Google Plus and why I leftPosted: September 27, 2011 at 8:32 pm | Tags: identity, lgbtiq, names, people, politics, privilege, racism
This is relatively old news now, but I quit Google Plus (G+ from here on in). My reasons were relatively simple, and yet not at the same time. I had planned to write this post when I quit, but stuff happened and I didn’t. Stilgherrian’s piece at ABC’s The Drum today reminded me of why I was going to write, and effectively summed up what I was going to say, but I’ll lay out my reasons nonetheless.
Google has a well known motto, “Don’t be evil”. This is supposed to guide them in their decisions about the directions their company takes, the products they release, and the EULA’s they create. Over the years Google has been criticised for some of the work they’ve undertaken, such as their presence in China, but typically Google has been mostly benign and useful to the majority of users of the interwebs.
This stopped being true once G+ came into being. G+ comes with a policy that people are required to use their “common name”. Google interprets this to mean someone’s actual real name, a name that is on official ID – and demands you show them said ID (although they have no right to do such a thing, and you don’t know what they do with any ID you show them) if they are not satisfied that your name is “real”.
So many people who have unusual real names, such as Stilgherrian, or Skud, or Violet Blue. These three examples are from relatively well known individuals in Western countries, they have the ability to poke and prod, and in Violet’s case have her suspension of her account overturned. Other people with “unusual names”, which I’m guessing from what I’ve read are going to be non-white people for the most part, and people with mononyms like Stilgherrian, are likely to face account suspension and give up unless they have contacts.
Skud posted a list of things that make names likely to be flagged by G+ as non genuine:
Profile are flagged for review when one of the following triggers occurs:
- Another user flags your profile for any form of abuse, including but not limited to “fake profile”.
- You change the name in your profile to something that trips the automatic flagging system.
Note that “legacy” names — those carried across from profiles that predate Google+, or which were created very early in Google+’s public availability, seem to be “grandfathered” into the system, and don’t seem to be checked unless reported.
If you change your profile name, the following things seem to trigger the automatic flagging system:
- Mononymity, i.e. having only one name (and having just a dot, or similar, in the “last name” field).
- “Unusual characters”
- Actually unusual characters, like a heart symbol (❤).
- Punctuation marks, including quotation marks, parentheses, and possibly even hyphens and apostrophes.
- Unusual capitalisation (including capitals appearing within a name, as in McWhatever)
- Spaces in either part of your name, for instance “Marie Claire” as a first name.
- Name using more than one character set, such as a name which uses the Latin character set for their first name and the Chinese character set for their last name.
- Certain words, possibly including profanity, names of famous figures or deities, etc.
- Professional titles such as Dr., Prof., etc.
- Suffixes such as III or Jr.
The above is an incomplete list.
This annoyed me because it should be a simple thing. Unusual capitalisation (or none at all), shouldn’t be a problem to G+, mononyms shouldn’t be a problem (Thanks to Stilgherrian, I now know that there are 13,461 people with active Medicare cards in Australia who have mononyms, and Medicare’s system copes just fine), non Western names shouldn’t be a problems (it’s not like the majority of the world is Western, or even the majority of internet users are from Western countries).
I thought, hoped, that Google would realise that when it came to naming conventions, they’d sit down and think about it and realise that perhaps they’d set their sites too narrow and should adapt so that naming conventions from non-Western nations, especially non-Anglo naming conventions. I thought that given time G+ would mature and grow up.
Then the next problem hit. The problem that overshadowed the naming conventions for me was when Google effectively came out and told the world that if you needed to use pseduonyms due to safety reasons (avoiding harassment on the interweb, political activist, etc), then G+ was not the place for you.
I’m lucky, I have sufficient privilege, power and general good will for me to be able to use my real name on the internet. My blog is sufficiently small and unimportant for me to write stuff and not be targeted by people who’d like to make my life miserable. My political activism is sufficiently low key, I live in a relatively safe Western democracy (or demoncracy as it was once typoed), and I’m not hiding any big secrets from people (much). But I’m lucky that way. There are plenty of people who don’t have that privilege and who cannot be their real selves on the internet. As Danah Boyd describes from a post by Skud, there are a large number of reasons people use pseudonyms on the interwebs. It doesn’t take long to think of people who can’t put their real name on the internet (police officers, sex workers, non-out LGBTIQ people, teachers, etc). It doesn’t take long to think of other reasons why people may want or need to have multiple identities on the internet.
When I thought of all of those people who were effectively being told that G+ wasn’t for them, that they could not participate in the community because it wasn’t built to protect them, wasn’t built to keep multiple identities for people, I couldn’t play inside while there were others outside. So I quit. I went to join those outside and play with them. I’d much rather be a part of nothing than a part of an organisation which seems to have only their profits at heart and not the good will they’ve built over the years by not being evil.
Of course, the dumbest thing about this is that anyone can create a G+ account with a new email address and a common Western name… I could go back on there as Caroline Kingston and have no problems because that name should fit well enough. But on principle I won’t.