How Google could dig itself out of the Google+ real-name hole

One of the issues that has dogged Google+ (s goog) since the launch of the new Google-based social platform is the web company’s requirement that users be known by their real names. Those who defend the virtues of anonymity or the use of online pseudonyms, as we have done in the past, argue that Google is making a serious error by insisting that only real names are acceptable on the network, and many critics have questioned the company’s motives for doing so. But Google’s recent launch of “verified” user accounts shows what could be a way out for the web giant, or at least a potential middle ground between fans and critics of the real-name policy.

When Google+ first launched in June, Vic Gundotra — who has been heading up the company’s social efforts — said that the new network would “encourage” users to use their real names because it wanted to maintain a certain tone on its new platform, and he compared this approach to a restaurant requiring patrons to wear a shirt and shoes. The requirement soon triggered a firestorm of criticism from advocates of anonymity and pseudonymity, however, who argued that Google’s policy would exclude people who might want to remain anonymous for good reasons — including gays and others who might not want to have their comments attached to their “real” identities.

Do real names put an end to bad behavior? No

As we’ve explained in some of our previous posts on the topic, many supporters of requiring real names in places such as newspaper comments — including those who promote the use of Facebook comments — argue that doing this cuts down on trolling, flame-wars, obscenities and other forms of bad behavior. Others, however, note that bad behavior of all kinds takes place in many online forums where real names are used. And as many proponents of anonymity point out, the use of pseudonyms also has a long history in U.S. political and social discourse, a tradition that includes Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, among others.

Despite all this criticism, Google has continued to crack down on accounts it believes are using a “fake” name, including those belonging to some well-known figures in the technology world, such as the programmer who goes by the name Skud, and ZDNet blogger Violet Blue — whose name sounds like a pseudonym, but is actually her legal name. Although Google recently changed its policies to allow users four days to change their names to something acceptable (its original approach was to shut down the account without notice), many have complained that the company still makes it too hard for those with unusual names or “persistent pseudonyms” to maintain Google+ accounts.

But Google recently started doing something else that could help to solve the real-name issue, or at least make it a little more palatable: it has begun verifying certain Google+ user accounts, in much the same way that Twitter offers verified profiles. As explained late last week by Google+ staffer Wen-Ai Yu, once a user is approved they get a gray checkmark beside their user name on their profile that says “verified name” when a user mouses over the checkmark. According to Yu, Google is starting with “public figures, celebrities and people who have been added to a large number of Circles,” such as blogger Robert Scoble.

It’s not clear exactly how Google is verifying accounts, but it is likely using legal documents such as a driver’s license or credit card, since the company has asked blocked users in the past for that kind of proof in order to restore their accounts. And it’s also not clear whether Google is going to offer verification to everyone, although Yu says the web giant is “working on expanding this to more folks.” Presumably, Google wants to focus on accounts such as those of Lady Gaga (who has been reported by more than one user for having what is clearly a fake name) as a way of publicizing the network.

Let all users have the option to be Lady Gaga

Here’s a suggestion for Google: allow anyone to use the pseudonym of their choice, but offer verification to anyone who wants to take advantage of it. In other words, allow anyone to do what Lady Gaga has done. There’s no reason why Skud or anyone else who has been using a persistent pseudonym online for years — in both their personal and professional lives — shouldn’t be able to do this on Google+ as well. In this scenario, Google would know the person’s “real” or legal name, but others would not.

Undoubtedly, there will be those who don’t want to tell even Google their real or legal name, or who don’t want to provide a birth certificate or driver’s licence or passport to the web company for privacy reasons. So Google could take a further step in promoting its verification policy, and show a user’s verified status on every post and comment (it currently is only seen on a user’s profile). That would make it clear who has chosen to make their pseudonym official and who has chosen not to. In other words, it would create a three-tiered system: those with “real” names, those with verified pseudonyms and those with unverified pseudonyms.

Many online communities such as Slashdot and Metafilter have shown that the use of pseudonyms doesn’t have to mean a decline in the conversation and the rise of trolling or other bad behavior, and Slashdot in particular has shown that social pressure — by labelling some accounts with terms such as “anonymous coward” — can convince users to sign up with either real names or verifiable pseudonyms. If Google wants to promote real names, it should try encouraging users instead of just banning accounts.

As Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation has pointed out, Google has publicly stated its support of several different levels of identity online — including unidentified (i.e., not logged into a Google account), pseudonymous and identified — because of its belief that users should be allowed “the freedom to be who you want to be” online. But Google+ is not following through on that promise, and it is making Google look bad. If the company truly wants to support that freedom, it needs to figure out how to accommodate all kinds of users, not just those whose names sound real or who happen to be famous.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Kat B Photography and Klobe time