Ex-CEO of Google Eric Schmidt made waves recently during an interview with NPR’s Andy Carvin where he defended the current implementation Google +“real names” policy:
The Internet would be better if we had an accurate notion that you were a real person as opposed to a dog, or a fake person, or a spammer or what have you.
…And the Internet did not develop this in many ways because the Internet came out of universities where the issue of authentication wasn’t such a big issue. Everybody trusted everybody, you didn’t have these kinds of things.
But my general rule is people have a lot of free time and people on the Internet, there are people who do really really evil and wrong things on the Internet, and it would be useful if we had strong identity so we could weed them out. I’m not suggesting eliminating them, what I’m suggesting is if we knew their identity was accurate, we could rank them. Think of them like an identity rank.
There is a lot to unpack here but let me start by saying this: if the goal is to create a social network, a place where people can socialize, share, chat, argue, organize, and –yes- vociferously disagree, it is true that stable and embedded identities are more conducive to this outcome. Sociological research talks about “deindividuation” –the notion that without being closely tied to individual accountability, individuals may commit acts which are outside of social norms which would otherwise bind them. Plus, in a reduced-cues environment such as the Internet, it may well be easier say things which are hurtful as one is spared from having to look someone in the eye (and we do know face-to-face interaction indeed taps into powerful and deep parts of our biological endowment as humans).
In fact, thinking about Eric Schmidt’s remarks reminded me of that famous scene in “To Kill a Mockingbird” when little Scout Finch (9 years old) and her lawyer father Atticus face a mob trying to lynch, Tom Robinson, a Black men falsely accused of rape in U.S. Deep South in the pre-civil rights era. As the angry, agitated crowd gathers outside the jail, Scout recognizes one person, Mr. Cunningham, and calls out to him by name. Here’s the event, in Scout’s words:
In ones and twos, men got out of the cars. Shadows became substance as lights revealed solid shapes moving toward the jail door. Atticus remained where he was. The men hid him from view. … They were sullen-looking, sleepy-eyed men who seemed unused to late hours. I sought once more for a familiar fare. And at the center of the semi-circle I found one.
“Hey, Mr. Cunningham.”
The man did not hear me, it seemed.
“Hey, Mr. Cunningham. How’s your entailment gettin’ along?”
Mr. Walter Cunningham’s legal affairs were well known to me; Atticus had once described them at length. The big man blinked and hooked his thumbs in his overall straps. He seemed uncomfortable; he cleared his throat and looked away. My friendly overture had fallen flat….
“Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember?” I began to sense the futility one feels when unacknowledged by a chance acquaintance.
“I go to school with Walter,” I began again. “He’s your boy ain’t he? Ain’t he, sir?”
Cunningham was moved to a faint nod. He did know me, after all.
“He’s in my grade,” I said, “and he does right well. He’s a good boy,” I added, “a real nice boy. We brought him home for dinner one time. Maybe he told you about me, I beat him up one time but he was real nice about it. Tell him hey for me, won’t you?”
Atticus had said it was the polite thing to talk to people about what they were interested in, not about what you were interested in….“Entailments are bad,” I was advising him, when I slowly awoke to the fact that I was addressing the entire aggregation. The men were all looking at me, some had their mouths half-open. …
I began to feel sweat gathering at the edges of my hair; I could stand anything but a bunch of people looking at me. They were quite still.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
Atticus said nothing. I looked around and up at Mr. Cunningham, whose face was equally impassive. Then he did a peculiar thing. He squatted down and took me by both shoulders.
“I’ll tell him you said hey, little lady,” he said.
Then he straightened up and waved a big paw. “Let’s clear out,” he called. “Let’s get going, boys.”
As they had come, in ones and twos the men shuffled back to their ramshackle cars. Doors slammed, engines coughed, and they were gone.
Indeed this is a very moving example of a person being pulled away from a “deindividualized” mob situation back into being an individual, a father, a neighbor, a citizen, a person. I’m sure many school children were moved to tears by Scout’s simple act of humanity–and the human response it provokes. This is also a classic of social-psychology in terms of demonstrating mob behaviors. It seems to bolster Schmidt’s point perfectly… but wait! Who?
Scout? Who’s Scout? Didn’t she just say her name was Jean Louise? Would Google+ terminate her account if she signed up as Scout? What’s on your government issued document, “Scout”?
While Google+ terms-of-service do say you can use the “name you are known by in everyday life”, Google+ has been suspending user accounts of people who signed up with the name they are known by–indeed, who is to say what name you are known by except your social network? If Scout is Scout to her father and to her friends, she is Scout except she can’t ever prove that except to say, here I stand. As Scout.
And my point is that Schmidt is confusing what they want (a troll-lite, spam-free platform in which people interact/share with each other) with a policy of real names, however one can define those. Indeed in response to Andy Carvin’s next question, Schmidt makes a statement which makes me think Google still does not understand what really makes Facebook work (hint, it’s social norms more than its policies):
Question: One of the early controversies around Google+ is you not allowing people to use nicknames. Andy Carvin, who’s over from NPR actually at the festival, is asking on Twitter: “How does Google justify its real names only policy on Google+ when it could put some people at grave risk?”.
Schmidt: Well, the first comment is that Google+ is completely optional. In fact, many many people want to get in, if you don’t want to use it, you don’t have to. …. There are obviously people for which using their real name is not appropriate, and it’s completely optional, and if you’re one of those people don’t do it. Seems obvious.
What Schmidt and, presumably, Google+ wants is stable identities embedded in social networks. And it’s true such a platform requires effort and attention. However, a “real name” policy isn’t the way to get there. Neither is insisting that people use a more conventional name or their name on a government issued ID. (Most of the cases I’ve encountered seem to be people who go by unusual names like “Skud”)
The reason that Facebook works is because it is practically non-optional, i.e. it is the place to be and to find friends and family members; it’s where everyone else is. It’s the opposite of what Schmidt says Google+ will become, optional. And in order to be found, people often choose to use a name that they are known by to their social network. Facebook does not work because Facebook is after everyone with a nickname, suspending their accounts: my research shows that, even among college students, about 10-20% use some sort of nickname—however, it’s a nickname they’ve shared with people they want to interact with. That’s the key to Facebook–the embedded, prolonged, sustained interaction, not the exact name or “real” name.
Facebook also launched within relatively encapsulated communities like Harvard and then to other colleges, and expanded town by town, country by country. Usually, there would be a rush to sign up as Facebook opened up in a new college and pretty soon, a large number of people embedded dense networks would be on Facebook (plus, early Facebook had strong privacy protections which helped it attract people).
As a late-comer, Google may not have the same options as Facebook. But at a minimum, it can learn that the key to success is not real names (remember, about 20% of Facebook may be nicknames) but stable, embedded identities in which people have invested time and effort. And the way to get there is to become a non-optional platform, a place where people feel like they would miss out if they were not on. Shrugging, oh, well, our platform is optional is exactly the way to make your platform, well, first an optional place, then a take-it-or-leave-it choice, then a chore, finally a why-bother moment, followed by a platform-death. (Buzz, anyone?).
Google launched among the tech community which tends to have widespread weak ties–and this has it pluses and minuses. (For one thing, it does not completely encapsulate any locale except perhaps Silicon Valley which is a major disadvantage). Further, the tech community tends to be a place many people adopt a chosen name. Instead of being very happy that well-known, well-embedded people like Skud were signing up, Google chose to spend its efforts on trying to cut the very tree whose limb it’s sitting on. (And this is a completely self-inflicted, inexplicable wound: as the Turkish saying goes, the tree being cut is most sad about the fact that the handle of the ax is wood, i.e. also from trees).
So, what should Google do? I think Circles is a very strong feature and a very attractive point. There is clearly a need for such a reasonable way to share; the fact that Facebook is rushing to adapt some of these innovations is a good sign for Google. Hangouts are great. Other community features need to catch-up very quickly.
To make Google+ succeed, the key thing Google needs to do is expand as fast as possible (to get network effects), encapsulate dense communities so people can embed within their natural social networks, and with features which provide what one can’t find on Facebook (circles, quick privacy controls, hangouts) or Twitter (less spam, ability to mix directed and undirected networks, visibility controls, space to write) with killer features on managing the social network which make people want to invest time and effort.
In that respect, Google+ should invest real resources, for example, to keep G+ clear of spammers and trolls – by hiring people who deal with this, for example, and also by setting up an easy way to report/mute/block trolls and spam. It should create an awesome interface to deal with trolls, to mute posters, for example, to partake in conversations in a flexible manner, for thread-owners to have the ability to quickly and easily adjust participation in their own threads. (Don’t anyone cry censorship; it’s my thread and I’m under no obligation to discuss everything with everyone unless I’m acting as a public official, say, but that is not for Google to enforce). I can think of dozens of features that no online platform really has but would actually benefit conversations. That’s a better place to use resources–especially compared with trying to hunt down whose name was what on their birth certificate.
The question of activists under authoritarian regimes is a thorny one (and I’ve written more about it here). However, Google’s stance doesn’t even make business sense. It would be to Google’s benefit (as well as the benefit of the activists) if Google+ allowed for stable identities embedded in social networks masked by nicknames in such countries. (Again, it’s the embeddedness in social networks, not the name which provides the social norms: “Tell him hey for me, won’t you?” Mr Cunningham is pulled into a community; his name is just the rope which pulls him. It doesn’t have to be the name on his birth certificate; it just has to be the name he accepts and recognizes.)
It’s not just good human rights practice but also good business practice because networks succeed if people–yes real people but using names they choose—populate them. And there are millions of people who live under such regimes, and millions of people outside these countries who might like to interact with them as members of large diasporas, as family members, as journalists, as ordinary citizens. If they were on Google+, I’d be there more often, too.
So, Google, you want real people, not “real names.” Real people often use names other than those on their driver’s license or government issued ID for multiple reasons. And people hang out where they are most comfortable, and people are most comfortable when their identity is under their own control, rather than dictated by corporate policies. And online platforms succeed to the degree people spend time and effort to embed themselves in real relationships; and it’s those embedding that creates the behaviors Schmidt says that Google is seeking, not naming policies or draconian enforcement by bureaucracies.
Online platforms succeed if you can establish a reputation to defend; if you have gotten to know people; if you kept your friends; found old ones; if your conversations are not drowned out by spam; if you have solid, easy and intuitive tools to deal with trolls (who may well be using their drivers license names); if you’ve occasionally gotten in flame wars and maybe cyber-kissed and made up; if you’ve shared silly pictures and shared outrage over protestors shot by snipers; and if they’ve become place to be… In other words, online platforms succeed to the degree they become somewhat non-optional to our social existence. (By non-optional, I don’t mean we’d shrivel and die without it, but that our lives are so enriched by the connectivity that we don’t really want to live without the access to each other the platform provides).
Online platforms don’t succeed if, instead, they spend their resources on trying to muzzle Scout Finch. Let her speak, Google+, as Scout or as Jean Louise as she chooses, and it might just be the right business decision as well as the right thing to do.