Identity and social; who are we?

# The launch of a new social service is guaranteed to cause controversy one way or another, but the current topic du jour is whether Google profiles should be limited to real names or if pseudonyms should be permitted.

The Google Profiles help article advises that profiles work best:

"... in the identified state. This way you can be certain that you're connecting with the right person, and others will have confidence knowing that there is someone real behind the profile that they're looking at."

It is therefore required that a profile be created with the name "you commonly go by in daily life."


The internet is a place where we play different roles and assume multiple identities in games, forums and social networks and often this does not happen under our real names. We assume alternative personae where we are often only known by the name of our character.

Stephen Shankland over at cnet argues that "people's online names, while not on their birth certificates, often are a real persona - reputation and all". Some believe that we should, therefore, be permitted to extend this identity into other areas including our Google Profile.

Beyond social

To argue that Google's naming policy illustrates how the company "still doesn't get social" is, in my opinion, taking things in completely the wrong direction. Google has far wider reaching considerations than just social. To the casual observer it is easy to equate just the activity stream with Google+ but that is merely just the beginning.

Twitter is filled with pseudonyms, joke accounts and more but Google+ isn't just a social network - Google themselves don't refer to it that way just as Twitter changed itself to a news and media network. Plus is, instead, an amalgam; at its heart is a profile which Google intends to be the identity system across a whole range of internal products and, by extension, an identity provider for third parties so it makes sense to play it safe and promote accurate identification from the outset thus avoiding any potential legal fallout.

One rule for one...

It has been suggested that Google could operate a two-tier system for real and pseudo accounts with disclaimers and possibly and option to not have your profile used for "identity" but, extrapolating the current growth of Plus, this could become hard to manage and it only takes a few to "forget" to tick the right box when joining for problems to arise.

Profiles include the facility to place nicknames or pseudonyms in the "Other names" section of the profile but this doesn't go far enough for some.


Perhaps the best solution might be for a compromise.

The Google+ stream is built around the concept of using our circles to control how, and to who, we read and share. Advocates of using these alternative identities for profiles have suggested that, perhaps, the option could be given to use a specific alternative name when sharing to a particular circle; have a Second Life circle? Why not share to that circle using the name of your Avatar. This would extend the idea that we are acting differently with different groups based on our relationship with them.

The only problem with different names on a per circle basis is the risk of duality depending on whether posts are re-shared beyond the original circle. There would be potential for confusion should we be in both that person's circles and extended circles. If we see a re-shared post do we see it as originally published by the real name or the pseudonym? Would only those within the target circle see that user as the avatar? Would this cause a logistical nightmare with Google having to keep track of millions of relationships just to work out which name we see?

In the continuing debate of anonymity versus authenticity Google are firmly positioning themselves on the side of "authenticity via identity" - perhaps rightly so - but maybe there is a little room to manoeuvre.

Image by Matthew Burpee

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