What Google still doesn’t get about running an online community

Google (s goog) has come under fire for its stance on the use of real names on Google+, its new social network, from those who believe there is value in allowing some level of anonymity — and we are among those who have offered some suggestions about how to resolve that issue. But regardless of what the search giant decides to do when it comes to real names or any other aspect of Google+, the one thing it has to get better at is communicating clearly with the members of this new community it is trying to build. As online-community pioneer Derek Powazek argues in a recent blog post, the company has consistently failed to do this, and in fact has made things worse. Is being transparent something Google is incapable of?

Powazek, who created an early online community called The Fray in 1996 and has also written a book called “Design For Community: How to Connect Real People in Virtual Places,” spends much of his post arguing that Google’s approach to requiring real names from Google+ users is the right approach — or at least has a lot of benefits for an online community — and he has also argued that as the creator of the network, Google has the right to require whatever kind of identity system it wants. Powazek says he believes the days of using the kind of anonymous “hacker handles” that people used to favor online (which he compares to training wheels) are over.

As I’ve described before, I disagree with Powazek and other fans of the “real name” approach because I think their approach winds up excluding some valuable viewpoints from people who don’t want to be identified by their “real” names — and Powazek agrees that there are some strong reasons for allowing anonymity, as described by Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation among others.

Motherhood statements combined with a secretive process

But to me, Powazek’s criticisms of the way Google has approached its policy are bang on target. Ever since the first few sparks of the real-name firestorm started to catch, Google has chosen to operate in its usual fashion: a few rare comments or motherhood statements about the benefits of the new network from senior executives such as Vic Gundotra or Bradley Horowitz, combined with a secretive, poorly understood and confusing process behind the scenes when it comes to deciding whose name will be approved and whose will not — not a great recipe for building trust or loyalty among your users.

As Powezek and others have noted, Google’s approach to blocking then reinstating user accounts that are flagged for having “fake” names is so Byzantine and poorly communicated that some users have spent a considerable amount of time and detective work trying to reverse-engineer how it works — and even then it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Has anyone from Google offered to help anyone understand it, or become an advocate for those who find themselves caught in the system and at risk of losing access to some or all of Google’s services? No. Says Powazek:

Your members are freaked out, and when they’re freaked out, they can believe any craziness they read. It needs to be someone’s job to say, in a soft pleasing tone of voice, “No, Google is not breaking into your house to scan your passport.” The communication with the larger community has been atrocious, which is unforgivable when you’re building a communication platform.

At GigaOM, we’ve written a lot about how Google doesn’t “get” social, how social skills don’t seem to be in its DNA, and how it has often looked at social networking as an engineering problem that can be solved by adding a “widget” or feature to its services. There’s no question that the company has done a better job with Google+ than it has with almost any other social project it has tried in the past, which for the most part comes down to a better user-interface design and some appealing features — but does the company really understand how online communities work?

The company isn’t built to be transparent

As a search-engine operator, Google has spent most of its life saying as little as possible about how it does things — for fear of either encouraging programmers to hack or game its search algorithms, or of letting competitors know how the “black box” that is PageRank functions. As Stephen Levy has described in his book In The Plex, senior Google executives, including CEO Larry Page and co-founder Sergey Brin, are notoriously close-mouthed about the company and how it does things. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Google hasn’t exactly gotten all transparent about its new social network. But that doesn’t mean it’s not still a big problem.

As Powazek and the architects of other successful online communities such as Metafilter and Slashdot know, one of the most important principles when designing such a virtual place is that users have to know what is expected of them — and what they are going to get in return. Strong communities have moderators who help new users understand how to do things, and who intercede when something goes wrong (and also help prevent flame wars and other bad behavior in a more effective way than a “real name” policy).

What does Google have? Some instructional videos and the occasional blog post. It’s no wonder that some users have responded to Google+ as though it was an abusive partner, and even some of those whose names have been approved say they are reconsidering whether they want to belong to the new network at all.

Google isn’t the only one that has failed to do a good job of communicating its intentions with Google+. Facebook has a long history of poor communication with its users and of taking seemingly arbitrary actions against them, including banning pages and shutting down accounts. But the company seems to be getting better at it. If Google is really going to try to compete with Facebook, it might want to try pushing the envelope a bit when it comes to being transparent, instead of just hiding behind its algorithms.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Christian Scholtz