The Google+ identity crisis

October 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

I have a social media beachhead in China. I didn’t intend for this to happen but when a well known Chinese blogger, Isaac Mao, endorsed me on Google+ to his hundreds of followers, Google+ suddenly became my China social network.

Within 24 hours, over 200 Chinese bloggers had added me to their circles.

From recent experience, I can categorically say that Google Translate is a very useful tool under the circumstances. It enables me to dip into my Google+ stream to see the issues that are exercising Chinese netizens. But quite a number of my new contacts will engage with me in English, even graciously complimenting me on my elementary Chinese pinyin (Chinese written using Romanised script).

A few even helped me with this SMNZ post about the tug of war for information on the Chinese internet.

Because of the censorship environment in China, many Chinese netizens do not use their real identities. Many use pseudonyms which they are known by on Chinese social media networks like the dominant Sina Weibo platform or prefer pseudonymous anonymity. Many use anglicised names and colourful cartoon avatars. It is not too unlike what many Internet users do on this side of the Great Firewall.

But to Chinese netizens who are circumventing the mainland censorship environment that blocks many foreign websites and social media, including Google+, these external social networks represent a blue sky environment, a free space to network, pass information around and to express themselves beyond the reach of Chinese censors.

Since Google+ appeared in June as a possible challenger to Facebook in the social networking market, one of the sticking points with many social media users – in China and without – has been Google’s insistence on the real identities rule for its new sharing platform.

The Global Voices free speech advocacy website reported in September that a growing number of Google+ users and activists were angry the social network was requiring users to use their genuine names to create a Google profile. The network took plenty of heat for deleting people whose accounts didn’t seem ‘real’ and who could not or were unwilling to prove their official identity.

According to Penn Olson, hundreds of Chinese Google+ users even circulated this online letter pleading for a relaxing of the real identity policy. As the Penn Olson article says: “For some it’s a habit carried over from their Tencent QQ profiles, but for others it’s about having a degree of anonymity, for safety’s sake, to be able to engage in debates on sensitive topics in a country where free speech on every subject is not possible.”

The real identity rule, which is also one of Facebook’s criteria for joining, is designed to prevent trolls, spammers, brands and minors. Anyone who uses Tumblr and Twitter regularly will, by now, be pretty adept at spotting the ‘spambots’ and pornographers that solicit on those platforms.

Encouragingly, there are recent signs that Google+ is willing to bend a little on this issue. This is good news to those users who hide behind pseudonyms and anonymity because they need to. Remember that Gmail has been blocked in China since March this year and, since it was launched in June, so is Google+.

It is, therefore, welcome news to many that the murmurings within the Google+ establishment indicate the social network is reconsidering its position on anonymous users.

In an interview in August, Google+ executive Bradley Horowitz told Tim O’Reilly that the platform developers are aware of a big group of potential users who would prefer to use pseudonyms. “They’ve been vocal, passionate and loud and made wonderful arguments as to why that would be a great thing in the product. There’s no moral opposition to that happening.”

Horowitz says the Google+ developers have been made aware the stakes are very high for dissidents that need the protection of anonymity and he admitted the company got it wrong in the Violet Blue case. The San Francisco sex writer had her profile removed because Google+ suspected her of using a pseudonym, causing her to respond with this post.

“That’s our bad. We’re sorry and fixed that particular case and I’m sure there were others where we have gotten it wrong and that’s a process that needs improving,” Horowitz told O’Reilly.

Now that Google+ has thrown its doors wide open for business after several months of active field trials and technical tweaking where user numbers were capped by an invitation only process, we can now perhaps look forward to a clear policy shift on real identities.

But in the meantime, Eaglet, Werther, Vulcan, Aeolos, Volcano, Dolphin and many of my other Chinese friends may be pleased to know that the new social network’s softening attitude will allow them to continue to use of Google+ when they play outside China’s territorial internet.

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