Monday, July 25, 2011

Thoughts on canonical names.

When I am wrong, it behooves me to be wrong as loudly as possible so that those able to correct me will be able to do so. The flip side is that when I discover that I am wrong, I must be every bit as loud in turning that around. After much deliberation inside my head, I have finally realized that I have come to another instance where I have indeed been wrong in my thinking, as some of my friends will well appreciate.

But let me provide some context. Google+ has entered into the already crowded world of social media, but is currently making huge gains in the "it's-not-facebook" market. The problem, however, that is rightfully ruffling a great many feathers is that Google decided to adopt a policy quite similar to Facebook's Real Names policy. Much has already been made of the disproportionate impact this decision has for women, LGBTs and others that may be subject to harassment if their Real Names™ are revealed so frivolously. One of the better posts on this has been by Bug Girl, who clearly lays out the impact that the Real Names™ ideology has for her.

As is my usual habit, though, I wish to take a tangent. You see, I used to place an absurd amount of importance on Real Names™, and was disdainful of my 'nym using friends. Embarrassing, but there it is. The problem with this attitude — well, one of them, anyway ­— is that it presupposes the existence of a single canonical Real Name™. This assumption is not supported by reality, though.

Even in a relatively "normal" (by Western standards, anyway) case like my own name, what should I put? Christopher Evan Granade? That is surely not what my friends call me— many probably didn't even know what my middle name was before reading that. If we go with what my friends, colleagues, bosses, family, etc. all call me, "Chris" would be much closer. That name is problematic, though, in that it is so vauge that there are three people with offices on the same floor as mine that share it, to say nothing of the broader world. If disambiguation is needed, then, we move on to "Chris G.", "Chris Granade" or even "C-Bomb" (that makes more sense if you read my last name aloud), which I feel very little ownership over. Moving online, it only gets worse. I try to use cgranade as much as possible for uniformity's sake, but sometimes I have to settle instead for cegranade. In gaming communities, where using outside names is often frowned upon, I rely on the much more generic "brokenmirror", but that often has conflicts with other users.

And I'm not even married or divorced! My mother adopted my father's last name rather than taking both or her own, there's no complications with transliteration of a name more at home in a non-Latin alphabet, no dramatic name changes in my life. I have a middle and a last name, so no issues there. Really, the problems stem from that my name is a product of the context in which I use it. I do not have a canonical name at all. No one string of Unicode code points encapsulates the complex and entirely contextual rules which lead to a name by which you should call me.

Why should we, though, even expect this to be the case? It isn't true for much simpler and more rigid systems like the Web. My website, for instance, is reached by either "" or the much longer "". These two "names," though, fill very different purposes and get used in different ways. It gets worse if I were to share on Twitter or via a QR code, where either one would first be fed through a URL shortener. Thus this single concept, my website, has at least three "names" depending on the context you approach it from. When we move to something as complicated as a human identity, the preponderance of names is only exacerbated.

Any system which does not recognize the complexity that goes into names is thus doomed to fail, even if we set aside the ethics of strong-arming users into using a particular choice of name. Facebook has only survived this failure by haphazard enforcement of their own rules, but by actually practicing proactive enforcement on Google+, Google has stared this shortcoming in the face. Here's hoping that like I did, they can see where they've gone wrong in their thinking and in doing so, better serve the users whose trust forms the basis for so much of what they do.


Mass Treble said...

Some of my compatriots have observed that Google's interest in the RealNames(TM) matter regarding their G+ service is that "real names" are a more valuable commodity to /their/ customers. As somebody put it, real names >> pseudonyms >> anonymity. And this is exactly where the users' interests run afoul of the host's (in this case, Google for once) interests entirely. I believe that users benefit more from social networks when they have mastery over their own personas.

Of course, Google isn't going to tell us that, especially if this were an open element in their decision-making. However, organizations and corporations are most certainly going to be immune to the whole RealName(TM) fiasco. They will situate themselves on G+ just as they do on every social media site. They will have their accounts nestled in with all the RealNamed(TM) human users, as if they were a person, and not a marketing department operating a, well, a persona. If I might be so snarky, it would be pleasant turn of events if we mere humans could have the same rights as a corporation.

But I digress. The best way to make Google change their minds on the issue is to convince them and their customers that pseudonyms are better than nothing, and that a person wearing a mask is still definitely a person. And people like people. The G+ userbase is being deprived of some some amazing individuals, the kinds of users that Google should want to be there.

cgranade said...

I've also seen that pointed out... I didn't want to bring it up here, as it detracted from my immediate point, but it is very valuable to remember. As for how to change Goog's mind, there's a bunch of us working on it in the scientific communication community, such as the aforementioned Bug Girl. Also interesting to note that a fair number of Google employees are also upset over this, so we will see what happens. It is clear that as is, they're losing out on some excellent people (such as present company!).