Monday, July 18, 2011

Anonymity, pseudonymity and Google+:an idea to enhance privacy

I've been playing  with Google's new Google+ social network and on the whole I've been impressed. The network seems to combine the best aspects of Twitter and Facebook with a relatively easy to understand privacy model based on "circles". This model is meant to be an analogue of people's offline circles.

However, Google has decided that all profiles must be based on the person's real name which I believe breaks this analogue between online and offline circles and undermines some of the great "open-yet-private" model of Google+

Everyone has different personas depending on which circle they are currently interacting with, their work persona, social persona, family persona, etc. These personas are conveyed by verbal and physical cues when interacting with each persona. These cues cannot be easily replicated online because of the medium. People use pseudonyms to get around this problem, these pseudonyms are often linked to their real persona, but sometimes not. This is a fundamental difference between psudonymity and anonymity.

I use a pseudonym to interact on this blog and on twitter because this is the persona that I want to project to the internet. I interact with people using this persona and although with any quick searching someone could link my real name with my handle, it allows me to use a pseudonymous persona when acting as a public person on the internet. Conversely, my "private" persona, the one linked to my real name, is used to interact with people I know on a personal level.

Google+ conveniently has a privacy system that encourages the adding of people that you might interact with on the internet - not just those who you might know. This means that you're encouraged to add those that you have only ever interacted with pseudonymously which means they are now interacting with you under your real name - even though you have built your relationships under the pseudonym.

There may be many reasons why someone would like to keep those personas separate. For example, I don't want my real name to be searchable on the internet, but I'm happy enough to be found by people searching for my pseudonym - as it's public anyway.

I figure that the reason why Google is enforcing the "real name" policy is all about Search - more specifically providing customisable search results and also providing "endorsements" of results via the user's social relationships (ie. <name> shared this link in Google+ or <name> +1'd this). However, to people who have interacted with me via my pseudonym would find an endorsement by Czaxx more compelling than one by my real name (although the converse would be true for those in my "family" circle). Google+ would be enhanced if users could choose the persona - either real name or pseudonym - that interacts with which circle. For example, my Family circle would see my real name, but my Twitter circle would see my pseudonym - as would members of the public when seeing my +1's or my comments on public posts. Members of the public looking at endorsements by my pseudonym could then search for my other public posts, if they were so inclined (not that I'd expect anyone would care), to see if that endorsement is worth anything  (since a search for my real name would yield very little).

To allow the ability to choose which persona to use to interact with each circle would still fulfill Google's business goals for personalised search and it would also allow another layer of privacy and utility for Google+'s users.

1 comment:

  1. I have yet to fall in love with Google+ and even if I had, I would never voluntarily provide them with my real name.

    If my account is deleted because I don't use my real name ... well, easy come, easy go.


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