Google Plus Has A Problem. Fear Not: I Have A Solution

Google Plus is terrific. I don’t think it will ever be more than the Pepsi to Facebook’s Coke, alas, but it’s much slicker and better designed. It’s too bad that the service has sacrificed a pile of goodwill over the last week by repeatedly publicly shooting themselves in the foot.

First there was the brands mistake. Now it’s gotten much worse: it seems they’re deleting profiles wholesale because they suspect that Plus users may be using handles other than their legal names. On the Internet! The horror! Worse yet, the blandly passive-aggressive language Google’s engineers are using to explain/defend this is redolent of the usual brain-dead corporate-speak you see elsewhere: Our Stupid Policy Must Be Defended, Because It’s Policy, Don’t You Understand? Even Though It’s Stupid. Oh, Google. We all thought you were better than this. Please see the light and prove us right?

What’s the problem? The problem is that a whole lot of people have very good reason to want to be pseudonymous online. (Please note: pseudonymous, not anonymous; the latter is a separate issue.) Whistleblowers. Dissidents (eg recently world-famous Google employees). Stalker victims. People who habitually go by a name other than their legal name. And lots and lots of others, including, of course, our very own late lamented Techathew Cruncherin.

It’s not like this is a new issue. But Google Plus’s names policy seems to have been scribbled on a napkin at the last minute, rushed into production while still half-baked, and confused even further by their haphazard, scattershot approach. Famous-in-the-tech-world hardware hacker Limor Fried had her Plus account deleted for a name violation; this deletion was quickly revoked, presumably because Fried is famous in the tech world, but –

OK, granted, it’s a new service, growing faster than anyone expected, and a lot of iteration and making-it-up-as-you-go and stumbles were inevitable, and this is just one of them, and presumably cooler heads will eventually prevail. I would be happy to accept that—if the solution to the problem weren’t staring them in the face while shouting “Here I am! Look at me!

The whole point of Google Plus, the “towering, brilliant difference” according to the NYT’s hyperbolic David Pogue, is that it allows you to organize the people you know into Circles and control which information goes to which group. That’s what it was built for, from the ground up. Meanwhile, when I go to my “Edit Profile” page on Google, what do I see? A little field called nickname. Here’s a crazy notion: suppose Google limited how often nicknames could be changed, and then let Plus users define which (if any) of their Circles see their real names, while others can only see their nicknames? Voila. Accountable identities and pseudonymity, all in one package: problem solved. You can thank me later, Google. After you reinstate all those accounts.

Image credit: LatinSuD (no real name given), Flickr