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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.


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. Stilgherrian

    @fozziewossie: Well, my anger was genuine. I feel like I should parse the difference between anger, fury, rage, outrage etc… but I was simply angry at how poor the process was.

    As for surprise, well, I’d figured Google had had enough time to at least fix the wording of the dialogs, iron out the people process a bit, even if there wasn’t time to reprogram things. I’d vaguely seen that people were having problems with the “real names” policy, but when I finally saw how poorly written it was, how inconsistent and just plain wrong… I was astounded that a global brand could be responsible for such a piece of shit.

    As Gumby Roffo says, this was an alpha or even pre-alpha mistake.

  2. Socratease

    Nothing that the Google mob does surprises me. Let’s see how Phuc Yew sits with their name police.

  3. green-orange

    I believe the system is based on Unix.

    Spaces and apostrophes are reserved character codes in Unix.
    They can be included in names, but then that might create problems with sub-application processes that use these character codes.

    Unix also recognises capitals, so capitals in the middle of a word will cause errors.

  4. Keith Kube

    This is not an ‘in beta’ problem. It is a deliberate design issue.

    Removing your access to other google products because they don’t like your public name, and insist that you use an ‘acceptable real life’ name in google plus goes well beyond ‘beta’ and into deliberate social engineering.

    I run a blog for a popular online game using “blogger” (a google product), with about 500 regular readers. I will not sign up to google+ because I put access to my blog, gmail, google docs and ‘reader’ at risk. Another blogger that did sign up to google+ lost access to her entire google account.

  5. Kevin Tyerman

    To redefine a lame old joke:

    Oh Really? No O’Reilly.

  6. Licia

    Yesterday W3C published an exhaustive article on name-related design issues, Personal names around the world (How do people’s names differ around the world, and what are the implications of those differences on the design of forms, databases, ontologies, etc. for the Web?). Wondering if it is a coincidence that it came out right now…

  7. Richard Cosgrove

    I hate to let facts get in the way of complaints, but…

    _’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”.
    Wrong –,

    _’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”.’_

  8. Stilgherrian

    @green-orange: You’re barking well up the wrong tree there. While various punctuation marks do have special meaning in operating systems like Unix and programming languages, as they do in English for that matter, you can still use them quite happily as part of the data manipulated by programs. Otherwise you’d never be able to use them in word processor documents or, indeed, in comments on this website — which runs on a Linux system, a species of Unix.

    @Keith Kube: The evidence seems to be that this Google Profiles / Google+ idiocy only affects some of those services. Kirrily Robert has a list. But yes, some of those you want to use are on the list.

  9. Miss Kai'

    I’ll see you and raise you. Not only do I have only one name [two syllables, four characters pronounced ‘kaigha’] but one of its four characters is an apostrophe. The full stop cure you spoke of doesn’t seem to work for me so my latest ploy has been to place my preferred salutation in the spot usually designated as being for the ‘first’ name as evidenced here by Crikey’s requirement for two names on registering.