Why Google's "Real Name" Policy is a Good Thing

Yesterday Google announced a piece of information that frankly, I disagree with. When the company first launched Google+ three years ago, they required all users to use their real names on the platform. They slowly extended this rule outward into their other services like YouTube as they marched forward on their campaign to make Google+ the centre of all things Google.

When I began to think about it more, as the real name policy was something I never really gave much thought to until the announcement, I realized that I actually really liked it, and that's for a number of reasons. Reading through the comments on the official announcement, I could tell that I wasn't alone in that feeling as many other users expressed similar sentiments. The first thought I had was that if I wanted to look up someone, or some information on someone, I could just enter their real name into the search field and find exactly what I was looking for. Before this, and now, I would have to search for their online handle, which often differs across different platforms, making it yet another bit of data I would have to track (much like e-mail addresses). You can change your online handle as much as you want, but not your real name.

The real name policy also helped to create a better web in my mind. When Google first introduced the new comments system on YouTube, largely everyone was pissed, but I was excited. If it meant that forcing a change potentially for the better could help foster actual conversation between people rather than the nonsense we had, I was all for it. And the new comment system actually kind of worked. In the end, it kind of made YouTube comments  a little more tolerable, given that people couldn't necessarily hide behind a false username.

"Before Twitter, texting, and Instagram, Flickr and Tumblr, the weapon of war was a slam book—a spiral notebook with some miserable kid's name written on the cover, passed among frenemies who filled page after page with nasty remarks and devastating criticism. Eventually the book was tossed or lost, and the kid could recover. But with social media, there's no respite, no half-life for rumors and innuendo. On a whim, you can take your target out with the press of a button and sleep soundly. "There is 100 percent a lack of empathy on the Internet. You don't have to deal with the natural consequences of your behavior," says Jamie Howard, PhD, a clinical psychologist at New York's Child Mind Institute. "You say things you wouldn't say, and your conduct is harsher." Empathy develops when we receive cues from in-person interaction—you say something mean to someone, you see her cry, you feel bad. Technology can obstruct empathy's development and foster detachment." Holly Millea, Elle 2014

And that's the problem, the big double edged sword of the online world - anonymity. Personally, whenever and wherever I can, I try and use my real name as my online handle for a number of reasons I find particularly compelling. It lets people know exactly who I am, and it's a uniform, universal handle for myself across Reddit, Twitter Instagram, Google+ etc, making it super easy to keep track of and maintain, (and is one less thing I have to remember myself). The biggest reason, however, is that it helps me control myself online. There have been far too many occasions where I have been ready to reply with something incendiary purely because I was frustrated in the heat of the moment, but then realizing that the Internet is forever, and that it would be forever tied to my name, therefore my offline self, I stopped short. And when I do choose to comment, I remain directly accountable for both my words and actions online, and that is something I have always advocated for - being the same person you are online as you are offline.

However, that's not to say that I don't see the value in remaining anonymous online. There are communities across sites like Reddit and Tumblr, in which people get together because they feel a distinct sense of freedom and safety which they otherwise might not get by using their real names, and in those cases, anonymity is a great tool. However, like everything, it will, and has been, wildly abused. Rather than allowing for the best, most positive interaction, people are rewarded for the most interaction, and that's a distinct problem that the real name policy directly addressed. That's not to say using your real name prevents you from being a total moron - there are plenty of examples everywhere you look.

Personally, I feel like this is largely several huge steps backwards, and is something I wish Google hadn't bent on. However, I wouldn't be surprised if this, at least at some level, had something to do with the ridiculous "Right to be Forgotten" nonsense going on in Europe.