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Why Google+ Now Allows Pseudonyms, But Still Requires Real Names

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I don’t want to rail on Google all the time, I really don’t. I was one of their biggest fans and even wanted to work for them until just a few years ago (when running away to Silicon Valley became a bit of an impracticality).

But come on, Google. Give me something to work with here.

I’d love to say great things about the Google+ network. Personally, I think competition in any space is healthy; more social networking options drives each to innovate, adapt to user needs, and improve the experience. Hangouts are pretty cool. There are some decent things happening on at Google+. And as a marketer, that business Pages from G+ can rank tops in organic SERPs! That’s super.

But overshadowing everything going on over at Google+ to build it out as a true competitor in the social space is this: Google isn’t actually a social media network. It’s an identity service. It’s been an identity service from day one, from conceptualization, even.

I don’t mean to beat a dead horse here, because I’ve written about this before, but it’s unbelievable that some are shocked and dismayed over Google’s real names policy. They cannot function as an identity service, certified by the U.S. federal government under the National Strategies for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace program, as a pioneer in the Identity Ecosystem, if you’re using a pseudonym.

Google’s announcement received a ton of coverage from tech media and mainstream alike, yet I didn’t spot a one that put two and two together.

Eric Schmidt has told us, Google+ was created as an identity service. Larry Page has told us it’s an identity network. The White House has told us Google is an identity provider.

That’s all it boils down to. Safety from stalkers, pen names, nicknames... none of this matters, not a lick. What Google has offered as a concession to those wanting to use a pseudonym is as far as they can go while staying within boundaries that allow them to truly know who you are. And they need to know who you really are. They are a certified identity service.

Google’s Bradley Horowitz posted an explanation of their “more inclusive” naming policy yesterday, successfully dancing around the heart of the matter: why. It’s for your own good, they say. “With Google+, we aspire to make online sharing more like sharing in the real world. And during the Google+ signup process, we've asked users to select the name they commonly use in real life,” he wrote. But that’s only a small part of the truth.

Yet we, outside of Google, in the media, as an online community, as users, insist on calling it a social network. Why? Because it’s built to look and feel like a social platform? Because calling it what it is makes us uncomfortable and a little creeped out? Because we don’t want to think that online cataloguing and categorizing of identities is already happening, preferring to leave such speculation to the tinfoil hat crowd?

There’s nothing tinfoil about it. It’s already happened.

Google could certainly be more upfront about the purpose of Google+; we hear of the identity solution now and then, slipped into conversation in interviews, mentioned in passing when launching new features. But you won’t find any mention of the Google+ Identity Project in their privacy policy. There’s no mention there of the fact that, since October 2011, Google is one of a handful of “trusted identity providers for certain types of Federal applications,” as per the White House announcement linked above.

For the record, Google was, as of October 6, 2011, an OpenID 2.0, Level of Assurance 1 Identity Provider, meaning no identity proofing was required. To reach Level 2, the Identity Provider must provide “single factor remote authentication using a wide range of available authentication technologies.” For example, scanned official documentation, such as a driver’s license; proof of an established identity online with a significant following, or references to an established identity offline in print media, news articles, etc. This is exactly what they’re asking for in their Your name and Google+ Profiles policy. It’s exactly why you have to prove your identity to use a pseudonym.

Identity verification might be a really great thing. If measures are in place to truly protect the rich data resource that is your online identity, it could make life easier, help the government improve efficiency, make online business more secure, etc. Google is leading the charge in OpenID and online identity verification, just as they have in many other areas. They are innovators, early adopters, and leaders.

So why the secrecy? And why can’t we, as an industry of techies, geeks, and marketers, just call it what it is? For that matter, why can’t Google call it what it is and own what they’re doing?

Instead of trying to reel users in through Search Plus Your World, inflated engagement metrics, and fun photo editing tools, if this is really where the web is going, just tell people what it is they’re signing up for. If you’re going to require Google+ adoption as a condition of creating a Blogger or YouTube account, tell people why. Google, if you want to truly put the user first, explain the OpenID and Identity Provider programs in your Good to Know online safety lessons, in your user policies, and on sign-up.

Do no evil. For real.


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