IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

If Google+ is an 'identity service,' what's Facebook?

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt kicked up more dust in the Google+ "Nym Wars," saying that the nascent social network is primarily an "identity service" to help build other Google products.

"Fundamentally, [Google+] depends on people using their real names if they're going to build future products that leverage that information," NPR's Andy Carvin wrote in a post on — of course — Google+. He was paraphrasing Schmidt's comments at a Q&A Carvin conducted at the Edinburgh International TV Festival recently. Schmidt didn't say what these future products might be, but given Google+'s stridently enforced "real name" policy, targeted advertising is a good bet.

Shortly after Google+ launched, and the early adopters rushed in, Google conducted a culling of the herd, axing the profiles of anyone who appeared to be using a pseudonym. Thus the "Nym Wars" (as in "pseudonym") began, with tech pundits, privacy activists and everyday Internet users debating the merits (or lack thereof) of being anonymous on the Internet. The world is far from shutting its collective cake hole on this topic, despite the low probability that Google will give in, but there's still one word that's mysteriously missing from the conversation: Facebook.

Sure, last week Facebook revamped its privacy settings, making it easier for users to limit who gets to see what, in a way that greatly resembles the privacy controls of Google+. Long before Google+, however, Facebook required users to use their "real" name, unceremoniously dumping those with even a whiff of a pseudonym. For example, the actually-named Kate Middletons booted from Facebook shortly before the royal wedding.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation made the case for pseudonyms, including a few pre-Internet examples, in its post The Case for Pseudonyms, which reads in part:

There are myriad reasons why individuals may wish to use a name other than the one they were born with. They may be concerned about threats to their lives or livelihoods, or they may risk political or economic retribution. They may wish to prevent discrimination or they may use a name that’s easier to pronounce or spell in a given culture.

"Regarding people who are concerned about their safety, [Schmidt] said G+ is completely optional," Carvin wrote of Schmidts' comments. "No one is forcing you to use it. It's obvious for people at risk if they use their real names, they shouldn't use G+. Regarding countries like Iran and Syria, people there have no expectation of privacy anyway due to their government's own policies, which implies (to me, at least) that Schmidt thinks there's no point of even trying to have a service that allows pseudonyms."

Schmidt has a history of pooh-poohing privacy, famously telling CNBC's Mario Bartiromo in 2009,  "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."

Soon after that comment, Google blackballed CNET because it published personal information about Schmidt's private life found via Google. Since then, it seems Schmidt hasn't much changed. According to Carvin, Schmidt also said "the Internet would be better if we knew you were a real person rather than a dog or a fake person. Some people are just evil and we should be able to ID them and rank them downward."

This "we mostly want your real name so everyone will be polite on the Internet and not because we want to monetize your precious, precious identity," is Facebook's (paraphrased) spin as well.  

"I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away," Randi Zuckerberg said at a Marie Claire social media panel discussion in July. Cyberbullying is the bastard child of anonymity, at least according to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's sister, who until recently also served as the social network's marketing director. "People behave a lot better when they have their real names down. I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors," she said.

Your own anecdotal experience reading sometimes-vile words in the Facbook comment sections on sites such as should tell you this spin is a simplification of a complex problem. If not, how about some science?

Internet pundit dahah boyd, who spells her name all lower case and is a fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society and researcher at Microsoft Research New England makes some interesting points in her piece, Real Names" policies are an abuse of power:

"Over and over again, people keep pointing to Facebook as an example where 'realnames' policies work.," writes. "This makes me laugh hysterically. One of the things that became patently clear to me in my fieldwork is that countless teens who signed up to Facebook late into the game chose to use pseudonyms or nicknames. What’s even more noticeable in my data is that an extremely high percentage of people of color used pseudonyms as compared to the white teens that I interviewed. Of course, this would make sense…

The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalized by systems of power. “Real names” policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people. These ideas and issues aren’t new (and I’ve even talked about this before), but what is new is that marginalized people are banding together and speaking out loudly. And thank goodness.

There is one stand-out difference between the "real name" claims of Google+ and Facebook. Before devolving into "only dirty people use pseudonyms" rhetoric, Schmidt gets a +1 for saying straight up that social media's chief concern is monetizing your information, not so much about you.

More on the annoying way we live now:

Helen A.S. Popkin goes blah blah blah about the Internet. Tell her to get a real job on Twitter and/or FacebookAlso, Google+.