[By Alistair Fairweather]
The folks who run Google+ want you to just be yourself. In fact they’re so serious about you being yourself, that they will kick you off their playground unless you use your real name. How do they know if your name is real? Well, it’s obvious, right?
Google+, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is the search giant’s latest attempt at a social networking site. After several false starts (Google Buzz, Google Wave), it finally seems to have cracked the formula. People are streaming into the network; over 25m have joined in a matter of weeks.
As is always the case, more users equal more unexpected issues, both technical and practical. Because Google is used to dealing with massive numbers of users, it hasn’t suffered from the kinds of technical issues that plagued Twitter early in its popularity. Instead it has run into an arguably more difficult challenge: reconciling its policies with real user behaviour.
Among the most cherished of those policies is that each Google+ user must use their real name. No nicknames, no pseudonyms; just first name and last name, that’s it. Sounds pretty reasonable right? The last thing you want is a whole lot of junk on your network — trolls called MadDog666 or spammers called [email protected]! You want real people, particularly when you’re trying to compete with Facebook’s planet-sized vortex of identity.
The first problem, as with most laws, is enforcement. Predictably enough, the Google+ guys and gals have approached this problem algorithmically. In other words they are using artificially intelligent software to sift through accounts automatically, rather like the way they automatically rank websites in their search engine.
Again, that sounds like a good idea. Who doesn’t trust Google search results? But in reality, even though its hit rate may be 99,9% accurate (which it probably isn’t), it’s still blocking dozens of real accounts every day. Just ask Violet Blue, an online columnist, whose account was flagged for not complying with the policy (and yes, that’s really her real name).
Anyone who’s run any kind of social site will tell you how hard it is to enforce these sorts of policies. I remember managing 24.com’s Letterdash and Answerit communities. One of the first forms of bad behaviour we encountered was impersonation. We could delete and block the trolls, but they would inevitably reappear and start their shenanigans all over again. This is something Google+ is valiantly struggling against.
The difficulty is that false positives are exceptionally expensive, in some ways more expensive than the trolls and spammers themselves. They create work for your entire team — from the techies to the customer support desk.
Fledgling social networks are like new friendships — they’re fragile and rely on lots of fuzzy feelings and friendly behaviour. Banning an early adopter’s account by mistake instantly dissipates that warm fuzzy halo.
Expensive: a definition
As Kellan Elliott-McCrea, who was an architect at Flickr, puts it: “You’re burning engineer cycles, engineering motivation (cleaning up mistakes sucks), staff satisfaction and community goodwill. That’s the definition of expensive.”
Even worse, you now have two competing impulses in one organisation. Elliott-McCrea explains: “You’ve got another part of your company dedicated to making creating new accounts as easy as humanly possible. Which means when you do find and nuke a real spammer, they’re back in minutes. So now you’re waging asymmetric warfare against yourself.”
So how did Facebook manage this trick? It was achieved almost by accident. Because it began as a network for university students to interact online, real names immediately became the norm. There’s no way that hot guy was ever going to find which dorm you lived in if your name was listed as ValleyGirl_4eva. And so Facebook’s real name policy isn’t a product of policy so much as cultural momentum.
Google+ has no such momentum, and so it’s struggling to force people into a mould that may not fit the burgeoning network. If I learnt anything at 24.com, it’s that your users decide the future direction of your network — not you.
But apart from the practical and technical issues involved there is a second, more subtle problem with this policy. Why shouldn’t pseudonyms be allowed? The Electronic Frontier Foundation made a strong case for allowing people to use names other than their own online. Essentially, it boils down to protecting vulnerable people from detection and harassment — whether social or political.
That doesn’t mean that accounts need to be completely anonymous, just their public facing portions. Google+ can still come up with better ways to verify that its users aren’t spammers without forcing them to use their real names in public. Vic Gondotra, the head of Google+, has allegedly said that pseudonyms will be allowed in future. Until they are, though, Google+ will be burning yet more goodwill.
Legions of naysayers are already leaping to predict Google+’s demise. I think they’re jumping the gun. It will be at least a year before anyone, including Google, can make any kind of accurate prediction on that front. Regardless of these growing pains Google+ is clearly still picking up speed. The challenge for Google is in learning to follow the network rather than trying to lead it.
- Alistair Fairweather is digital platforms manager at the Mail & Guardian
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