In July, Google unveiled a Facebook-like social network called Google+. Unlike prior attempts by the company to become sociable, it got rave reviews. One policy, however, has made some people downright furious: Google forbids the use of pseudonyms, telling members that their identities must be the same as in the real world.
The requirement has helped keep the quality of the discourse on Google+ high. It's also permitted Google to begin tying users' true names to their interests as reflected in their use of Google services, providing it with a treasure trove of consumer data potentially worth billions. But it runs contrary to long-standing traditions in the online domain, where many people use names that are fictional sometimes obviously so, and sometimes not. To this day, virtual-world monikers are sometimes called "handles," a quaint reference to 1970s CB radio culture.
Google says that if you're on Google+, you must use "the name you commonly go by in the real world," a rule that sounds simple but leaves plenty of room for interpretation, faulty assumptions and general confusion. The service briefly ousted sex blogger Violet Blue, apparently unaware that Violet Blue is the name on her Social Security card and passport. It also booted celebrity engineer Limor "Ladyada" Fried, then let her back in even though the Ladyada part violates its guidelines. (As far as anyone knows, it never dared to tell enthusiastic Google+ user Lady Gaga that she was required to call herself Stefani Germanotta.)
While Google's policing has been particularly obsessive, its regulations aren't wildly different from the ones in place at Facebook, whose always outspoken founder Mark Zuckerberg has said, "Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity. " In January, that social network shut down the profile of Zhao Jing, a Chinese political blogger who writes and had joined Facebook under the name Michael Anti. Given that his double identity wasn't exactly a deep secret, Facebook's move was akin to punishing Samuel Clemens for also being Mark Twain.
It also served as a reminder that there are entire categories of people who have good reason to keep their real-world identities distinct from their activities on social networks and other online destinations, such as dissidents and activists in countries that deny freedom of speech. Closer to home, defenders of anonymity like the Electronic Frontier Foundation often point to the example of a small-town gay teenager adopting an online pseudonym to avoid the wrath of local bullies.
There's nothing inherently virtuous about online anonymity, though. Those small-town bullies might crave it too, if it lets them do their thing without fear of repercussions. Spammers are also fans and so are legion on Twitter, a service that does nothing to verify the identities of its users. And it's no coincidence that the loosely knit federation of hackers accused of targeting everybody from epileptics to the founder of the No Cussing Club to major corporations goes by the name Anonymous.
Even obnoxious jerks tend to be on their best behavior when it's easy to identify who they are, which is one reason why both Google+ and Facebook are relatively civil places by Internet standards. They're certainly more genteel than the comment sections at many sites, which are often infested with people leaving randomly boorish remarks under assumed names. (When Silicon Valley blog TechCrunch dumped its commenting system for one that required readers to sign in with their Facebook credentials, the IQ of the average poster seemed to instantly jump by about 50 points.)
Google, which has come under continuous criticism for both the real-name policy and its heavy-handed enforcement of it, appears to be tired of talking about the subject: it declined to provide a representative to be interviewed for this article. And executive chairman Eric Schmidt reportedly offered this advice to individuals who don't like the real-name policy: don't use Google+.
But the company isn't ignoring complaints. At first, it deleted accounts without warning; now there's a grace period. More important, Google+ honcho Bradley Horowitz recently told tech publisher and pundit Tim O'Reilly that the company was attempting to devise a way to permit pseudonyms on the service. "In the grand scheme of priorities, it's high," he said.
If Google figures out how to balance the needs of its community with the desires of people who have good reason to separate their online and off-line identities, it'll have addressed a problem that's festered since the golden age of dial-up bulletin boards. Here's hoping the company gets it right it won't be easy, and it would be sad to see a pleasant place like Google+ overrun by trolls, spammers and other shady characters from the outside world.
McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist; on Twitter, he's @harrymccracken. His column, also called Technologizer, appears every Thursday on TIME.com.