attention (if some creep gets infatuated with your profile pic, etc) as well as leave a permanent record of your writings that will always be associated with your real identity, no matter how much your views may change over time. There is a reason that people use noms de plume and noms de guerre. I am disturbed by Google's efforts to further erode our privacy.


homesteadbound profile image

homesteadbound 4 years ago from Texas

I agree totally with ktrapp. I know that when I read one of your hubs that it is going to be well thought out and well presented.

I always enjoy looking at things from different viewpoints and learning how different people feel about different things. And you never disappoint!


Greekgeek profile image

Greekgeek 4 years ago from California Author

Thank you, all.

@quotations: you make a good point about how "no matter how much your views may change over time." Having seen the stuff kids post, I'm particularly concerned that some of their early, less-mature posts will come back to haunt them (as indeed I am dogged by a Library of Alexandria essay I wrote as a student in the early 90s, which has been picked up and reposted all over the web without my permission). We all grow, change, mature, and learn. Search engines tend to favor older content, so that's often what turns up first under our names.


Anon4fun 4 years ago

"Instead, Google, Facebook and its ilk seem determined to make us share everything about our lives with everybody. Likes, shares, interests, hobbies — a timeline of our lives — every comment or thought we have is now on record and searchable by banks, employers, relatives, lawyers, and anyone who might harbor any sort of resentment against us or be our adversary in any kind of legal or business affair."

Excellent point.

Also, a bad actor (troll, stalker, etc) will simply use a fake "real name" until it gets busted then sign up again and continue their evil-doing. Only honest people who value their privacy are silenced by a "real name" policy.


HikeGuy profile image

HikeGuy 4 years ago from Northern California Coast

An update -- Google + now allows the use of established pseudonyms, based on my last visit to its site and news that came out on CNN and other sources earlier this year. There are also articles about Google allowing the use of "nick names" as a separate issue from pseudonyms, but I'm not sure of the details on that.

Good points about kids, stalker prevention and people in repressive political situations -- and the potential for employers or clients to access too much information. I've used two pen names for years online, and the lines between privacy and necessary promotion have become challenging. I enjoy your intelligent take on these issues.

I've considered using Google + to protect my material that I have under pen names in case of authorship issues, but the amount of invasive tracking Google does and its privacy policies deter me.


Greekgeek profile image

Greekgeek 4 years ago from California Author

Oh, thanks very much for the tip! I will have to look this up-- the last I saw, Google was still holding its ground about pen names.

Yes, the invasive tracking is worrying me too. They give us pseuds as a sop, then Facebook us by collecting ever more information? Sigh.

It seems like we early adopters, who used the web for publishing and discussion of serious and sometimes contentious topics, have a lot of challenges adapting to (or finding a safe haven from) the social media model which seems to be shariing superficial things about YOU with the world rather than sharing and discussing creations, knowledge and ideas. I've always felt that what I have to say, rather than who I am, is what I want to share with the web (i.e. the entire planet); who I am is reserved for and only matters to friends. But the modern web disagrees with that premise.


HikeGuy profile image

HikeGuy 4 years ago from Northern California Coast

Here's the CNN take on the Google policy change on pseudonyms:

http://articles.cnn.com/2012-01-24/tech/tech_socia...

The rub -- if I join Google+ under an established pen name, Google changes my name across all of its products. And yes, I get to nonconsensually participate in its Facebookesque invasive practices.

You've articulated the problem. Making people's personal lives fair game for public consumption -- and for spying on for marketing purposes -- takes the focus off of the exchange of ideas and the work itself.

I don't want to partipate in increasingly invasive information tracking -- yet staying off of Facebook and Google+ may become a significant disadvantage. A safe haven would be welcome. I found a browser and an email service that don't track everything I do, now we need online networks that aren't involved in nonconsensual invasion of privacy.

Thanks for your intelligent presence on the web. I find your take on these issues heartening.


HikeGuy profile image

HikeGuy 4 years ago from Northern California Coast

The other challenge: last I checked, I believe Google only allows one account, although it's possible to use different user names on different pages. I'm able to have blogger pages under two pen names.

I don't want to risk my ad revenue from Google, so unless I'm mistaken or there's a policy change, it's not worth trying to set up a Google+ account under a separate name. Especially since anything I'd want to promote on Google+ has Google ads on it.


Greekgeek profile image

Greekgeek 4 years ago from California Author

Thanks so much for helping me get up to date on this. I'm now reading Violet Blue's account (since she's a ZDNet tech blogger famously denied Google Plus EVEN THOUGH that's her legal name) of Google's pseudonym policy changes.

There are problems with it.


Marisa Wright profile image

Marisa Wright 4 years ago from Sydney

Is HikeGuy correct in saying one can only have one Google account? I have several, though I have only one Adsense account (and I know you're allowed only one of those). I'm unaware of any other restrictions?


Greekgeek profile image

Greekgeek 4 years ago from California Author

I've been trying to figure that out, and I'm afraid I don't know! We can only have one ADSENSE account, for sure. I have multiple non-google-plus accounts. I don't know whether we're allowed to have multiple Google Plus accounts-- or whether one can bend the rules to do so (I've heard of Facebook users having multiple accounts although that's against the rules.)


Greekgeek profile image

Greekgeek 4 years ago from California Author

Update: I'm finding that people ARE maintaining multiple Google Plus accounts -- see http://www.googleplusfeatures.com/multiple-google-... -- but I don't know whether Google approves of this or might crack down on the practice in the future (as when they initially let pseudonyms on Google Plus, then deleted them and set up the Real Names policy.)


HikeGuy profile image

HikeGuy 4 years ago from Northern California Coast

Thanks for taking another look at this. Looks like it's fine to have more than one Google account,according to this official Google Double Dart page http://support.google.com/dartsignin/bin/answer.py... Sorry for the confusion.

I may have seen something like this before: http://support.google.com/accounts/bin/answer.py?h... "The name on your profile is associated with the name on your Google Account: changing one will also change the other. You can set up one public profile with your full name."

It's also fine to have more than one Gmail account: http://support.google.com/accounts/bin/answer.py?h... and it's easy to use nicknames on Gmail accounts. Google is one of my income streams, so I'm careful about following their policies. Glad I took another look, even though it took a ridiculous amount of time to find answers on the Google site.


Greekgeek profile image

Greekgeek 4 years ago from California Author

Hmmmm. I'm still not 100% clear whether one can have more than one official Google +Plus profile, although that second link seems to hint at it. But a Google account (to use various Google services) isn't quite the same as the Google Plus service.

I myself have multiple Google accounts (partly due to their merging with YouTube). But I don't even have one Google Plus account due to being skeevy about Google's data collecting and mooshing-together of private/public activities and interests.


HikeGuy profile image

HikeGuy 4 years ago from Northern California Coast

I'm not sure about the Google+ policy either -- whether it's officially acceptable, or not. After hunting through all of this, I'm even more turned off to dealing with Google. The data collection is growing across their ever-increasing products and platforms. I'm going to continue to steer clear of it, although as with avoiding Facebook, I'm losing an option for promoting my work. Thanks again.


HikeGuy profile image

HikeGuy 4 years ago from Northern California Coast

I found some answers about Google + names:

http://support.google.com/plus/bin/answer.py?hl=en...

"If you'd like to create a page for your brand, business, or other entity, you can do so using Google+ Pages. Pages require a personal profile to act as the administrator of the page, though the administrator may remain anonymous to those interacting with the Google+ page."

It looks as though dealing with Google+ may be the only way to establish authorship on Google for those of us who don't have the old-style Google profile. I checked every link I could find for making a Google profile and they all go to Google+.


Greekgeek profile image

Greekgeek 4 years ago from California Author

Wow, you've done so much research here!

I keep starting to rewrite my article, then realize what I wrote here was an editorial about anonymity vs. real names, making some points I really wanted to make about the value and need for pen names. Even if Google changes its policy, those points still stand.

Yet a tutorial on using Google Plus sounds like a good hub too, even if it's a different topic. After all the research you've done, you could write a really good hub on that. So how about it? If you do, I will link to it for you! :)


Marisa Wright profile image

Marisa Wright 4 years ago from Sydney

I actually had a Google+ profile for my pen name but not for my real name, and thought that meant I could get away with it. After reading through this, I decided maybe that wasn't such a good idea, so I deleted the Google+ profile, with the intention of setting up a "Google+ page" instead.

Unfortunately the instructions don't work - I can't see any link to create a Google+ page from my ordinary Google profile. Rats.


Greekgeek profile image

Greekgeek 4 years ago from California Author

Eek, sorry to hear that!


Marisa Wright profile image

Marisa Wright 4 years ago from Sydney

The instructions say you can add a Google+ page for your business or pen name from a button on your Google profile - but I think what they may mean is, from your Google+ profile. Which means I have to create a Google+ profile for my real name before I can create one for my pen name - so I'm back where I started.

I think I'm putting this one in the too hard basket!


Ganeshan Nadarajan 3 years ago

Google, Facebook and its ilk seem determined to make us share everything about our lives with everybody. Likes, shares, interests, hobbies — a timeline of our lives — every comment or thought we have is now on record and searchable by banks, employers, relatives, lawyers, and anyone who might harbor any sort of resentment against us or be our adversary in any kind of legal or business affair.


EmpressFelicity profile image

EmpressFelicity 3 years ago from Kent, England, UK

*Thank you* for this hub. It sums up my feelings perfectly.


JenwithMisty profile image

JenwithMisty 21 months ago

I've been trying to tell people this for quite awhile but no one I know will listen to me. They all say "I don't have anything to hide so I don't care" but everyone does. I had a friend get mad because I don't add people I really know to FB and she couldn't understand my reasoning that not everyone needs to know everything about me. Yet in the same conversation 30 minutes later, she told me that she doesn't mind telling me how she picks up furniture out of other people's garbage, fixes it and then sells it, but she would never tell her wealthy friends that she does that. Of course, I immediately referred her back to our earlier discussion and told her that is exactly why I do things the way I do and why we need to retain some of our basic privacy rights. There's so many, much more important reasons, as you've mentioned, why it's important and I hope you will continue to spread this message.

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