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.
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.
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.