Don’t Suspend Scout Finch, Mr. Schmidt. It’s Wrong and It’s Bad for Business.

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.

23 thoughts on “Don’t Suspend Scout Finch, Mr. Schmidt. It’s Wrong and It’s Bad for Business.

  1. tomslee

    The post clarifies several issues for me; thanks.

    One outstanding question though: are stable identities unique? I work for a company, and sometimes I speak on behalf of that company in particular technology settings. I also comment on technology from a personal perspective and it’s important that these not be confused. There are things I say as a private individual that it would be irresponsible to say as a representative of my employer. I’m sure I am a long way from being unique. On twitter I can have multiple accounts to keep those things separate: G+ does not seem interested in multiple accounts. To me, that limits it.

    1. Anon4fun

      tomslee said: “There are things I say as a private individual that it would be irresponsible to say as a representative of my employer.”

      It’s not only your present employer that you need to think about. Consider whatever social networking you do under “the name you are commonly known by” to be part of the permanent record and on the table when applying for your *next* job.

    2. Conan776

      This is a bit of a conundrum. Apparently, Google is happy to link two accounts of the same person. For example, followers of your nym account might get a suggestion to follow your government/professional name account. Or so I’ve heard. FaceBook, I believe, does similar data-mining.

      On the other hand, having long ago chosen to exist online under a persistent nym (and even close IRL friends know me as Conan), I’d wonder if at my next job interview, what they might think of me, after searching for my government name online and finding very little. Perhaps they’d judge me an anti-social troglodyte? (Google+ certainly has, a priori.)

      Still, it just seems to me as common sense. And I’ve made business connections under my nym and then chosen to share my legal name for contractual purposes once I was sure I could trust a person with my privacy. What matters to me is it’s my choice.

      (As far as the more droll sense of uniqueness, I’ve only ever run into one other Conan776, but he is Vietnamese, and aside from sometimes getting his mail by mistake, we move in different circles.)

    3. zeynep Post author

      @Tomslee: Some people do use multiple accounts but that is somewhat of a chore. (In my college student samples, I found this to be a very small minority). I think Google Circles is a nice innovation to address some of this but yes, the “real real” name policy interferes with a more reasonable usage.

      @Conan: There are many people with nicknames like yours which become a solid part of who they are. It just seems crazy to me that Google does not want to sell you to the advertisers. 🙂 Not good for business.

  2. NuShrike

    Let’s ask the question in a different way, is your email identity unique? It sure seems to be and it sure doesn’t need to be a real name.

  3. TheMacAdvocate

    As convenient as the Scout analogy is, it is ill-fitting. In the Mockingbird context, Scout may be a nickname, but it is tied the verified identity of one and only one person. Nicknames on the Internet _can_ be as 1-1 as Scout is to Jean Louise, but those are the exceptions. Most of the time, nicknames are “anonomizers”. Between the “say it as if you were face-to-face” decorum that Google+ seeks to enforce and the chaos of MySpace is a slippery slope that I can’t blame Google for not wanting to police.

    1. Conan776

      But Google+ does nothing to solve this. All they do is ban people who happened to have chosen a nym that doesn’t look like a real name. Trolls who go thru a new mask a day can quickly adapt because Google+’s ID system can’t possibly scale. Good grief: there are already 20x more John Smiths on Google+ than there should be given a random sampling of the English speaking world.

      All of Wikipedia has been written without a real names policy; you can’t say their articles lack decorum, can you?

      Blame Google, because they are perpetuating a ruse upon you for the sake of the Almighty Dollar. If they wanted to design a system of autonymity (i.e. “pen names”, call it what you will) that worked, I am certain they could. They are supposedly quite bright folk.

    2. zeynep Post author

      Well, what Conan said. Google+ is not doing preverification so your ill-meaning “John Smith” has no problems. Again, though, my point is that nickname or not, embedded identity is what produces the social norms which bind us. Google is focusing on the wrong metric, even from a business perspective.

  4. Anon4fun

    “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?).”

    What’s more, the way Schmidt presents the “optional” nature of his product seems a bit weird from such a highly placed executive. While take-it-or-leave-it situations often occur in commerce, usually the polite appearance of “regrettably, due to circumstances beyond our control, we are unable to…” is at least attempted, rather than revealing an attitude bordering on contempt.

  5. Jack C

    Wow, great piece.

    The most peculiar things about the entire issue is how little the perceived “problem” will matter to Google. A rose by any other name smells just as sweet to advertisers.

    1. zeynep Post author

      Thanks, but it will matter. They are pissing off the very community they chose to launch in: techies. Google+ is doing okay but desperately needs stronger network effects. I get they want people, not spammers, but weeding out nicknames is not the way to go as spammers can easily sign up as “John Smith.” They need a combination of human resources + algorithms to deal with spammers.

      1. tomslee

        One place “real real names” might be valuable for Google is in linking up to offline behaviour. My credit card is, for better or worse, in my real real name and if advertisers can link between credit card information and social network information – well I’m sure that would be valuable to them.

  6. Markusn

    Lot’s of great points. Let me pick two aspects out, as we just had a “death threat” discussion on Twitter yesterday. I think the Deindividuation you mention is real and getting out of hand. Although you start with describing it as one of the strongest positive aspects of a real name policy I can’t see how your alternative “real people instead of real names” concept would avoid it? It seems the moment some real persons can hide anonymously it triggers that very idiocy that makes more and more blogger retire their accounts. It seems the moment you draw the line further away from real names, the problem starts to exist.
    And for the self-healing mechanisms, I don’t think it makes a major difference if you can moderate a comment from an anonymous contributor threatening to pour acid in your kids faces and murder your dog. It is not about others seeing that comment or not, it is that you will see it and it will make you miserable (at best). I prefer a world where such things don’t happen so commonly just because we feel we need to protect the concept of anonymity that maybe you and I can handle properly, but it is 2011 and we might need to realize that quite a lot of people can’t.
    Just 2 cents why I find the Google stance pretty positive right now 🙂

    1. Kaye

      “It seems the moment some real persons can hide anonymously it triggers that very idiocy that makes more and more blogger retire their accounts. It seems the moment you draw the line further away from real names, the problem starts to exist.”

      Yes, and no.

      As a blogger I could block or delete any comments. I can submit the ISP information to a provider, and that information could be used to track down the person doing threats. There is always a paper trail.

      However, Google isn’t about to verify EVERY SINGLE PERSON who signs up. A fellow in my circles has been having his friends and family threatened by someone who isn’t using their real name, but a real-sounding name. See the difference?

      “Scout” might be banned from G+ because her name doesn’t sound like a real name.

      Violet Blue, whose name IS a real name was banned because her name DOESN’T sound like a “real name.”

      Unless Google plans to run an ID check on everyone who signs up… their real name policy doesn’t even make sense. It’s an “Anglicized real name-sounding” policy. (Let’s not forget that “Vic” who is helping design & enforce the policy isn’t even using HIS real name, but a nickname that he defends, because it sounds like a real name)

      There are lots of reasons for people to use pseudonyms, other than bullying:

      I’d hate the internet to turn into a “you must be a terrorist/bully/enemy because you don’t use what I consider a ‘real name'”

    2. Conan776

      So on Google+, “John Smith” can say that too you, but “Conan776” or “Markusn” can’t. You don’t think the average 13 year old troll can’t figure that riddle out?

    3. zeynep Post author

      Markusn: anonymous threats are a real problem plaguing the Internet and there are things that platforms such as Google and Facebook can do to help. Making the stalker sign up as “John Smith” isn’t one of them. Presumably, someone willing to go make death threats isn’t going to be deterred by the rule s/he must use his/her real name.

      Personally, I wish the police would take this more seriously and had more resources to deal with it. I agree that it is an important matter and I would like a few of those people be prosecuted for the same laws which covers stalking/threats in the offline arenas. A few well-publicized cases like that might help, too because I think there are two kinds of these stalkers. One, the cheap thrill idiots who don’t actually pose the threat they make–and prosecution will deter those. Then there are those who might carry out violence and while I think they are likely a small minority of the threats which float online, they are real enough that persistent threats should all be taken seriously. Too many people (especially women) do lose their lives to violence.

      1. Markusn

        I couldn’t agree more, it is an important missing piece of the puzzle that there isn’t a much tougher crack-down on those who go from trolling to threatening/stalking, by the real-life authorities. And I also agree, Google’s account management is far from perfect, I simply welcome any steps against the absurd “haters gonna hate” scenario we see building up right now.
        Btw Markusn is my Twitter handle, you’ll find my real name there as well. Love the very civilized comments on this blog and hope to meet some of you on Twitter.

  7. Cstar1

    Retweeted, sent to Facebook, and I would have +1’d this post too, if it weren’t for the fact that Google+ has suspended my account.

    I’ve been known as Cstar1 on the internet since 1998, and that’s the name by which everyone knows me. That is apparently not good enough for Mr. Schmidt and Google.

    What has their stupid “real names only” policy done? Turned me at least 90 degrees away from all Google products. Optional? They have no idea how optional Google has become to me now.

    Not allowing legitimate and stable pseudonyms is bad for business, and shows that they still do not understand what really makes a stable and lasting community.

    Pseudonymous, and staying that way.

  8. Stephen Wilson (@Steve_Lockstep)

    I am afraid Prof Tufekci that you give Google too much credit. Eric Schmidt isn’t really concerned with fidelity or integrity; he doesn’t really want to construct social spaces in which people interact with transparency and trust. What he and Zuckerberg and their ilk are really all about is commercial exploitation of the Personal Information they have collected about a big proportion of the population of the Earth.

    Nicknames and aliases frustrate the mission of Google to monetise the world’s information.

    I’ve noted elsewhere …

    – that using pseudonyms and nicknames is not simply the refuge of social dissidents but is a habit of ordinary netizens, and
    – that we should not accept the premise that the informopolies want to build idyllic online social networks

    Nope, they’re in it for the money.

    1. zeynep Post author

      Stephen, I don’t doubt they are in it for the money. Google’s latest decisions don’t make sense from that perspective either, in my opinion. My ethical concern is that regardless you’d have preferred an alternative path or not, this is where we are and these decisions (by Google and Facebook) have serious repercussions on people’s lives.

  9. Mary Branscombe

    “It would be better” – better for who, is the question? Better for Google because named eyeballs are valuable eyeballs. Better for me? How? Minimal claims would be better for the user (over 18, with/without driver’s licence etc etc) but they aren’t as useful to sell advertising againt or to index. Accountability is not the same as taking names and you can’t create it with an algorithm.

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