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!

9 thoughts on “Have Google ever met any foreigners?

  1. Even weirder (and unless they're doing G+ differently from all their other stuff) they don't use a database with fixed 'fields' as such. It's more a case of bunging a load of key/value pairs in the database and sorting out the logic in the application. So it ought to be *even easier* than adding some extra columns (famous last words there, of course).

  2. Personally, I think insisting on real names is a problem for a personal network, because there are loads of people who need to maintain privacy about their personal lives for one reason or another. That includes people whose governments may arrest them for speaking freely, gay people in conservative areas / careers, anyone who's been stalked (or physically threatened with a big knife, as did the ex who's sent me multiple and very unwanted messages on Friends Reunited), and people like me who are teachers and don't want students stumbling on information about their exes or hangovers. Insisting on having people's real names means that all those people either don't participate, or are put at risk, and I think excluding those people as a matter of policy sucks – in my view (though I accept that others disagree) that falls foul of 'don't be evil'. The only way I'm going to participate in a social network is if it doesn't require my real name.

  3. Ajay: Only if you have a lot of confidence in the operation and privacy of the Circles and how those features will be maintained as Google+ goes through successive code updates. Given the way Facebook has messed with people's privacy settings over time, IMHO anyone who has a lot to lose if their privacy isn't maintained would be naive to put their faith in Circles.

  4. That level of assurance of privacy may simply be impossible to combine with a determination to put lots of personal details about your life on line.

  5. I think I agree with Ajay here.

    A social networking site that works in the way Google+ works isn't – as far as I can see – an appropriate venue for someone who wishes to have an anonymous, online-only identity that doesn't disclose significant amounts of data and isn't traceable back to the real world, because your profile is inherently the sum of a great deal of information about you – whether your name's on it or not.

    If I've got a profile as Bob Pseudonym, and I say I like blogging, politics, 1990s indie music, drinking, literature and transport, and I'm friends with 10 of my real-life friends, then I'm traceable just as if I'd used my real name.

    Stalkers and students are only prevented from finding me by any privacy/blocking/invisibility features that the software might have – just as if I were on as John Band. If a person isn't comfortable relying on the network's privacy features to avoid the wrong kind of contact, then I can't see any point in their using the network at all: going on anonymously, not adding any friends and not listing their interests means someone won't get any benefit from it.

    On the other hand, people in that situation are ideally suited for Twitter, which is largely real-time, completely pseudonymous (untraceably so, if you register using an anonymous email account), and isn't determined by your 'likes' or by complex relations between groups of friends.

  6. going on anonymously, not adding any friends and not listing their interests means someone won’t get any benefit from it.I can't see that not filling in the interests field would entail a loss of benefits from Google+, and I think you're making extremely unrealistic assumptions about how easy it is to identify someone based on their friends. My students wouldn't be able to identify me based on my friends, because they won't know who my friends are, and the (hypothetical) people in a homophobic career or small town almost certainly wouldn't be able to identify the closeted gay person, because they won't know who that person's trusted friends are. An acquaintance of mine who was stalked managed to successfully avoid the stalker online by switching her journal name (she stopped using the old journal, and started using a different one – presumably the stalker thought she's just stopped posting on any online journal) but keeping most of the same friends. One's name is known to a vast number of people who don't know a significant amount of other information about one, and wouldn't be able to identify one without it.

  7. Yes, thinking about it I was exaggerating the ease of finding someone – you *can* in principle (if your friend's stalker had known somehow that she was still journaling, they could have found her), but it's enough of a pain in the arse that most people won't, especially when there's a good chance that any particular stalking attempt will find nothing. I stand corrected.

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