Google+ Failed Because of Real Names

It’s now been a few months since the launch of Google+, and it’s now fairly clear that it’s not a mortal threat to Facebook, or even Orkut. I think it’s worth thinking a bit about why Google+ isn’t doing better, despite its many advantages. Obviously, Google wants to link Google+ profiles to things in the physical world that matter to its paying customers: advertisers. To me, the most interesting part is how the real name issue acted as a lens, focusing attention on Google’s plans for the service, the horse-trade Google is asking people to make, and Google’s weighting of a communications platform versus having an online Disneyland where nothing offensive is allowed.

There’s a lot that Google gets right in Google+, most notably the idea of circles. Circles could be a great way for Google to mirror how people interact, and let them present different things to different sets of people, under their control. It’s a simple, understandable metaphor.

But Google hasn’t derailed Facebook, because Google shot themselves in the foot at launch. That’s why TechCrunch has articles like “Raise Your Hand If You’re Still Using Google+.” Let’s be clear, this was an own-goal, and it was avoidable. I know of at least two Googlers who left because they felt Google wasn’t living up to its own values in the internal debate. Google has put their desire to have a real-name driven internet ahead of their user’s desires. Maybe a free name change would make that ok? But it’s not ok, and name changes won’t make it ok.

Within days of Google+ being launched, the positive press was being driven out by stories about the “Nymwars.” A lot of it revolved around Google having claims that your displayed name could be what people called you, but as Skud clearly documented, that was a bizarre and bureaucratic lie. But documenting up your “government name” isn’t enough, as people like 3ric have documented. (It’s pronounced “Three-Rick,” and that’s how I’ve always known him.)

As bad as it is to tell people what they can write on the “Hello, My Name is” badges, it’s worse to be inconsistent and upsetting around something as personal as a name, or to tell someone that a Capulet they’ll no longer be. The very worst part is that Google managed to do it at the wrong time.

What Google did by focusing attention on “real names” when they did was to take attention from the really cool aspects of Google+, and draw it to an emotionally laden set of battles that they can’t win. They managed to calm the waters a bit by declaring that they’d “support” other names, leading to this awesome bit of politically-incorrect-calling-bullshit: “EFF declares premature victory in Nymwars.”

Another way to see this is Google knowingly burned an awful lot of goodwill with one of their key communities, techies. The way that they did it hampered Google+ during its launch, preventing it from getting the momentum it probably deserved.

They did all that in order to get one unique name for everyone. Oops, wait, there’s lots of people named Mike Jones. They did it to get name that links to “the real world you.” They wanted to get a commercial advantage for Google, at the expense of people’s ability to choose how they present themselves.

It hasn’t worked out, and yesterday, Google announced the next set of changes. (EFF has some comments in “Google+ and Pseudonyms: A Step in the Right Direction, Not the End of the Road.”)

Most interesting to me, Yonatan Zunger, Chief Architect of Google+ says:

We thought this was going to be a huge deal: that people would behave very differently when they were and weren’t going by their real names. After watching the system for a while, we realized that this was not, in fact, the case. (And in particular, bastards are still bastards under their own names.) We’re focusing right now on identifying bad behaviors themselves, rather than on using names as a proxy for behavior.

That’s gotta hurt.

The key takeaway: Google spent a huge amount of goodwill on an attractive, but untested idea, which Yonatan summarizes as “Bastards won’t be bastards under their real name.” (As an aside, there’s a lean startup lesson there, but Google has yet to pivot.) You shouldn’t make the same mistake.

Names are personal. They shouldn’t be subject to policies for vague, untested reasons. They shouldn’t be subject to policies at all unless your idea is even better than Google can do. Don’t make your new thing fail by sacrificing it on the altar of real names.

Some follow-on posts: “Yes, Google+ Is a Failure” and “More on Real Name Policies.”

18 thoughts on “Google+ Failed Because of Real Names

  1. Google burned precisely the wrong crowd – the tech savvy early adopters. These people tend to be geeky, and/or old Internet hands. They’re used to finding value in an Internet tool that allows them to do it their way; not the other way around.

    But Google decided to play Identity Cop and got entirely hung up on what should have been an utterly trivial point. Worse, they clearly deployed their policy before the back end was ready for prime time. The bad mojo circulated as random users got kicked off G+, then treated to automated-sounding support email exchanges that talked down to them as if they were idiots.

    Many were badly burned by Google. In one fell swoop the big G dumped its entire load of accumulated street cred into the ocean. Google was different; Google was “cool”. It wasn’t tight-assed. It understood real people. It understood real Internet users, not marketing demographics. Then suddenly, Google’s handling of Plus created the image of Google pulling off the grandmother mask to reveal the wolf hiding inside. Overnight they became authoritarian, stopped communicating meaningfully with the alarmed concerns of users, and stories circulated of employees who did care being silenced and threatened should they engage Google’s users like real people with concerns that mattered.

    In the end, Google drove away the very people who are the type to create interesting content of value, in a misguided attempt to brand themselves as Facebook 2.0. This is not a new story. Companies do this all the time. Lose the mindshare of one group while lusting after another greener pasture.

  2. Meanwhile… Google has just published a new set of privacy rules that intend to apply to all of their services, and I also hear they’re going to require every *new* user to create a Google Profile, even if all they want is a Gmail account. I haven’t looked hard at it yet, I’ll admit, but whaddayawanna bet it requires a “wallet name”? I also, pending further investigation, have the impression that existing users are exempt, but I could be very wrong, considering the track-record.

    Seconding Moribund (the Burgomeister?) re: burning the audience they should have been wooing. I kind-of expected that at least some of the Google staff themselves were of the same ilk… guess they were shouted down (or fired) by the Zuck wannabees.

    Borrowing the same trope Abel did: “…bastards are still bastards under their own names.”

    And also when their name is Google.

  3. Lalo Telling said, “Seconding Moribund (the Burgomeister?) re: burning the audience they should have been wooing. I kind-of expected that at least some of the Google staff themselves were of the same ilk… guess they were shouted down (or fired) by the Zuck wannabees.”

    Yes. As someone who’s friends with half a dozen Google engineers (that’s what happens when you live in the Mission district of SF), I can tell you second-hand that many, many Google employees were loudly decrying the Real Names idea well before the Google+ service was ever released to the public. They were using it internally (as an alpha-test), and almost everything that was later said about Google+ during NYMWARS was argued before it was released.

    Google is still a company full of healthy brains, but as an organization it has become sick.

  4. The scariest part is linking your email account to Google+ . I most certainly dont want everyone on my email list to be in my circles.

    It terrifies me that what if one day Google decides to live stream my emails on the Google+ timeline even by a software glitch. Happened with Buzz.

  5. The worse is when real Googlers use fake names and the account is still up.
    Or when non-celebs use their known non-real name and get verified – name looks real but I’m sure there is no ID card associated to it.

    On the other hand my account got suspended because I put my nickname along with my (allegedly) real name.

  6. Apparently I cannot type in a pseudonym for Facebook in India. Asks me for a real name when i try to create an account + a phone number to verify.

    Can anyone confirm this elsewhere?

  7. I’m one of the rare people who is all for a real-names policy. Whether it’s doing business, gathering information, sharing information, or making plans with someone – I’m glad I know with who I am dealing with and happy to have some assurance an it’s not an old-man-creep-posing-as-a-young-girl to befriend my daughter online, an identity thief, a dumb ass pretending their recommendation is backed with a PhD, or any other various veiled personalities. I value a service in which I know the person I’m communicating with is who they say they are.

  8. Brilliant post illustrating just how stupid the whole ‘names policy’ has been. Also what you have missed is that up until G+ I was allowed to use my pseudonym on all other Google sites, such as Blogger, Picasa etc. Oh and Joe, read the other comments, its been proved by Google themselves that banning the use of pseudonyms does NOT keep the undesirables out!

  9. Great post. I’d add the Brandgate issue to the mix, and in recent months the ill-conceived, community-distorting SUL to complete the trifecta of momentum destruction. Here’s a recent good thread on the SUL : https://plus.google.com/110041523199056192526/posts/ZW15Fvdtb2S

    This is the comment I wrote months ago in the same vein as your post on the news that
    >Mathew Ingram originally shared this post:
    >The “Nym” wars are over, it seems — according to a number of reports from Web 2.0,
    >including +Bill Gross and +Rafe Needleman, >Google VP +Vic Gundotra has confirmed
    >that support for pseudonyms will be coming soon to Google+

    “…Honestly, Google couldn’t have handled this in a worse way. This ill-conceived insistence on “Real Names” (which they are now back-tracking on apparently) cost at least half the momentum that G+ had.

    Another 25+% went with the similarly ill-conceived brand ban (to think of all of the free publicity that all of the newsbrands would have continued to lend in their experimentation with the supposed “field trial”).

    The word ‘ban’ should have never been heard, ever, during the entire G+ launch phase… #lesigh

    On the plus side, I guess we won the #nymWars? It rings hollow somehow…”

    Have you noticed how brand G+ Pages aren’t getting very much traction at all, while tons of “personal” profiles are clearly being used for commercial purposes and are cleaning up? Brand/business Pages were never really necessary to introduce for G+. It’s an artificial distinction, and the only thing that Brands needed (multi-user access) could have been rolled out to everybody. Why not?

  10. Joe sounds like someone who still believes that nobody ever pretended to be someone they’re not before the Internet existed.

    Anyone is free to make a million “Joe Smith” personas online and say they’re male, a PHD, and claim they’re not a creepy stalker.

    This may sound like a harsh analogy to make, but it’s in the interest of driving the point home:

    Popular culture has conditioned people to believe that there are pedophiles lurking behind every corner to harm and abuse children. Paranoia over the issue is at a fever pitch in the western world. But while people are now convinced that every stranger they meet has a fifty percent chance of being a pedophile, actual statistics reveal a terribly different reality: that most children are not abused by strangers pretending to be nice people. They’re harmed by those they already know, and in their own family. People who have already been “vetted” by being closely known.

    “Real Names” are currently experiencing a somewhat similar kind of popular distortion. The image of the sneaky Internet user who uses a stereotypical name like “COOLCAT42″ is believed to be the cretin responsible for all the Internet’s ills. And if only you see a nice, wholesome, image and handle that appear normative by the standards of western society, you’ll be reassured it’s all going to be better.

    This is complete hogwash. People are people regardless of what name you have attached to them, and “handles” as they’re being called in order to devalue them in relation to “real names” don’t even give a person a leg up on starting to sort the chaff from the wheat. The same steps to vet a person must be taken regardless of the name they use, and anyone who doesn’t, who just feels warm and fuzzy because they see “Joe Smith” doesn’t do their homework, is being foolhardy.

    Nevermind the fact that without a full investigation by authorities, it’s easy for anyone to use a “real looking” persona in any online service if they wish too. Within weeks of G+ going online, it was already well documented how fake ID created in a few minutes could fool Google into believing someone was the person they claimed to be.

    The Real Names issue is just a cover for corporations seeking another way to control information and what they do with people using their service. That’s it. The amount of perceived security it brings is paltry compared to the damage it does.

  11. It makes you wonder whether nobody on the decision-making level had actually ever been a genuine Internet user…

  12. @acm – exactly! What were they testing/thinking about internally at Google?!

    @Moribund – another version of the John Smith/Ph.D. thing can be seen with a ton of the spammy (yet careful not to undermine the profile effort too quickly) College “babe who loves Star Wars, psychology and geeks” set-ups on G+, and they are gettings a lot of (male techie) attention. G+ is already devolving into a lot of that kind of activity. I’d count even a fair number of users on the SUL under that rubrique…

  13. As of 01/25/2012, “”After reviewing your appeal, we have determined that your name does not comply with the Google+ Names Policy.”

    My Identity has existed since before Google. I define my Identity not by how many followers I have, but by the unique combination of ideas that I, as an individual artist, present. No one other than Indigodruid has created the body of work associated with the eponymous site. That is my identity. It is ironic that Google Search recognizes my identity, but Google+ does not.

    By being denied that identity, Google has told me that who I am, as an artist, as a creator, as a philosopher and poet, are not important. That they have no relationship with Identity. That is offensive on a level that is hard to describe.

  14. Google suspended my account on Google+, and told me other services were tied to that, because of their name policy violation…

    They wouldn’t let me have my maiden + married name.

    It was suspsended for WEEKS as I sought ways around it. I had one more go at it, and decided if they didn’t accept it, I would cancel the account. Sure enough, they took the last changed version.

    WTF Google.
    -jj
    Jennifer (Jabbusch) Minella, or on Google+
    Jennifer Jabbusch-Minella ;)

  15. Completely agree, and I could have (and did) say as much the moment I heard about this policy. It kept me off (not surprising considering how I’m even signing this comment), and certainly would keep others off. +1 to what Moribund Cadaver said as well, G+ pissed off the tech early adopters, which isn’t going to work. I won’t agree, however, that G+ was what pulled off the mask. Instead, this happened when Google went public and become beholden to other people rather than itself and customers.

    The whole idea about making people be identified with their real names to limit the number of “bastards” or internet trolls was a thin masking for what I feel is the real reason: advertising aka money.

  16. “There’s a lot that Google gets right in Google+, most notably the idea of circles.”

    There’s a lot that date rapists get right, most notably free dinner.

    “Google has put their desire to have a real-name driven internet ahead of their user’s desires.”

    This wasn’t their original idea, of course. It’s a government initiative. See NSTIC, etc.

    “…bastards are still bastards under their own names.”

    And trolls are still trolls under the multiple fake real names they use on the disposable accounts they set up for trolling.

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