Who you are versus who you present yourself to be online

Recently Google launched Google Plus and in the process, they have required that people use their real names as their identity. This is causing tremendous issues—suspension of accounts deemed not “real”, suspending accounts because of pseudonyms.

In our book, Christian and I talk about identity, about owning your words and owning your reputation. We proposed the following in the Identity pattern:

  • Give users control over how to present themselves. Users should own their actions and have reputation attached to their identity, but the option to go anonymous should be offered in some instances.
  • Let your users decide who sees what parts of themselves. Give enough control and permissioned access. Do my friends see my birthdate or does everyone? If it’s everyone, be prepared for a lot of fake data.
  • Be clear on reflecting back to the user what they see as an editor / owner versus how others see them. The dating sites have this idea down to a science, but on many other websites it isn’t clearly articulated who sees what.
  • Having a robust identity solutions won’t alleviate sock puppets and alternate identities that people may create.

Randy Farmer goes on to discuss this in his essay The Tripartite Identity Pattern, which discusses the differences between an account holder – known to the organization, the online identity – the name with which the user is known to the world and their community, and the user’s login.

So what does this have to do with Google+?

There is controversy happening over Google’s policy of users having to use real names in their profile – representation of themselves – on Google+.

They outright break the first best practice – let user’s choose the name with which to represent themselves – and the recommendations from Randy which call to separate the ACCOUNT from the representation of the user. This combining of the two requiring a real name may seem like the easier way to go when building the system, but in real life it always blows up.

Kaliya Hamlin “Identity Woman”, who has long been a proponent around Identity practices that support the needs of people, especially disenfranchised people—anyone who wants to be able to speak out without fear of reprisal or stalking or of losing their job or any number of other factors that play into bad behavior online seeping out into the real world— has a series of blog posts and tweets calling out Google+ for suspending her account because she used the name she is known for online “Identity Woman”. Her reputation is tied to this identity. Years of reputation. Years of expertise. But it’s not a real name so suspended.

She makes some great points and I recommend that if you are at all interested in Identity and how Google is handling this, you should read them all. They are on the road to controlling your identity online so it is well worth reading and thinking about.

  1. Google+ and my “real” name: Yes, I’m Identity Woman
  2. Nymwars: IRL on Google’s Lawns.
  3. Google+ Suspension saga continues
  4. Lets try going with the Mononym for Google+
  5. Google+ says your name is “Toby” NOT “Kunta Kinte”
  6. Is Google+ is being lynched by out-spoken users upset by real names policy?

Charlie Stross sums it up well in his post “Why I’m not on Google Plus“.

While I am on Google Plus using my real name, I don’t believe I should be required to if I had another name with which I better identified with. Frankly, it’s not Google’s place to tell me what name I have to use to present myself, and I am surprised that they have gone this route – there are a ton of really smart people over there who know better. There is no reason why they can’t have the ACCOUNT be in the person’s real name which is never shown, and let the user present whatever they want to the world. Since they are iterating frequently, this is an iteration they should seriously consider.

current: experience matters design :: senior level interaction design and systems strategy consulting former partner, tangible user experience; Yahoo! founder of the public and internal Yahoo! pattern library. design director of ued teams responsible for designing solutions across key yahoo! platforms: social media, personalization, membership and vertical search.