It’s now been a few months since the launch of Google+, and it’s now fairly clear that it’s not a mortal threat to Facebook, or even Orkut. I think it’s worth thinking a bit about why Google+ isn’t doing better, despite its many advantages. Obviously, Google wants to link Google+ profiles to things in the physical world that matter to its paying customers: advertisers. To me, the most interesting part is how the real name issue acted as a lens, focusing attention on Google’s plans for the service, the horse-trade Google is asking people to make, and Google’s weighting of a communications platform versus having an online Disneyland where nothing offensive is allowed.
There’s a lot that Google gets right in Google+, most notably the idea of circles. Circles could be a great way for Google to mirror how people interact, and let them present different things to different sets of people, under their control. It’s a simple, understandable metaphor.
But Google hasn’t derailed Facebook, because Google shot themselves in the foot at launch. That’s why TechCrunch has articles like “Raise Your Hand If You’re Still Using Google+.” Let’s be clear, this was an own-goal, and it was avoidable. I know of at least two Googlers who left because they felt Google wasn’t living up to its own values in the internal debate. Google has put their desire to have a real-name driven internet ahead of their user’s desires. Maybe a free name change would make that ok? But it’s not ok, and name changes won’t make it ok.
Within days of Google+ being launched, the positive press was being driven out by stories about the “Nymwars.” A lot of it revolved around Google having claims that your displayed name could be what people called you, but as Skud clearly documented, that was a bizarre and bureaucratic lie. But documenting up your “government name” isn’t enough, as people like 3ric have documented. (It’s pronounced “Three-Rick,” and that’s how I’ve always known him.)
As bad as it is to tell people what they can write on the “Hello, My Name is” badges, it’s worse to be inconsistent and upsetting around something as personal as a name, or to tell someone that a Capulet they’ll no longer be. The very worst part is that Google managed to do it at the wrong time.
What Google did by focusing attention on “real names” when they did was to take attention from the really cool aspects of Google+, and draw it to an emotionally laden set of battles that they can’t win. They managed to calm the waters a bit by declaring that they’d “support” other names, leading to this awesome bit of politically-incorrect-calling-bullshit: “EFF declares premature victory in Nymwars.”
Another way to see this is Google knowingly burned an awful lot of goodwill with one of their key communities, techies. The way that they did it hampered Google+ during its launch, preventing it from getting the momentum it probably deserved.
They did all that in order to get one unique name for everyone. Oops, wait, there’s lots of people named Mike Jones. They did it to get name that links to “the real world you.” They wanted to get a commercial advantage for Google, at the expense of people’s ability to choose how they present themselves.
It hasn’t worked out, and yesterday, Google announced the next set of changes. (EFF has some comments in “Google+ and Pseudonyms: A Step in the Right Direction, Not the End of the Road.”)
Most interesting to me, Yonatan Zunger, Chief Architect of Google+ says:
We thought this was going to be a huge deal: that people would behave very differently when they were and weren’t going by their real names. After watching the system for a while, we realized that this was not, in fact, the case. (And in particular, bastards are still bastards under their own names.) We’re focusing right now on identifying bad behaviors themselves, rather than on using names as a proxy for behavior.
That’s gotta hurt.
The key takeaway: Google spent a huge amount of goodwill on an attractive, but untested idea, which Yonatan summarizes as “Bastards won’t be bastards under their real name.” (As an aside, there’s a lean startup lesson there, but Google has yet to pivot.) You shouldn’t make the same mistake.
Names are personal. They shouldn’t be subject to policies for vague, untested reasons. They shouldn’t be subject to policies at all unless your idea is even better than Google can do. Don’t make your new thing fail by sacrificing it on the altar of real names.