LJ's Back, So Let's Talk About Google+

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 9.648% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

About a year ago, I wrote a brief essay on the death of the user name. Even for me, I got a lot of unusually stupid responses.
Now, admittedly, I wasn’t as clear as I should have been – and I think part of the problem was the terminology of “user name” (i.e., “theferrett”) and “real name” (i.e. “Ferrett Steinmetz”), wherein even though I pointed out that Ferrett Steinmetz is not my “real” name, it’s certainly the handle I go by. The death of the user name does mean the death of pseudonymity, since you can still choose any damn made-up name you please to identify yourself. I certainly did.
Now, I’m against user names for two reasons. The first is that whenever any username-usin’ social network starts up, there’s a gold rush where you either get the name you hoped for or you do not. For example, let’s look at my user names across the net:

  • [livejournal.com profile] theferrett on LiveJournal.com
  • Ferretthimself on Twitter
  • The_ferrett on OKCupid
  • iamferrettsannoyance on Yahoo.com
  • TheFerrett on FetLife

So why do I have all of these subtly different usernames, you ask? Is it because I wanted an inconsistent nomenclature? So, it’s because with a singleton user name, someone else snatched up the name I wanted first and I had to choose something else.
Hell, you think I wanted “theferrett,” the name you probably know me by? I did not. But Jessica had already taken [livejournal.com profile] ferrett, so I had to put a “the” in front of it. And that’s not even the end of it; my nickname, way back in the day, was actually “Weasel.” But “weasel” was taken on every BBS I wanted to be on, as was “ferret,” so I had to misspell a version of my nickname in order to get something I could remember.
I’m not alone in this quest for the right name. A lot of the people reading this blog are super-users of the Internet, the first in to any social network – but if you get in late in the game, that means you have to choose another name. In turn, that leads to a problem of not being able to identify yourself consistently – I’ve seen the jumble where I “know” someone really well on LiveJournal and yet have had no idea for months that they were following me on Twitter because their handle was completely different. In fact, it happens all the time.
In other words, I effectively lost their identity because of something they had zero control over. That’s bad.
That gold-rush, one-to-a-customer makes it hell to find people you want. If I want to find you on a given social network, I’m often not able to. That’s the first bad thing about usernames.
The second reason, as I can tell you, is that people never remember them. My site, StarCityGames.com just switched from usernames to emails after years of usernames, because our customer service department was bombarded with requests for “I forgot my username…” Why? Because the username was, for many, a completely arbitrary thing, and if they couldn’t get their “default” username, then they had no idea what it actually was.
Hence, my cry for the death of the user name. As [livejournal.com profile] andrewducker pointed out, part of the reason Facebook is so popular can almost certainly be attributed to its usage of what I’ll call “full” names – if I’m looking for Marcus Osdoba, I can find him. And if there’s more than one Marcus Osdoba, then I can look at user pictures until I find the guy who matches up with what I know of him.
Now, this is not to say that “full” names are a perfect solution: I feel for Bill Smith, I really do. And I think that if you’ve started with user names on a social network where people can search for you, you owe it to your base to keep using user names until the end of time, for reasons I’ll discuss shortly. And I do see the mystique of having a user name you chose that has deep meaning to you, like “PearlJewel” – but, as noted, there’s no guarantee you’re going to have that beautiful user name if someone else gets there first. (And if you have such a one-word username that you have issues appending a last name to it, even a made-up one, then I agree that a social network should have a place for you to put that user name.)
Hence, I think “full names,” where you can have multiples and user the name on your driver’s license if you wish, are the way to go. That didn’t stop people from claiming that I wanted to force everyone to use their real name (when I, as noted, clearly do not), or that clearly I was so ashamed of my past behavior that I wanted to change the architecture of the Internet in order to obscure my identity (when my main gripe was that I couldn’t have my identity be consistently recognized), or even that “The Ferrett” hated pseudonyms (what?). (Most of this dumbness wasn’t in the comments, never fear – you’re as witty and insightful as usual – it was in other blogs’ reactions to mine.)
Apparently Google+ agrees with me, though – they’ve used full names.
Unfortunately, though they implemented full names, they’re forcing people to use their “real” names. They’re locking accounts that don’t have “real” names, at least according to a set of ill-defined criteria that nobody seems to understand, but seems to be random people tagging folks as “not real.” (The Gmail accounts or calendars aren’t frozen, thank God, but you’re not allowed on Google+ again.)
This is both stupid, and dangerous.
Here’s the deal with pseudonymity: we need it. There are people being stalked by exes who really can’t be on the Internet under their real name, lest their stalker find and hurt them again. And there are people who have sucktacular jobs who do not want their bosses and potential bosses to find them ever, no matter how many privacy circles you implement. And there are just people who don’t like the name on their birth certificate and want to go by something else.
Bill Smith, you poor overused bastard, I can completely dig if you want to be the more-unique Pony McRainbow.
Forcing people to use their “real” name gets tricky, because what is a real name? The name on my driver’s license is William. So is “Bill” my “real” name, which is what people called me before I transitioned to “Ferrett”? Or is “Ferrett” my real name, since it’s what my wife, kids, friends, and boss all call me? Not only is forcing people to use a “real” name potentially harmful, but it’s impossible to define properly. Is the real name the birth name, a societally-approved nickname, the name your boss calls you, the name your friends call you?
Google cannot decide that. I’m not saying they shouldn’t; I’m saying they can’t. No matter what legal definition they use, it won’t match up with the real world to a significant amount somewhere.
The problems with usernames aside, people have such a deep need for pseudonymity ingrained in their system that it is foolish to fight this need. Google+, I suspect, wants everyone to have their real names so they can, like Facebook, use these names behind the scenes to provide better advertising. (Or, as my wife points out, they want definable “real” names to fight the creation of spammer accounts like “Xyzzy Mxyzptlk.”)
I’m not down on advertising – I dig they gotta pay the bills – but this is like America’s War on Drugs. All you’re going to do is piss a significant percentage of people off, have inconsistently-applied laws that blow up in your face periodically, and tag innocents. Except those of us in America kind of have to live with the War on Drugs, whereas people who get hurt by your quest for the Real Name will leave Google+. And they’re often some of the most influential net-bloggers there are.
So yes, developers – implement full names, wherein people can use their real names if they so desire. And if not, allow them to create an alternate persona – like, say, “Ferrett Steinmetz” – which can be transported whole to any other site that also implements full names. But don’t try to force folks to use some bastardized version of their legal name, because it won’t work, it’ll put people in danger, and it’ll piss people off.
If Rachel Rizzuto wants to be Lovemuffin Starshine, let her. If she decides that’s who she wants to be, she’ll have the same friends and the same blog posts and generate the same traffic to your site, because she’ll stay there. She won’t have to live in fear of her hateful ex-husband finding her journal, she won’t have to worry about her religious relatives stumbling across that one poly-friendly musing she left in the wrong circle, she won’t have to worry about her future employer finding her pictures of her at Burning Man. And if she gets comfortable enough in that identity that she decides to put that on her resume, then good. She’s built strength, and made a choice.
Don’t you make it for her.

10 Comments

  1. Mari
    Aug 1, 2011

    I am always surprised when I find “Mari” is taken somewhere. Though I shouldn’t be, I suppose.

  2. Ironic_Username
    Aug 1, 2011

    So, what you really want is to detach the username you login through from whats displayed with your posts (or whatever), so that more than one person can have the same name?

    • TheFerrett
      Aug 1, 2011

      Incorrect. I think the user name should be encouraged to be a “real” name, so as to encourage a variety of names, but that the “real” name shouldn’t be checked for any sort of veracity.
      Also, all logins should be emails. Easier to remember.

      • Jim
        Aug 1, 2011

        Disagree about e-mails. Maybe Im a special case, but Ive had been working at the same place for 21 years now, and the canonical form of my e-mail address has changed no less the four times. So when trying to recover a password (or just log in from memory), I have to fight to remember emwhen/em I first signed up for a given site in order to pick the right e-mail addy.
        Or I can just use a non-arbitrary but unique user name, like cwruXXXY (where XXXY=my actual user ID at Case). But only if the @#%! site will allow me to.

  3. plinko
    Aug 1, 2011

    Have to admit — website looks slick. *thumbs up*

  4. Sean
    Aug 1, 2011

    From all that you wrote here, it seems to come down to the 2nd to last paragraph:
    “So yes, developers – implement full names, wherein people can use their real names if they so desire. And if not, allow them to create an alternate persona – like, say, “Ferrett Steinmetz” – which can be transported whole to any other site that also implements full names. But don’t try to force folks to use some bastardized version of their legal name, because it won’t work, it’ll put people in danger, and it’ll piss people off.”
    How do you police that though without placing a lot of the burden on the end user?
    Take Bill Smith again. If there are five or ten Bill_Smith_Hockeyfan listings on a given social site, then at some point (assuming he’s interested in adding people to his circle/group/etc.) he’s going to have to give out personal details so people know it’s him as he moves from site to site. Once that starts, then aren’t we somewhat back to where things are now?
    You might be yourself, or your alter ego wherever you go, but unless the name you chose was really unique, how do your friends know which Bill_Smith_Hockeyfan is really you?
    FWIW, I’m not disagreeing. I really wouldn’t mind if I could “be me” no matter where I went, but how do you have an absolute name that’s always you wherever you go, except when you don’t want it to be (for your own good reasons)

  5. Kimmi
    Aug 1, 2011

    When I first heard about the random flagging of “fake” names, I immediately wondered about the people I know with weird names and how that will work out for them. I know a “Teddy Bear,” a “Tequila,” “Dick Ng,” and a few other people with just odd names. Do they have a way to protest that no really, that IS their name on their DL?
    And I fall in the category of wanting a regular name that is not my legal name; I still haven’t legally changed my last name but I have taken my husband’s last name for everyday purposes. Add in that when I am working as a crafter for work, I change my first name too when creating an account for that purpose. I like the extra wall that helps keep my personal blogging away from my employment; plus “Kimmi” just never felt professional. Its a name I use in a “real” way–does that count?
    I completely agree that this will lose them users, and it definitely seems like an oddly ill conceived move for them.

  6. Kneefers
    Aug 1, 2011

    “Kneefers” is never taken anywhere. 😀

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