Aug 17, 2011

To Google, we are data fodder, and I am an unperson

Google's "real names" policy, apart from being a shameless push to upgrade the company's data mining capability and unbelievable boorish in execution, is nothing short of cultural imperialism.

Stilgherrian — Technology writer and broadcaster


Technology writer and broadcaster

Google's "real names" policy, apart from being a shameless push to upgrade the company's data mining capability and unbelievable boorish in execution, is nothing short of cultural imperialism. Yes, this is personal. I knew I'd be caught sooner or later. Google insists that users of its new Google+ social network use "real" names. While I haven't done anything with Google+ yet, I did reserve my Google profile just in case. My name is unusual. Obviously. A single given name, no surname. Apart from the word "Stilgherrian" itself, though, having a single name -- a mononym -- isn't that unusual. I'm far from the only example in Australia. Mononyms are common in Indonesia, particularly Java I'm told. Still, I'm used to organisations not setting up their databases properly. Google didn't allow me to leave the surname field blank, but entering a full stop worked. A common workaround. I hit "OK" and thought nothing more of it. Until yesterday. I knew Google had been enforcing its real names policy. I knew the redoubtable danah boyd had called it an abuse of power, listing the many good reasons for people using pseudonyms -- from separating their personal views from their employer's to feeling safe after having been harassed by a stalker. I expected to be picked up by Google's name police at some point. What I hadn't expected was the stupidity of it. "Your profile has been suspended," reads Google's very first notice of a problem. "It appears that the name you entered doesn’t comply with our Names Policy ... Your profile will be suspended until you do edit your name to comply with the Names Policy." The only button showing reads "Edit your name".

For all its engineering expertise, Google clearly has a thing or two to learn about human culture and customer service. Someone ought to tell it that when you open a conversation about something as personal as someone's name, you don't begin by telling them they're wrong and they have to change. Someone ought to tell it that you don't tell people to "use the name that you are commonly referred to in real life" but then make it impossible to key in that name. Well, someone did tell it. I did. In an expletive-ridden blog post. I found, eventually, that if you edit your name you can also attach justification and evidence. I entered my name as I had done and, in my anger, linked to my blog post. This morning I received an email from Brian in the Google Profiles Support Team.
Thank you for contacting us with regard to our review of the name you are trying to use in your Google profile. After review of your appeal, we have determined that the name you want to use violates our community standards.
You can review our name guidelines [here].
If you edit your name to comply with our policies in the future, please respond to this email so that we can re-review your profile.
Aaaaargh. I am not alone. Kirrily "Skud" Robert, coincidentally a former Google employee, has been documenting Google's incompetent and inconsistent handling of its own policy. "The people involved in this are dealing with high volumes, are not well trained, and appear to have been instructed to err on the side of suspension of there is any doubt. They look briefly at a name, and if they think it is in violation, they will suspend the account," she writes. Forget about me and the rest of the mononymous and our unusual "situation" -- although it's pathetic that one of the world's richest corporations has rolled out a global names policy that can't cope with the merely "unusual". Google can't cope with any name other than "exactly two parts in a single language". Here's just a few of the stupidities that Robert has documented. You can't have spaces in a name. No "Anne Marie". No "van Dyke". No "John F Kennedy" either, he'd have to be just "John Kennedy". Therefore no suffixes such as "III" or "jnr". No apostrophes, so there goes thriller writer and former army Brigadier Adrian D'Hage. Nothing that looks like two given names, such as "David Gordon". No names that happen to be the same name as a celebrity they've heard of, or a god or other religious figure, or are simply names that look wrong to them. Lady Gaga gets to use her stage name, though. One rule for celebrities, another for the proles. Google has taken upon itself the role of telling us how we should name ourselves. No longer do we have the glorious variety of names such as those uncovered in comments to my blog. Dermott Banana. Aaron. Sia. David Mark Edward Ingram. Zero (who enters his or her name as "Zero Blank". The "Blank" is silent). And from Skud's article, 3ric Johanson. That's the wrong way around. It's Google's job to follow our, perfectly legal, behaviour. This entire debacle has been dubbed "nymwars". This is but an early skirmish.

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19 thoughts on “To Google, we are data fodder, and I am an unperson

  1. Mark Duffett

    No apostrophes…doesn’t this take out most of Ireland as well? O’Dear.

  2. rachel612

    I tried to change my name to Spartacus, but they’re on to that. So I just changed my first name to Spartacus, leaving my surname intact. So far, so good. I shall leave it that way until suspended (when I will then cancel all my google accounts) or until this is resolved. Muppets.

  3. Jean

    Stilg- or should I call you Mr herrian?– no, perhaps not –it looks like this is yet another social media site people can avoid wasting their time on. Like all the others.
    Google was a good search engine when it started, but their targeted advertising, possibly developed by the same people who do the names policy you are angry about, makes the whole search function suspect.

    Type in “extistential malaise”

    Responses from Google will be something like:

    Buy “extistential malaise” on Ebay
    Lovely Russian girl “extistential malaise” wants to meet you
    and of course a link to that stupid wikipedia

    So why do you expect ANY of their services to represent anything other than American crap culture?

    kind regards
    (my real name)
    (or maybe not)

  4. Clytie

    (Possibly) Jean — Wikipedia and Wiktionary will at least give you a reasonable definition of both terms. 😉

    I am surprised that Google is being so clumsy about this. Perhaps enormous reach brings lack of focus. Like Facebook, they think so many people will use them (and thus be sellable products for data-mining) that it doesn’t matter if people are annoyed by them. Roll on Diaspora (an open-source, distributed social network currently in beta testing). Diaspora can keep your personal data only on your own computer, and it isn’t aimed at selling who you are.

    I am very concerned about this push for outing people online. If you have friends or family in a country with an oppressive government (and so many of us do), then expressing opinions under your own name may be legal in this country, but your friends/family will suffer in your place. Also, what about children online? It’s much safer for them to use a pseudonym.

    I once received death threats on a mailing list for women in computing. The person sending the threats objected to women being involved in anything but involuntary sex, which he advocated should be legal with any girl once puberty approaches. He threatened my life and that of my teenage daughter. I was relieved that he didn’t actually know who we were.

  5. Migraine

    No apostrophes, eh? Wankers.

    My name has an apostrophe in it, the result of an Irish heritage. It has caused no end of strife with computer systems, e-mail addresses, banks, Qantas … and I have contributed to this by arguing.

    But … it’s MY BLOODY NAME. My real name.

    And the apostrophe is a standard ASCII character. I have never heard a good reason why it should be left out of some list of allowable characters in some datafield – not ten or twenty years ago, not now.

    So – no Google + for me. Not under this name. Maybe under that Gmail account I’ve had for years. The one that isn’t under my real name, and that’s never been questioned …

  6. fozziewossie

    So you knew you would have a problem and then the problem happened – and then you are surprised about it? Surprised and angry enough about it that you would write an angry and abusive blog post – sounds like premeditation for me.

    When Google said Google+ is beta I think they really meant that it’s beta. Every hastily rolled out web application I’ve seen struggles with apostrophes and it’s standard practice for the first name and last name name field that cannot account for middle names, single names, multiple names, titles and the like. There’s major enterprise software that is out there right now with this problem.

    Google engineers are likely sitting in meetings right now deliberating over the best way to handle this naming challenge and the reason that they haven’t fixed it yet is that it’s not that easy to do properly. Hopefully by the time they come out of beta it will be. And then and only then you should join and start writing articles that have already been covered a thousand times else where on the web.

  7. Stilgherrian

    @fozziewossie: I knew that I would have a “problem” with it in the sense that at some stage I expected to get an enquiry about it. What I did not expect what the first communication to be suspension and as assumption that I was the one doing something wrong.

    While a few people have said “but it’s still beta”, getting the naming stuff right is pretty basic, and Google’s a well-cashed-up organisation with a decade’s experience as a global operator. To get it this wrong is simply shoddy.

    To be honest, I’d have been perfectly find if the first communication was an enquiry from Google to ask whether everything was as it should be. That’s how the vast majority of organisations have dealt with it over the past 30 years. If I’ve been the one to raise it with them, because a document was incorrectly prepared or whatever, then almost always they apologise for any inconvenience or offence caused.

    Google’s process was precisely the opposite of that, and so I calibrated my response equally opposite.

  8. fozziewossie

    @Stilgherrian Every blog, post, and tweet along these lines has been “I was just cut off”. As a technology journalist I still fail to see how you can be surprised and outraged about this.

    While I agree that Google should have got apostrophes in names right I still think the naming issue is a beta problem. This is exactly the type of thing that beta programs thrash out when real people start using a system. Google may be a well cashed up organisation with many years experience but what ever way you put it Google+ is still in beta.

  9. Gumby Roffo

    While I do get the “beta” argument I also don’t . I have been both a Alpha and beta tester on various platforms and quite a few games. This is not a beta problem its Alpha! Its a basic base construction of the interface and layout and its fail on a stick. It should have been picked up with the initial design testing at the chocolate factory ( unless all the employees fall into the 2 nym rule). Its as shoddy as websites that require more than 4 characters/numerals for a post code.

    Anyway as you can guess I can’t even register my pseudonym, first name fails. Disporia is looking god though!

  10. Chade

    “…still in beta” is a terrible, terrible excuse for something as completely and utterly trivial as dealing with names.

    You’d be in trouble at any serious software engineering firm that tried to pull that one on a client.

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