One of the points I mentioned in yesterday's post about Google+ was the question of whether or not you should use your real name, and more broadly whether or not it's against the terms of service to use a pseudonym. I wanted to elaborate a bit on the second part of the issue: is it against Google's terms of service to use a pseudonym? There's a growing contingent of G+ users who fear that it is, and that Google is going to ban them from the site because they've opted to go with a pseudonym.
I reached out to Google to try to get some clarity, with only partial success. I asked if there was an official policy and if Google was going to eject people who don't use their real names. Here's what a Google spokesperson had to say:
Google Profiles are designed to be public pages on the web, which are used to help connect and find real people in the real world. By providing your common name, you will be assisting all people you know - friends, family members, classmates, co-workers, and other acquaintances - in finding and creating a connection with the the right person online.
That read more like a recommendation than a policy, so I asked again for something I could link to. I was looking for a 'final word' on the topic, so to speak. I was pointed to a Help Center Topic that says:
Google Profiles is a product that works best in the identified state. This way you can be certain you’re connecting with the right person, and others will have confidence knowing that there is someone real behind the profile they’re checking out. For this reason, Google Profiles requires you to use the name that you commonly go by in daily life.
The page then goes into things to avoid when filling out your name in order to prevent being suspended. Another link goes to the Google+ Project User Content and Conduct Policy which reiterates the rule for G+ specifically:
13. Display Name To help fight spam and prevent fake profiles, use the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you. For example, if your full legal name is Charles Jones Jr. but you normally use Chuck Jones or Junior Jones, either of those would be acceptable.
Somewhat ironically, there's also a link to a post titled The freedom to be who you want to be... which includes this passage:
Pseudonymous. Using a pseudonym has been one of the great benefits of the Internet, because it has enabled people to express themselves freely—they may be in physical danger, looking for help, or have a condition they don’t want people to know about. People in these circumstances may need a consistent identity, but one that is not linked to their offline self. You can use pseudonyms to upload videos in YouTube or post to Blogger.
So putting this all together, Google acknowledges that you could have a very good reason for wishing to use a pseudonym online, but in spite of this, you can't use one in your Google Profile or on Google+. Before I start sounding too much like an alarmist, we still don't really know how heavily these policies will be enforced. They might just be "Cover our backsides" clauses for Google to use when ejecting spammers and impersonators from the service. It's also still a little vague. If my friends refer to me by my online handle, is it OK to use it? Could Steve Wozniak use "The Woz" or would he be violating the terms of service? Saying to use the name that "friends, family, or co-workers" call me assumes that these three groups all call me the same thing, which in many cases isn't true. Let's hope this is one of those policies that Google intends to enforce only in cases of trouble-makers, because if they enforce the policy strictly, they're going to be turning away a big potential audience. A lot of people don't want to be on Facebook precisely because they don't want to use their real names. If Google+ were to welcome pseudonym users, it'd mean these people would have a social network to call their own. If not, it'll be back to Twitter and the 140 character limit, since Twitter doesn't require real names. If they are serious about this policy, then maybe there's room for some kind of compromise; pseudonym profiles that link privately to 'real' profiles, perhaps, and that are flagged as being a pseudonym so no one is fooled? After all, if they're planning "Business Profiles" then why not "Pseudonym Profiles"? What do you think? Is this a big deal or a tempest in a teapot? [Update: As I went to Google+ to share this post with my Circles, I noticed a post from a user, Rowan Thunder, who had been suspended, with a description of how the appeal process works. The goods news is that this user got the suspension lifted, and it sounds like it was based on having an established online presence using that name. ]