Tag Archives: cultural insensitivity

Have Google ever met any foreigners?

The World’s Unsurprisingly Fastest-Growing Networking Platform, Google+, is getting stick from various corners for its naming policy. This formally restricts you to “Use your full first and last name in a single language“.

The idea behind it is sensible. G+ aims to be a combination of a professional network like LinkedIn, and a personal network like Facebook, with ‘circles’ ensuring your clients can’t see your Tequila Night photos and that your girlfriend’s mates don’t get spammed with your articles on social media marketing.

In both those cases, the connections and relationships that people have become meaningful *because* they use their real names. It’s one of the reasons why Facebook, despite now having 750 million users encompassing many utter idiots, hasn’t descended into the kind of horrible pseudonymous anarchy found on MySpace or Bebo. So banning people from calling themselves thinks like HotBloke1988 or BieberFan1997 is probably a good thing.

Similarly, and also sensibly, Google wants to have proper segmentation between users, interests, brands. This is a model which Facebook took some years to implement properly, leading to the occasional whinge and/or viral petition from silly people when their inappropriately-set-up page gets taken down because it’s using a personal profile to advertise a product or political cause. Part of the reason for Google to be so hardcore about enforcing real names in the initial roll-out is to make sure that people understand from Day 1 that You Can’t Do That, and need to set up the proper sort of page for whatever you’re trying to spruik.

While I understand that this annoys some pseudonymous writers, I think they’re a sacrifice worth making in the short term to ensure that Google+ starts and continues as a place based around actual relationships and trust, like Facebook and LinkedIn. In the long term, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t adopt brand identities and share in G+ that way – there’s no real difference between ‘Skud’ and ‘TechCrunch’, in the sense that they’re both content sources defined entirely by what they publish online.

However, the real problem with this part of the G+ roll-out is the massively ham-fisted way in which it deals with anyone whose name doesn’t fit the Anglo-Saxon convention of Firstname Middlename1 Middlename2 Familyname. Which accounts for, erm, almost everyone in China, a sizeable proportion of the population of India, and everyone in Spanish-speaking and Russian-speaking countries. And would have been completely avoidable if even *one* developer from *one* of these countries had worked on the G+ project.

If you’re starting a new social network, it’s straightforward to build a database that has 12 name fields instead of 2. This allows you to account for any combination of names in any language, while also allowing your users to select which of those names are displayed in the default profile, and in which order.

So a Chinese person with a Western nickname could write their name as Lee (Familyname) Wan-Wing (Firstname) Robert (Nickname), and then choose to display their name as “Lee Wan-Wing” or “Robert Lee” depending on their preferred convention. The default to display would be Firstname Familyname, but any others would count. Similarly, a Spanish person could enter their name as Javier (Firstname) Garcia (Familyname) Lopez (Matronymic), while a Russian would be Mikhail (Firstname) Sergeyevich (Patronymic), and a South Indian would be Prashant (Name) Kumar (Patronymic). This would make all names traceable and transparent, while also ensuring that everyone gets the opportunity to pick something that’s culturally appropriate.

Given that Google employs 10,000 staff outside of the US, including many Indians and many Chinese people, it seems bizarre that this concern doesn’t appear to even have arisen during the G+ roll-out. Differences in database design formed by the use of English versus non-English users have been a massive concern in Internet circles for decades, as highlighted most obviously by the time taken to allow non-ASCII characters for domain names. Any multinational company has to deal with the “names don’t map onto English names” problem for its own staff, even if its customers are largely based in the west (surely there can’t be a software company in the world that doesn’t employ South Indians?).

The only explanation I can think of is that it simply didn’t occur to the senior managers in charge of Google+ that different people worldwide might have different naming concepts. And that none of the less senior foreigners raised the concept. God Bless America!