Anonymity and the Google+ Circle
I’ve been signed up with Google+ for a few weeks now and it seems like an interesting service. I’ll admit that I don’t use it as often as I use Twitter. That’s mainly for two reasons.
First of all, I can update Twitter via SMS message, Seesmic Desktop program, API-powered tweet from my blog, Twitter.com or a bunch of other sites/services. Google+ can be updated only from the Google+ website. Assuming Google has an API planned, the amount of third party tools supporting Google+ should skyrocket upon its release. Google has also been testing SMS updates, albeit in India which doesn’t help me.
The other reason I haven’t used Google+ much is more thorny. You see, on Twitter and here I go by “TechyDad.” When I first signed up for Internet services (decades ago), I didn’t really care about privacy and thus used my real name. After I became a father, though, and after B began TheAngelForever.com, I saw the value of anonymity (even partial anonymity).
Being “TechyDad” means that I can mention things in general without worrying that some stalker might track down where I live. And remember, I’ve had an Internet Stalker before. As worried as I was when the whole thing went down, I was comforted that it would be extremely tricky for her to pinpoint my address.
Proclaiming my real name to everyone via Google+ negates this anonymity. Had Google+ been around during my Stalker episode, I would have worried that said stalker would take my real name, run it through some phone listing/lookup tools and (even though we’re unlisted) find our home address. If someone who is even slightly unhinged finds that out, they might decide to pay you a visit. Harassment over the Internet is bad enough. Harassment that spills into real life is a whole different class of bad.
The thing is, though, Google could solve this easily. They already have a Nicknames field. Let people specify nicknames for themselves and assign those nicknames to circles. Then, let people decide whether or not those circles get to see the user’s real name.
Suppose John Smith has three circles: Family, College Buddies and Blogging. His family would likely want to see him as John Smith. His College Buddies could see him under the nickname “Dunk” (earned during a college basketball game) but would also be able to see his real name. His Blogging circle members, meanwhile, would only see him under the nickname “Dunkers Shame” which he uses to blog about various embarrassing things he’s done in his life. His real name would remain hidden to everyone in this circle.
Under this setup, everyone wins. Google would know people’s real names. People who want complete anonymity could hide their name from everyone except Google. People who want partial anonymity could have multiple identities for multiple circles.
There are bugs to work out, of course. For example, what if one of John Smith’s College Buddies is also in his Blogging circle. Would he see updates by “Dunkers Shame” or “Dunk”? Would his real name be visible? Would we need to set up a circle hierarchy? (Name preferences from Circle 1 override name preferences from Circle 2.) I’m sure Google could solve this dilemma.
Until they set up some kind of pseudonym/nickname feature, though, and let people hide their true names, I just don’t see myself using Google+ much.