Google+ Accepts Pseudonyms, With Caveats

Google+ updated name policy stops short of unqualified pseudonym acceptance, but endorses use of "established" alternate names.
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Google has revised its much-maligned name policy for Google+ Profiles to include support for nicknames, non-Roman scripts, and, to a limited extent, pseudonyms.

When Google+ launched last year, Google insisted that users identify themselves with the name by which they're commonly known. When users complained about the lack of support for pseudonyms, Google made some adjustments but stopped short of embracing names that conceal identity.

Now Google has given a bit more ground, although its revised policy, perhaps inevitably, remains rather ambiguous.

Bradley Horowitz, Google's VP of product, announced the change in a post on Google+. Based on feedback from the 1% of would-be Google+ users appealing denials of their desired Profile name, Horowitz said that 60% of users simply want to add a nickname, that 20% are businesses that are inadvertently trying to use Google+ Profiles rather than Google Pages to establish their Google+ presence, and that 20% are looking to use a pseudonym or other unconventional name.

[ What was the problem with the Google+ name policy? Read 5 Reasons Google+'s Name Policy Fails. ]

To address this feedback, Google over the next week will add support for nicknames and names written in an alternate script, like Cyrillic or Arabic, for example. These names will be presented alongside users' common names, rather than in place of them. Thus, a nickname will augment but not conceal a user's identifying name.

Conceding that Google has sometimes flagged names it should not have, Horowitz also said, "[W]e're updating our policies and processes to broaden support for established pseudonyms, from +trench coat to +Madonna."

Note the use of the word "established." Google is officially recognizing the presence of online pseudonymous personalities, like Thomas Hawk, whose presence on Google+ previously was inconsistent with Google's position on pseudonyms.

However, this isn't merely a formalization of Google's favoritism toward the famous, whereby services like Hangouts On Air are offered first to celebrities and those rich in followers. It's the de facto acceptance of reasonable, non-offensive pseudonyms.

If you open a Google+ account and lay claim to a pseudonym by which you're not already known, chances are Google won't allow it, if anyone at the company finds out. Try starting an account under the name "Larry Page" to find out more about the name-flagging process.

At the same time, building an online pseudonym to the point of being "established" should be relatively easy. With a few online posts as "SuperPundit," a handful of Twitter followers, and a few links to your website--search engine optimization 101--you're probably ready to participate in the Google social protection program, aka pseudonymous Google+. Horowitz suggests that possible criteria for establishing a pseudonym might be, among other things, a "meaningful following," whatever that means.

A Google spokesperson more or less conceded that Google isn't likely to be able to distinguish between real and fake names if those names don't call attention to themselves. If you sign up for Google+ under a pseudonym that sounds like a common name, Bob Smith for example, chances are no one at Google will ever know, unless someone rats you out. So between the fact that Google doesn't really want to subject every name to close scrutiny, and the fact that pseudonyms can be established with relative ease, expressing one's identity on Google+ is now subject to relatively few constraints.

Horowitz says that Google will continue to refine its handling of names and identity in the months to come. For now, the name policy on Google+ looks a bit more privacy-friendly than the name policy on Facebook.

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