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Google+ Can Be A Social Network Or The Name Police – Not Both

by Bob Blakley  |  September 1, 2011  |  32 Comments

A little over a year after my son was born, we traveled back home to Texas for a Christmas gathering at my in-laws’ place. My family is part Irish, and we tend to give people Irish names – my son’s name is Sean Michael. But in my wife’s Czech and German family Irish names aren’t normal.

At the Christmas party, we introduced Sean to my wife’s grandmother for the first time, and she wasn’t having any of this “Sean” business. She said “Sean? What kind of a name is that? I’m going to call him ‘Mike’.”

We were a year and a quarter into the Sean Michael Blakley personality experience and it was already clear to us that calling Sean “Mike” was not going to be a winning strategy. So we laid out the facts. “You can call him whatever you want”, we said, “but if you don’t call him ‘Sean’, he’s just going to ignore you”.

In the end, Sean and his great grandmother reached an understanding. She called him “Sean”.

That’s the way it works amongst us humans – I choose what I want to be called, and you call me that.

That’s apparently not the way it works at Google+.

Google is currently trying to enforce a “common name” policy in Google+. The gist of the policy is that “your Google+ name must be “THE” name by which you are commonly known”.

This policy is insane. I really mean insane; the policy is simply completely divorced from the reality of how names really work AND the reality of how humans really work, and it’s also completely at odds with what Google is trying to achieve with G+.

The root of the problem is that Google suffers from the common – but false – belief that names are uniquely and inherently associated with people. I’ve already explained why this belief is false elsewhere, but for the sake of coherence, I’ll summarize here.

There isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between people and names. Multiple people share the same name (George Bush, for example, or even me: George Robert Blakley III), and individual people have multiple names (George Eliot, George Sand, George Orwell, or Boy George – or even me, George Robert “Bob” Blakley III). And people use different names in different contexts; King George VI was “Bertie” to family and close friends.


A name is not an attribute of a person; it is an identifier of a person, chosen arbitrarily and changeable at will. In England, I can draw up a deed poll in my living room and change my name at any time I choose, without the intervention or assistance of any authority. In California, I apparently don’t even need to write anything down: I can change my name simply by having people call me by the new name on the street.


Richard Garriott is COMMONLY known as “Richard Garriott” in some contexts (check Wikipedia), and COMMONLY known as Lord British in other contexts (go to a computer gaming convention). Bob Wills and Elvis are both “The King”.

Despite these complexities, Google wants to intervene in your choice of name. They want veto power over what you can call yourself.

Reversing the presumption that I choose what to be called happens – in the real world – only in circumstances which diminish the dignity of the individual. We choose the names of infants, prisoners, and pets. Imposing a name on someone is repression; free men and women choose their names for themselves.

But the Google+ common name policy isn’t even consistently repressive; it sometimes vetoes names which ARE “common” in the sense Google intends (Violet Blue is an example), it sometimes accepts plausible names based on clearly fraudulent evidence, and it even “verifies” fraudulent names.

Google+’s naming policy isn’t failing because it’s poorly implemented, or because Google’s enforcement team is stupid. It’s failing because what they’re trying to do is (1) impossible, and (2) antisocial.

(2) is critical. Mike Neuenschwander has famously observed that social software is being designed by the world’s least sociable people, and Google+ seems to be a case in point. Google wants to be in the “social” business. But they’re not behaving sociably. They’re acting like prison wardens. No one will voluntarily sign up to be a prisoner. Every day Google persists in their insane attempt to tell people what they can and can’t call themselves, Google+ as a brand becomes less sociable and less valuable. The policy is already being described as racist and sexist; it’s also clearly dangerous to some disadvantaged groups.

If you want to be the host of a social network, you’ve got to create a social space. Creating a social space means making people comfortable. That’s hard, because people don’t fit in any set of little boxes you want to create – especially when it comes to names. But that’s table stakes for social – people are complicated; deal with it. Facebook has an advantage here; despite its own idiotic real-names policy and its continual assaults on privacy, the company has real (i.e. human) sociability in its DNA – it was created by college geeks who wanted to get dates; Google+ wasn’t, and it shows.

If Google’s intention in moving into social networking is to sell ads, Google+’s common names policy gives them a lock on the North American suburban middle-aged conservative white male demographic. w00t.

The Google+ common name policy is insane. It creates an antisocial space in what is supposed to be a social network. It is at odds with basic human social behavior; its implementation is NECESSARILY arbitrary and infuriating, and it is actively damaging the Google+ brand and indeed the broader Google brand.

The problem is not flawed execution; it is that the policy itself is fundamentally unsound, unworkable, and unfixable.

Google can be a social network operator, or they can be the name police. They can’t be both. They need to decide – soon. If I were Google, I’d scrap the policy – immediately – and let people decide for themselves what they will be called.


Great reply by Nishant Kaushik here.

Update 2:

Botgirl Questi’s aggregator of #nymwars posts.

Kee Hinckley’s excellent overview of the issues (it’s worth reading the rest of what Kee has written on this issue too).

Skud’s explanation of how the Google+ name investigation process appears to work in practice.

Update 3:

Kaliya can’t use “Identity Woman” (a name by which she is COMMONLY known by everyone I know), and she also can’t use “Kaliya” unless she also wants to use her ex-husband’s name.

Google’s position on these issues is “G+ is completely optional. No one is forcing you to use it.

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Category: iam  

Tags: google-nymwars-naming-social  

Bob Blakley
Research VP
4 years at Gartner
31 years IT industry

Bob Blakley is VP, Distinguished Analyst, and Agenda Manager for IT1 Identity and Privacy Strategies Service. Mr. Blakley is past general chair of the IEEE Security and Privacy Symposium and the ACSA New Security Paradigms workshop. He was awarded ACSAC's Distinguished Security Practitioner award…Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Google+ Can Be A Social Network Or The Name Police – Not Both

  1. […] Google+ Can Be A Social Network Or The Name Police – Not Both […]

  2. David says:

    Facebook enforces the same policy and I’m not hearing anyone deny that they’re a social network.

  3. Moribund Cadaver says:

    Thank you for not allowing this issue to be swept under the rug. Google’s execs are cartwheeling from one new rationalization for their policy to the next – rebranding G+ twice a month now it seems, anything to justifying their unworkable policies.

    There’s a huge strawman looming over the whole issue, and that is \anonymity\ and \evil anonymous spammers\. A false dichotomy of a \wild west\ internet and a Big Brother Internet is being presented to us by all the advocates of \authenticating everyone on the Internet\. In other words, either you are this mythical person who has only one identity, one face, one name, in all places at all times…. or you’re a suspicious NoGoodnik who clearly has Something to HIde and must be brought out into the Light of Day for goodness, justice, and Mom’s apple pie.

    Such complete hogwash can be difficult to hose down because it’s slathered on so thickly by all comers.

    There is nothing whatsoever Google (or anyone, including Facebook) can realistically do to prevent people determined to be griefers, imposters, and spammers from gaming their systems and signing up with an endless string of accounts. Gaming G+’s system has already been tested and the instructions on how to fool it to a re-donkulus degree are out there now.

    This issue of \identity politics\ is in fact one of the looming Internet issues of the coming decade. It’s pure handwaving that looks like a great tactic to use for trying to lock down and regulate the Internet – as always \we can’t let the turrist win!\

    Such things always start small, and the canaries in the mineshaft are tiny, and their squeaks can be easily ignored by the masses trundling along. It’s time to make some noise and keep making it.

  4. Mark says:

    Tosh. Real Names is because most of the internet traffic is Microsoft and Apple creating grassroots shilling accounts.

  5. Eric Monse says:

    Awesome. Best article I’ve seen yet on this issue. Reading stuff like this is making me want to be on Google+ less and less.

    BTW, me and several people I know have noticed that ReCaptcha like the one below is getting worse and worse, harder and harder to find a readable set of words to enter. What’s with that?

  6. Greg Knieriemen says:

    LOL. Good thing you aren’t advising Facebook or LinkedIn – common names is natural and makes perfect sense there… and… SHOCK… for the most part it works!

  7. David says:

    Your conclusions mirror my own and, indeed, your comment that, ” it is actively damaging the Google+ brand and indeed the broader Google brand.”, especially so.

    I was dumped out of G+ for infringing its “Real Names” policy as were almost all the members of my 500+ strong circle. This circle know one another via other sites and the consensus following this eviction was to disconnect from Google in its entirety. By this we mean use Ghostery Firefox extension to block Google Analytics and avoid use of all Google products even the search engine save with Scroogle as a cleansing (anonymising) intermediary. So…well done Google in losing so many users in a single, idiotic, step.

  8. Bob Blakley says:

    @Eric, sorry about the Captcha; I feel your pain. Shouldn’t OpenID have solved this by now? (Update: got bounced by the Captcha on my first attempt to post a comment to MY OWN, COMMENT-MODERATED BLOG. What’s wrong with this picture?)

    @David (1:53pm) @Greg: Facebook’s \real names\ policy DOES work – because it’s almost never enforced. It’s posterior armor to allow FB to can profiles of people who really are trying to be abusive – by impersonating others to harrass, deceive, or defraud. If you want to join Facebook as Mephistopheles P. Spiderman, you can do that, and everything will be fine unless someone complains. Even people who clearly ARE trying to abuse the system don’t get cleaned up very often. As an example, here’s a link to a number of Facebook profiles for Eliot Spitzer, some of which are clearly fraudulent: spitzer&init=quick&tas=0.1879581926489754#

    They may be cleaned up now that I’ve drawn attention to them, but I’ve never performed this search without finding profiles which violate Facebook’s TOS.

    I’ll note, by the way, that several of the comments here violate the spirit of Google’s policy, and yet, shockingly, they’re quite civil and substantive (winks at @Moribund_Cadaver)

    @Mark, I’m wearing my tinfoil hat, so I’m immune.

  9. Moribund Cadaver says:

    I must admit it seems the average response from folks who can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t use a singular real name across the net, is -still- boiling down to “I’ve never had to think about this in my social-economic-career strata, so it doesn’t exist. You’re making up this issue.”

    No matter how many data points to the contrary are placed on the table.

    As they say, denial is more than a river.

  10. What is my real name? says:


    Dude, just pick a name and go with it. Stop trolling.

  11. In the above thread, there was a comment on LinkedIn. That was actually a good point: how does it work there, also due to not enforcement, like FB?

  12. Bob Blakley says:

    Anyone who’s not sure what I mean when I refer to brand damage should check out the promo video:

    Is this really the word-of-mouth a social network operator is looking for?

  13. Kim Davis says:

    Terrific summary of the situation, Bob, and right on the money.

  14. Bob Blakley says:

    @What_is_my_real_name?’s comment is interesting for several reasons – first, because when it arrived in the comment moderation box the email address appeared as – and I know that domain hasn’t issued an account with the name “myrealnameis”, so you can infer that there is no “real names” policy here on the GBN 🙂

    The other interesting thing about it is that “just pick a name and go with it” is of course what Google+ won’t allow.

    @Anton: LinkedIn’s policy is:

    1. don’t create an account for anything other than a natural person
    2. don’t use anyone else’s account
    3. don’t use a pseudonym or anyone else’s name and don’t falsify data

    Link here:

    LinkedIn is a “semi-social” network in my view; it caters to a crowd with homogeneous interests.

    @Eric, the Captcha gets worse every time I post…

  15. +1 as it were; Google is tone deaf on social because I think they’re looking for that perfect algorithm

    as for the reCaptcha question, Google Books uses reCaptcha to check the OCR on those books it’s scanning in. either they’ve done all the easy pages or they’re branching out to more languages in the books they’re scanning now.

  16. beachrat says:

    LinkedIn is overwhelmingly for professional networking. That’s a pretty strong discriminator for using the name you use professionally, which certainly does not need to be your so-called wallet name.

    If you wanted to have your professional name on LinkedIn as Zoot Zoot, I’m pretty sure you could do it. Glancing over my LI contacts list, I see a large number of names google-plus could arbitrarily boot.

  17. Kolya Succorso says:

    @Bob Blakely: You more or less beat me to it: LinkedIn’s real names policy succeeds because it is unnecessary, and pseudonymity actively works against the individual interest — LinkedIn thrives on reputation management and networking for a serious purpose (employment). The community is inherently conservative (I don’t mean politically, I mean in terms of what behaviors the average member would expose or engage in on the site) to avoid presenting dealbreakers to candidates or potential employers.

    If LinkedIn didn’t have a names policy, Mephistopheles P Spiderman could put up a fake profile and resume, but even if he got called in, what then? He’d have to fake the interview. And if he got hired? He’d have to present identity documents to start working. It’d be a pointless exercise.

    I would be keenly interested in hearing about LinkedIn’s efforts at actively policing its base and enforcing its names policy. I strongly suspect these efforts are minimal, because the policy itself is almost completely redundant.

  18. EMR says:

    What really worries me is that there is an interview of one of the Google execs about this. He describes the various reasons for wanting name accountability. In passing, he mentioned getting credit card information. This makes me worry that they are going to start charging for services they’ve provided for free. If they do this to gmail (I’m an early adopter and have been getting mail there for years), I’m well and truly borked.

  19. K says:

    @Dave – one of the big differences is also the pervasiveness of Google. I use my real name on Facebook – you’re right, I don’t have a problem with it. But when I use Facebook that’s all I’m doing.

    I actually wouldn’t mind using my real name for Google+ but the problem is my Google+ name automatically becomes my publically displayed Buzz name, mail name, Picasa name, etc. I don’t want my employer googling me and finding pictures of me in my swimsuit or a silly Halloween costume or something. Unfortunately since my name is one in a million, if my boss googles me they will.

    Facebook does not have this issue.

    I’m not a FB fan – I couldn’t wait until I got G+. But then I saw how *all* my google services were automatically changed and thought that was stupid. It’s sleek and lovely, and being run into the ground.

  20. There is a solution to this problem that neither Facebook nor Google seem to understand. The solution known as “WebID” is based on existing technology that includes: PKI, Architecture of the World Wide Web, TLS, and Trust Logic.

    PGP nearly solved the problem but signing parties didn’t scale. PKI had a critical part of the solution but Certificate Authorities and Certificate issuance tedium has impeded all progress. WebID is about addresses the aforementioned so that a nascent solution for verifiable identifiers becomes a reality, at InterWeb scale:

    1. — WebID Introduction (note: browser and http URI emphasis are purely for presentation simplicity goals)

    2. — WebID portal .


  21. Batsgirl says:

    I picked a name and went with it about ten years ago. Of course, the advice ten years ago was “never use your real name on the internet,” so I chose a nickname. It’s a consistent name and identity that I use and have used for very nearly my entire online life and substantial areas of my offline life. I am not pretending to be anyone else when I use it. But Google won’t let me use it. They want a name that can be backed up by official ID.
    I got married a couple of months before the G+ launch and took my husband’s last name. As such, the new name on my official ID has absolutely no history at all and even most of my ‘real-life’ friends can’t remember what it is. My online friends didn’t know what it would be in the first place. It’s certainly not a name I am commonly known by. But it’s the only one G+ will accept.

  22. Robin Wilton says:

    K (12:34am) – you raise a very interesting point. As copmanies like Google acquire more and more services, but retain the individual branding of each, it’s no longer always clear to the subscriber who is operating the service – and therefore who is in a position to link your various accounts and services.

    As far as I’m aware, existing “monopolies and mergers” legislation has no real way of dealing with any complaints that might arise out of this.

  23. William R. Dickson says:

    Very good piece. Rather than trying to write something like this myself, I just voted with my feet and stopped using G+ a few days after I joined. I use my real name, but I do so by choice, and I’m not terribly interested in using a service that wants to take that choice away.

  24. Very well said on all counts. Thank you for an excellent article.

  25. Narain Bhatia says:

    After reading all the articles and viewing the Unthink video it seems to me that the issue of ‘One common Name’ is similar to the issue of ‘Only One Common Language’. One cannot impose it on everyone and not create chaos. Here are couple of examples:

    You don’t have to go farther than the debate in United Nations where speeches are simultaneously translated. You need skilled translators to communicate ‘real emotions’ and emphasis of the speakers. One common translator like Google Translate will not solve the problem. You have also heard in the Senate that the senators do not call each other by their real name instead use ‘ Senator from Massachusetts’; for Senator Kerry; everyone knows who that person is. Here again an emotion of respect is invoked. This is similar to use of Rabbi and Reverend in religious settings.

    Beyond these obvious examples, one must look into the cultures of various countries. In India, women routinely adopt last names of their husbands and in many instances a new first name is given to the bride. The custom is based on the idea of sustaining joint-family-system where several brothers and unmarried sisters live under the same roof and eat from the same kitchen. The new bride must assimilate quickly with the new family and become part of it, hence the new identity that uses the last name of the new family. This is slowly changing in the modern India.

    In addition to the bride changing names, the real names of people in India, Pakistan, and mideast are often not invoked in formal and informal communications among friends and family. For example, out of respect a younger sister will call her older sister ‘Didi’ because it is considered disrespectful to call the older persons by their real names. Often respectful titles are added to the names like I am still called ‘Narainji’ instead of Narain, my real first name, or ‘Bhatia Sahib’ instead of Bhatia, my real last name.

    My point is that a person is addressed by different names and different titles in different settings and in some settings use of the real name is frowned upon.

    I believe, the current solution of a picture and a real name, may solve many problems but it is still an imposition to change the emotions attached to the name and to erase the entire activity associated with ‘Aliases’ of the person.

    So, here is a respectful suggestion, I like to make to FB and G+. Please recognize that Aliases of a person are Real and not recognizing them is as good as not recognizing the Real person. I know there are technical issues in implementation but that is the challenge of all the bright persons that work at G+ and FB.

    Here is the dictionary definition of Alias:
    : otherwise called
    : otherwise known as

    Why not have a system that allows aliases? For example:
    President Kennedy alias John Fitzgerald Kennedy alias John.
    So if he was alive he could use the real name or any alias and the system would know the association. A viewer should be able to easily find that out if one cared to do so.

  26. […] Bob Blakley, Google+ Can Be a Social Network Or The Name Police — Not Both, Gartner Blog […]

  27. […] Bob Blakley, Google+ Can Be a Social Network Or The Name Police — Not Both, Gartner Blog […]

  28. […] Google+ Can Be A Social Network Or The Name Police – Not Both by Bob Blakley at Gartner Blogs […]

  29. undina-bird says:

    +100500 about “uniqueness”, “realness”, etc. of common names. Thank you!

  30. […] from Google #plusgate Google Plus and the Big Picture Self is an identifying four letter word. Google+ Can Be A Social Network Or The Name Police – Not Both Tweet This entry was posted in news, technical and tagged geek, google, google plus, online […]

  31. DDBB says:

    Some great comments here.

    The thing I don’t get about this controversy is that this Google+ policy is against Google’s own interests.

    * Google’s bread and butter is technically minded early adopters: who are more likely to use a fake name and feel passionate about this issue. Angering this core group doesn’t make sense. G+ is in a very critical stage and is playing a major game of catchup. Ticking their supporters off doesn’t benefit them.

    * You don’t need somebody’s real name to use their data in advertising, you just need a consistently used account.

    * You can get better advertising data if people aren’t concerned about their own name’s being Googled and discovered by employers and such.

    Google faces a ridiculous uphill climb against Facebook. Most people are active Facebook users, people have all of their photos and connections on there. Big brands promote their Facebook pages on tv and national print ads, and on top of that there is an emerging industry of companies listed at that do nothing other than help businesses get Facebook fans. These kinds of advantages that Facebook has in the social realm are really hard to beat despite how well-known the Google brand is.

    I hate to say this because I know a lot of awesome Googlers, but its almost as if Google’s management just wants to cause chaos here with this real name policy and doesn’t care about who it will harm because its really inexplicable.

  32. […] Plus‘ identity crises led to #PlusGate and escalated to a war for pseudonymity: #NymWars; […]

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