For a company that gave itself a traditionally mis-spelt web-style pseudonym to make it stand out online, Google is handling the issue of monikers rather badly when it comes to Google+.
The list of blocked users is what is now being referred to as the NymWars extends to some fairly influential users. Most embarrassingly for Google, the latest is Blake Ross, co-founder of Firefox, who was inexplicably blocked from the service on Wednesday night. He trumps even William Shatner.
Blocked users are told: "After reviewing your profile, we determined that the name you provided violates our Community Standards." Standards that are being used to ensure that everyone using Google+ is signed up using their real name. It doesn't take much imagination to work up a few conspiracy theories about why Google should be so insistent on a real-name policy, alongside some more rational, soft-policy theories on encouraging a more, mature constructive level of engagement that reflects how we best communicate in the real world – ie, when we know who we're talking to.
But online identity is more nuanced than that. Though the roots of pseudonyms may have been in the murky, early web days when users may have felt safer protecting their identity when exploring this new world – and though anonymity certainly has an important place in protecting identities in particular cases – pseudonyms are not necessarily about identity. For many web users, a nickname is more like an online brand, something that makes them stand out from the others with the same name, something that brands their work across multiple sites, and something they use in conjunction with their real name. (See Krishnan Guru Murthy's post on anonymity and managing social networks.)
Just who is being banned?
Kirrily "Skud" Robert has been collecting cases studies of users with suspended accounts. She found that:
• 74% of the 119 reports she collected said they had been using the name that most people knew them by online.
• 18% used the name they were known exclusively by online.
• 13% said they were banned for using the name despite the fact it appears on some form of government-issued ID. (Of particular interest to the conspiracy theorists…)
• Users that had signed up with pen or stage names.
• Reasons for using a pseudonym varied from teachers protecting their identity from their schoolkids, rape and stalking victims (one suggested the real name policy is more risky to women), disguising religious/political views from extended family and using a more distinctive name that is easier to find online. In short – a wide range of well-justified and "human" explanations for using alternative names.
While some users might not want their real name to appear at all, others, like Documentally, would prefer an extra name field to allow for monikers too.
"It's a private company and they have the right to set their own policies. But I have loads of people following me and have no idea who they are, because they're not using the names I know them by. I have a whole circle called 'who?'. They are trying to rewrite internet law."
Brand and company pages are being planned
Google+ project lead Vic Gundotra has been one of several Google engineers asking users for feedback within Google+, and has told several users that nickname support will be added, along with dedicated pages for brands and organisations.
Where some suggestions have been reviewed and implemented overnight, support for alternative names seems to be stalling, while the very strict interpretation of Google's policy is making some very negative ripples – despite an attempt at clarification from senior Googler Bradley Horowitz. He explains that users can add "other names" to their profile, but that's still not as flexible as allowing users to make their "other name" their primary ID on the service. That should surely be the choice of the user?
Risking growth and goodwill
But of course Google+ will grow faster than those services, because it is moving into an established market where users understand the basic proposition. Facebook and Twitter had to work harder to prove themselves and get that growth. Facebook does "evict" users who don't appear to use real names, but didn't seem to prioritise that until it had a huge userbase.
It's risky for Google to take what feels like a hardline approach, for two reasons. Firstly, many of the users it is now penalising for using online monikers are valuable, influential early adopters – and Google really needs them to be on side. Secondly, given the battle for this space, and how Google+ needs to prove itself by getting to a critical mass of people as quickly as possible, it can't afford to lose momentum.
I can't sum it up better than bennycrime. His video illustrates how much work Google has to do to take Google+ to the mainstream ("Google Plus? Is that better than Google Google?" but also how being banned is fast becoming a geek badge of cool.
Being banned from Google+ might just be the new being banned from the ranch.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010