Sunday, July 24, 2011

Pseudonyms vs. Autonyms

Recently there's been a controversy concerning Google's "Google+" social network. It seems that Google is actively enforcing a policy of using "real names" on the service. To quote from the published justification:

Google services support three different types of use when it comes to your identity: unidentified, pseudonymous, identified. 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.

Google says they support three types of identities, but for Google Profiles "identified" ones (shown to be the same as on state-issued documents) work best. Google perceives profiles to be at the heart of Google+, and makes the assertion that people will be more certain that they are "connecting with the right person" in this case.

This rationale is clearly very weak. Take the case of "John Smith" or its equivalent in the many languages of the folks signing up. Even with an "identified" John Smith, how can you know it is the person you think? There are hundreds of thousands of them from which to choose. For a John Smith to be distinguished they would have to make public information that they might reasonably prefer to keep private, such as addresses and phone numbers.


The use of the word "pseudonym" by both Google and the (innocent) victims of their policy to describe the name they are using, is, I believe revelatory of the source of the problem and needs to be cleared up. The word is just plain wrong.

Pseudonym comes to English from the Greek. It is from pseudēs "false" + onoma "name". So, it is a false name. That's exactly what these names are not. A pseudonym is designed to hide an identity but the names used by these people are designed to reveal one. They are not pseudonyms. Not at all.

So today I will coin two terms which I believe are essentially relevant. The first is autonym. This is from the combining form "auto-" from the Greek autos, for "self", and "-nym" for "name". So, we have "self name", not false name.

Google's assumption is that the name on a person's state-issued identity papers is somehow more "valid" than a self-given name. This is wrong on its face. That name may well be used by the person to whom it was given but for many of the very most interesting people, it is not. They take the initiative to name themselves, and to create with that name the identity by which the world, or a narrower group knows them. Will Google insist that famous entertainers who have adopted names not on their birth certificates use those instead of the names by which they are known? This seems very unlikely since it is plainly foolish.

But, they might argue, those people are widely known by that name. Perhaps magnitude is important. I would say that the heart of this conversation is not about autonyms at all but about the second term I will coin, the "privanom". From the Latin privatus, "withdrawn from public life" and nomen, "name". This is an autonym that is used to set apart an identity from others held by a person. That is, a name used in certain company which is very likely unknown to others acquainted with the person using it, but, and this is the key, well known to the group within which it is used.

The irony of this situation is that Google+ should embrace the use of privanoms by attaching them to circles. After all, if you are known to a given group (listed in a circle) as "Spanky" while your state-issued name is "Rutherford" how will they find you? How will they know it is you. But perhaps at work people know Rutherford and at play Spanky. The ability to speak as either in the right context is actually a very nice enhancement.

You usually wont find me imputing positive motives to Google when it comes to information privacy, and I am still rather skeptical in that area, but I do think perhaps they have a good motive here in a different domain.

Many online communities suffer from anonymity. It causes trouble in a variety of ways and can even destroy communities as pseudonyms are adopted first to troll, then to hurt, and then by the victims in retribution. This problem may well be at the heart of Google's reasoning. But, if it is, it is short-sighted and counterproductive. The fact is that pseudonyms needn't be allowed, it's the autonym that needs to be supported.

An autonym is not designed to create anonymity! Autonyms which do not point at consistent, persistent and valued identities are simply not useful. They are not autonyms. Even if the autonymic identity of a person is that of a jerk who you don't want to deal with, as long as the identity is consistent, you can treat it the way you would any identity and avoid it with the same tools you can use with any name you encounter.

So, what can Google do? In fact, Google has a review process in place for "suspicious names" which with just a little back end policy shift will do nicely to properly support the real meaning and facts of online identities. First, Google needs to accept autonyms as legitimate names (and importantly, do not demand two names, as most autonyms have no surname). Second, they'll need to accept a range of proof concerning the name. Established identities on other sites is probably the best. A corpus of interaction with the world online is, in fact, far better than a photo of a picture ID, which is so easily faked.

For new autonyms, which lack this proof, they'll need to use some method of limiting signups to the service. With all the data Google has on everyone, it should be possible to use it to tell if the person is trying to make multiple accounts. If they choose to take the suggestion of allowing multiple circle-attached names, the issue of anonymity on their end is fixed. The names are all attached to a known account.

Logically, if they cannot limit multiple signups, then what good is suspension of an account? If the person is legitimately autonymic, they are lost to the service as they cannot sign up with what to them is a false identity! If they are, in fact, attempting anonymity then any name will do!

In the end, given that Google is, in the aggregate, famously smart, this policy tends to make me rather suspicious at the genuine motives. Why force people into a particular name? The claims that it is for the sake of the community, are, I think well disputed by this essay. So, if that's not the motive, what is? I tend to be cynical about this. It seems to be a way to make the information they gather on account of this network more valuable to them, not to us.

6 Comments:

Blogger Resuna said...

I don't thing online communities suffer from anonymity at all.

What they suffer from is unaccountability.

Sun Jul 24, 01:08:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Yaakov said...

Resuna:

I wonder if you followed the link from the sentence you commented on. Anonymity has a place when it protects someone from official retaliation (say, in whistle blowing) but it serves no valuable purpose in a community.

In my long experience in online communities, people who insist on anonymity (not privacy which is something altogether different) are not contributors. To be anonymous means to have no identity, to not be a person who is someone that hasa reputation.

So, if you really mean "privacy", we agree. From your accountability comment I suspect you do. But, if you think that anonymity has a value to anyone other than the anonymous, I must disagree strongly. (Note this does not include the case of exceptions, mentioned above.)

Thanks for your comment.

Yaakov

Sun Jul 24, 01:37:00 PM EDT  
OpenID vannesh said...

Yaakov, all your philosophical ideas here are very nice, and in principle I agree but let's cut to the heart of the matter, as you yourself said in your post:

"For a John Smith to be distinguished they would have to make public information that they might reasonably prefer to keep private, such as addresses and phone numbers."

Bingo, that's *exactly* what they want up there, so this way the data-miners that will go through Google+ looking for real life information can do so indiscriminately.

Going on Google+ as 'Mary-Berry Starship' does nothing to help the advertisers, as they need real world info to ship the proper ads to the hopefully-soon-to-be-deflated-wallet person at the other end of the pipeline.

All Google and their investors want to do is make boatloads of cash, so they and their cronies in the advertising world can take money baths together. They aren't in this for nobility, or freedom, or to strike a blow for a Lockean liberal society. They're addicted to money and they want to feed their addiction.

What Google should do is just be honest : "Look, we want as much of your would-rather-be-private material up there to suit our advertisers, and then us and our investors, so we can all make boatloads of cash together. If you want to be 'Mary-Berry Starship' and put up not-you-in-real-life information, you're not going to be allowed on our system. Period."

That might be brutal and Ayn-Rand-Capitalist sounding, but at least it would be honest. -V

Sun Jul 24, 02:42:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Yaakov said...

Vanesh:

My last paragraph:

"In the end, given that Google is, in the aggregate, famously smart, this policy tends to make me rather suspicious at the genuine motives. Why force people into a particular name? The claims that it is for the sake of the community, are, I think well disputed by this essay. So, if that's not the motive, what is? I tend to be cynical about this. It seems to be a way to make the information they gather on account of this network more valuable to them, not to us."

Shows my tendency to lean in the direction of your comment. However, I am not convinced, yet, that it is true. It may be, but I know that my cynical attitude concerning Google predisposes me to believe so. Because of this bias I am going to compensate by going out of my way to observe Google's reaction to this flap before I conclude my prejudice is justified.

Sun Jul 24, 02:51:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous M. Monica said...

This is a great, well thought out blog post on the topic.

I have hopes that Google is listening to its fan base and will make adjustments accordingly. I hope so, as my ability to stay on G+ depends on it. I have explained my own reasoning here:

https://plus.google.com/116113014152499702246#117665613028757061169/posts/ZycBwscrNDB

Tue Jul 26, 02:25:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Conan776 said...

Great post. I definitely have an autonym. Still trying to convince Google+ to let me back, but I haven't gotten through to them yet :(

Wed Jul 27, 09:45:00 PM EDT  

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