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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Real Names Considered Harmful

There's an amazing post by Stephen R. van den Berg which needs to be mirrored for those who are unable to access it.

Presented here with just a tweak to drop the unicode wackiness for "..." which my editor does not handle. The following is otherwise a copy of what was visible at the above URL at about 1:20 AM:

Nymwars, a view from the trenches within Google

In another thread I asked for information from inside Google. Well, I got it, probably more than I bargained for, but relevant and interesting nonetheless. And since Google themselves are not particularly forthcoming with information, I think some of it will be of interest to the public at large, if only to fill in the information gaps Google is leaving behind.

The information I'm presenting was told to me anonymously, but with sufficient detail that I have no reason to believe that it's not coming from someone working at Google. I do not know the Googler's identity, nor do I wish to. I'll disclose as much of the information I deem relevant to the nymwars discussion without jeopardising this person's job. Information is rephrased in my words to avoid recognition by correlation (if one company should be able to try that, it's Google, of course).

Update, see at the bottom of this post.

Below the summarised information in my words, but from the mouth of a Googler (still) working there:

As suspected, many Googlers support the nymwars cause for pseudonyms. There are those that do not support it, but even they agree that Google is messing up royally in the way the name violations are being handled. There already are Googlers that left Google because of this policy and it is likely that more will follow. The nymwars are a recurring topic during the company-wide Friday-meetings, at times even taking over the original agenda of a meeting.

With respect to hierarchy, even though +Bradley Horowitz is pushed forward as the face of G+, he only seems to follow instructions. It also appears that Bradley is not happy with the fact that he has been told to make public announcements regarding G+-matters only to find out that what he announced was not (entirely) true after all.

The man with the "mission from god" seems to be +Vic Gundotra [no big news here]. Vic's leadership style is "just agree with me, and I won't have to hurt you". He seems to see himself as being the visionary for the G+ policies. To him, anyone with a different view on his vision "just doesn't get it". He's dead set on "accepting the judgement of history" only.

+Larry Page is aware of the issue, but it's unclear if he is being properly informed. Publicly he is very dismissive of comments by Googlers who disagree with the names policy.

+Sergey Brin OTOH, is conspicuously absent from the debate. Sergey is the "soul" of Google in many ways, and the judge of what is Evil in their famous motto.

The rationale behind Google's G+ actions:

a. Pseudonyms will become supported, they're working on it, just hold on tight. Most likely support for pseudonyms, pen names and business names will be rolled out at the same time. One of the reasons it has not been rolled out yet is that there is a difference in rights between rights to carry a business name, or to carry a private name. E.g. the trademark Lady Gaga may only be used by the artist holding that trademark, but if someone, by chance, has Lady Gaga in their passport, then for non-business purposes, using this name is perfectly valid. I.e. there needs to be support to distinguish between multiple personal Lady Gagas, and the one "true" Lady Gaga. This support was not ready yet, hence the (temporary) restriction to use personal names only, and no nyms. Quite recently support for verified accounts was added, so part of the solution is visible already.

[I believe the pseudonyms he's talking about here are those where it is possible to discover the real name behind it. Also, I'm not sure what "verified accounts" feature he's talking about here; surely he can't be referring to the sms-verification? -- SRB]

b. Support for true anonymity is considered a hard problem, so instead of pretending that they facilitate it, Vic would rather stick his head in the sand and simply not take responsibility; i.e. anyone requiring true anonymity needs to "abuse" the system and slip through the cracks.

[I believe he's also talking about persistent pseudonyms here with the intent to hide any connection to your real name; i.e. given support for light-weight pseudonyms/aliases, one simply has to add a fake real name, and one should have the anonymous account with a pseudonym of choice -- SRB]

c. Google management is extremely concerned about authenticity of G+ search results and verifiable identities. I.e. on the normal web pagerank and other methods can be used to verify reputation of a website and determine the search ranking. In a social media site, searching is different. Data being searched for could only have been live some mere seconds before the search takes place. This means that there is no time to wait for people to bury trolls, link to good posts etc. I.e. the search engine needs to be able to determine autonomously and instantly if certain contributions should have a high or a low search rank. The most significant way they plan on doing this is by using the reputation of the person writing the comment/posting with regard to the subject he/she's commenting on. They say that they need to know who the writers are to be able to decide this; e.g. a recognised expert on heart disease will see his posts score higher on search for "heart attack".

[It is unclear to me why this needs a real name; one might as well figure out someone's expertise by "(machine) reading" their contributions and checking someone's follower-list, and drawing conclusions based on that, it should scale better, because it does not require human intervention -- SRB]

Popular counterarguments (both raised internally and externally), and why they won't fly with Vic or Larry:

- "Restricting names is bad for business" Vic assumes, not unreasonably, that his sense of business is better than that of most commenters.

- "Women, LGBT, abuse victims, etc, will be disadvantaged" Larry/Vic: "There are other places they can go to, we don't have to fight every ethical and social injustice every time in everything we do, G+ is one of the occasions when we don't seek to right the wrongs of the world, we just want to get the work done."

- "White privileged men will be denied the diversity of opinions because of the bias of Google+ toward white privileged men" Larry/Vic: "Most of them seem to be just fine with that. Sure, most people pay lip service to diversity of opinions, but what really gets their panties in a knot is when their search results show what they consider garbage."

So far Vic has not shown that he is in doubt about any of this, so it is unlikely that simple arguments are able to convince him to change his mind.

[So, in conclusion one might say that things are not as bad as they look(ed), it's just stupid that Google doesn't speak up more; unless they enjoy the (bad) press, just to keep the attention going -- SRB]

Edit update: I've just received a comment by someone who wishes to remain anonymous (ironic that these anonymity requirements are needed to talk about nymwars) which I quote in full (for the benefit of resharers) below:

I'm sorry that I can't make this comment publicly -- I'm not a Googler, but I have very close ties to a handful of them (so I don't want my name to be attached to this response). I wanted to say that yes, the information I have from my friends is pretty much in agreement with your post. At one point before G+ launched, an internal petition in support of pseudonyms was signed by about 10% of all Google engineers, which was a huge deal for the petition organizers. It seems that the G+ team is currently overwhelmed with technical issues of the current system -- that, combined with Vic's attitude, means that nymwars is not going to be addressed anytime soon. If engineers can scrape together 20% time to implement possible solutions and manage to convince decision-makers to let them roll out changes, we might see something. I guess I'm still hopeful but not holding my breath. My Google friends who support pseudonyms are becoming very frustrated and worn-down. We've only been fighting the battle publicly for a month, but they've been pushing internally for much, much longer. Thanks for pulling this post together. I appreciate that people who don't have friends at Google can read this and get a sense of what those of us who do, but are afraid to speak so directly, have been hearing.

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