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Everyone on all sides of the G+ realnames controversy agrees that there are cases the present set of rules aren't handling well, even if they differ on which cases are the most important ones. Here's a modest proposal: let's not try solving all of them at once, if for no reason than that attempting that would lead us into endless and possibly unresolvable philosophical wrangles.

Instead, I suggest a less ambitious program of slicing off corner cases that can be solved at low cost first, and deferring the tougher ones until we can use that experience to revise our evaluations of cost/benefit. I have a particular one in mind.

There's a felt need out there for people to be able to at least claim long-term aliases or nicknames by which they are better known than by their legal names. Two exemplars that have come up often are Skud (aka Kirrily Roberts) and Lady Gaga (aka Stephanie Germanotta). And I'll admit I'd like to allow people to reference me as "ESR" if they wish.

These are transparent handles. They don't conceal anything; there is no intent in them to obscure identity or disclaim responsibility. There shouldn't be any ethical issue about supporting them for either anonymity advocates or transparency advocates.

I think G+ could solve this problem relatively easily. Here's how. Add a form to apply for an alias. Once the alias is registered, it would become usable as a + reference and discoverable by name search. Limit of three per customer to prevent spamming of the namespace. Well, N for some small N, anyway.

Aliases should be challengeable on grounds of non-uniqueness, though, so I couldn't claim "Eric" and Lady Gaga couldn't claim "Stephanie". They should also be challengeable on grounds of offensiveness, so we don't get Heywood Jablowme or SexyChic69. (I'm no prude, but vulgar handles lower the tone. Take those somewhere else.)

In general, nicknames should be considered a curated namespace rather than first-come-first-served. In case of challenge, the dispute gets bumped to a human to be decided by common-sense rules that Google can develop over time without having to specify in advance.

This does mean that famous people like Lady Gaga (or less famous ones like Skud and myself) would in some sense get preferential treatment. But I think this is what we all actually want out of such a system. Do we really want anyone who isn't Stephanie Germanotta to be able to claim "Lady Gaga" and keep it? The only sensible answer is "no" - and that means human judgment about the claimant's reputation will be required.

This proposal doesn't solve the hard problems about anonymity, nor the internationalization problems with single-word names and the like. It's not intended to. But by isolating one chunk of the anonymity/identity problem on G+, maybe it will reduce the heat and disputation around the others.
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79 comments
 
How would this change anything, really? They already have an "other names" field. If they don't search on that, what's it for?
 
Is the "other names" actually used for anything or is it unconnected?
 
The WELL had a good system for this 20 years ago - everyone's real name was availabe, and everyone could have a pseudonym - in fact, you could invent a pseudonym for a specific post.
 
It's used when you search for someone using the "Find people" box at the top of the page -- for an example, search for "Cadell Blaidd Du," which is one of my SCA names. It won't pop up in the auto-complete box, but if you search on it you will find my profile. But trying to link to me by typing "+Cadell Blaidd Du" won't work.
 
I was just going to query that, there is an 'other names' section on profiles as well, but also a 'nickname' space which say it may be used by other Google services, why it couldn't be tied in i don't know, maybe it will in the future...
 
"Other names" may be visible to name search, but it doesn't create + aliases. So, though I have noted that I am sometimes known as ESR, you can't say "+ESR" and get me.

Baby steps. One subproblem at a time....
 
I think part of the hysteria so to speak is that really, Google got so many things correct in a giant leap that the straggling smaller issues are more apparent and visible. In context, what appear to be rather large issues to be resolved are so very minor.
 
True enough, they have done very well quite early on so people are trying to positively tackle any issue that needs some work/ alteration. I'm sure it's being debated in the office somewhere at the moment.
 
+Trevor Schadt, I don't think that actually works. I just tried searching for "Cadell Blaidd Du" and you do not come up, but searching on your name does.
 
A neat, elegant solution ESR. But agreed, there are still many things that need sorting out...
 
You proposal can be thought of as personal trademarks.
 
I haven't been able to find anyone via an 'Other names' search, might just be a point of reference for people looking at profiles for the time being, but regardless of how it stands now, ESR's suggestions make perfect sense as far as I can see.
 
The problem with taking baby steps is that all too often the first step becomes the "solution", and the problem never goes away.
 
For me it's pretty simple. Google should not be in the business of dictating what people do or don't decide to call themselves online.
 
Absolutely. The second category that I would like to see solved is alternate names that do not have to be unique. The obvious application of that is for the large number of married women who have taken their husbands' surnames. However, it could easily apply to people who a known by a common, non-unique nickname in place of a first name.
 
More broadly, ESR's proposal is analogous to a "common law" system where the law evolves incrementally by precedent.
 
+Peter da Silva You say "The problem with taking baby steps is that all too often the first step becomes the "solution", and the problem never goes away."

This is true. But if the alternative is no solution at all, because several contending sides are entrenched in incompatible positions, the baby step may be preferable to none at all.
 
Seems like having "just a little" gun control to me.
 
The opaque nyms are needed though, if your common name is gendered there is no point hiding ones gender. Given that google recognizes that hiding one's gender is a legitimate use case this means that opaque nyms are also legitimate.

 
+Eric Raymond why would these aliases have to be unique? While it is hard to imagine a second Lady Gaga, there could be multiple people with legit claims to ESR. (Just as there are multiple people with the real name of John Smith)
 
There seem to be multiple problems that are mentioned here. One is uniqueness of a "handle", and the other is the use of nicknames that people are recognized by. The handles in Google+ are numeric IDs rather than human-readable strings, so we're trusting in search to find people. We don't have an obvious mapping from handle to URL, other than through search. If you take the example of "Robert Morris", we probably both think of the same person. Fewer people know that Robert Morris had a father with a pretty interesting career and shared the name with his son, and I used to work at a place where the director of the Lab was also named Robert Morris. We deal with collisions in this namespace through social context, and personalized search should be able to help with this. The problem is even thornier with trademarks (is Lady Gaga a trademark?).

I saw a field for "nickname" on my profile but I didn't fill it out and I really don't know what it does. We might want to use this more prominently to satisfy those people who prefer to be recognized and referred to by their nickname. Some people are clearly better known by their nickname than their legal name (e.g., Skud).

I really like your comment that we should carve off small chunks of the problem and try to solve them. I haven't seen a thorough treatment of the issues yet, and it seems to be like a hydra.
 
I thought "other names" should do it, too. ln -s not working for that?
 
"Why would these aliases have to be unique?" Because they'd fail as + references otherwise, I think. Besides, do you really want someone other than Stephanie Germanotta claiming to be "Lady Gaga"? Me, I wouldn't even be happy with anyone but Kirrily Roberts claiming to be "Skud".
 
Huh? + References don't have to be unique.
 
I don't think it's necessary for pseudonyms to be unique, and if someone has had the nickname "Lady Gaga" since before Lady Gaga was famous, there's no reason she shouldn't be able to use that nickname here. If you then search on Lady Gaga, you social graph then determines the order of your search results: most people will see "the" Lady Gaga (as determined by follower count) as the top hit, but if you have a bunch of friends who all follow some other Lady Gaga, that'll weight the search results. Google, of course, has unparalleled expertise at solving this sort of problem.
 
+Peter da Silva I know you're trying to poke me by saying 'Seems like having "just a little" gun control to me.', but I refuse to be rattled. Baby steps towards gun control are different in intention and effect because right away they collide with fundamental value choices. My proposal doesn't; it's designed to be value-neutral and helpful to people on all sides of the question.
 
"if someone has had the nickname "Lady Gaga" since before Lady Gaga was famous, there's no reason she shouldn't be able to use that nickname here."

I think this is just an argument about the resolution protocol the human referee should apply in case of a challenge.

Your idea about weighting by social network is clever, but it has a premise I'm doubtful of. In my social circles nicknames don't have the kind of continuity that would be required for social weighting to give the "right" result.
 
Just trying to illustrate what your proposal looks like to a significant part of the online community.

Some people consider the ability to interact online without identifying yourself as important a right as the 2nd amendment. It's seen as a fundamental part of extending the 1st amendment into cyberspace. Any kind of baby steps that don't recognize that are exactly as "value neutral" as "just a little gun control". They, right away, collide with fundamental value choices.
 
Why would you need a resolution protocol? Google deals with name conflicts all the time. It's their core business. They have a resolution algorithm to deal with it.
 
Real names are currently the only thing you can use + with and uniqueness isn't a problem. When I say +John Lewis G+ correctly choses the right John Lewis out of multiple on G+.
 
+Peter da Silva - The point of Google+ is to have a space where there isn't anonymity. An experiment perhaps to see if a better network evolves than what happened with MySpace and Facebook, and even Twitter - where spammers end up polluting everything.
 
Names as well impact on fundermental value choices. There exists a right to "Name, Identity and nationality" further more control over one's name is a basic issue of personal autonomy, if one doesn't own there own idenity what does one own?


 
+Brian we already had the experiment with forced real ids to stop spammers, it was called Facebook.

 
+Peter da Silva I understand that, you say, some people consider anonymity a fundamental right. How are their interests harmed by my proposal?

I'm not publishing it as an excuse for Google to avoid doing anything else, if that's what you're worrying about. Aliases are orthogonal to anonymity; a logical next step might be a bit you can set that means "conceal real name and make me visible only by declared aliases".
 
Hmm interesting, if I type +ESR then I get +Eric Raymond but that seems to be a result of his email address, rather than a nickname field - and, more importantly, it displays as "+Eric Raymond" not as "+ESR".

I agree that they shouldn't have to be globally unique, and that only some very famous people should have reserved globally unique names (+Lady Gaga can only be one person, especially as that's probably trademarked). For instance +po8crg should probably only get me but only because no-one else has ever used it, but any of the common shortenings of Richard should be available to any Richard that wants to accept those as a name - so +Rick Gadsden or +Rich Gadsden should be capable of getting me (two different social circles) - but +Dick Gadsden shouldn't, because I have spent many years refusing to acknowledge that shortening.

I guess as an Eric, you don't have to deal with those sorts of shortenings, but there are quite a few of us that don't really have a canonical form of our first name (sure, the full version in formal usage). I know several Williams who answer to Will and to Bill as well as William, at least one Thomas who also answers to Tom and whose parents called him Tommy, and so on.
 
+Brian Corbino - Facebook is already that experiment. We don't need to repeat it, we already know how it turns out.

What?

Pseudonymous accounts are against Facebook's ToS already. If they can't keep up, don't forget they have a significantly parger user base.
 
+Eric Raymond "I'm not publishing it as an excuse for Google to avoid doing anything else, if that's what you're worrying about." Yes, I understand your intentions are good. I hope you understand the problem with good intentions, and why it's not your intentions that I'm concerned about.
 
+Peter da Silva Obviously they don't, because I know people with pseudonymous accounts. There's apparently no checking.
 
I know people with pseudonymous accounts on Facebook who have been kicked off. There are people who go around in vigilante packs reporting them, and they know how to get them taken down. If your friends haven't been taken down, then they haven't come to the attention of these groups yet.
 
+Eric Raymond I disagree with the need for uniqueness. My name is unusual, but not unique. In fact, at least one of my doppelgangers can also be found on other social networks. What is needed is a method of disambiguating non-unique names. G+ is already allowing non-unique real names.
 
Why do we need to take away anonymity and noms de plume on the Internet when it is just fine everywhere else in meatspace? Why this war on anonymity? Anonymity is protected speech in the real world, why not on the Internet?
 
If only Sherry Turkle was here to add her two cents.
 
+Eric Raymond Sounds like you wish G+ to have a mini™ for names, a namemark…
+Dale Gulledge the disambiguation is your avatar and the employment byline on the search list.
 
+Eric Raymond: Actually, "+esr" works for me if I type it slow it enough. This is probably because your e-mail address is in my Gmail contacts, though, and probably wouldn't work for those that don't. Anyway, this debate is as old as the ability for people to talk online. BBSes seemed to divide between "real names" only, "real names and aliases" and there were even a few that were "aliases only". You know what kind of the boards those were. Ahem. :) Anyway, I like your proposal, and while I think it will help some, I'm sure there will still be plenty of very vocal people who will not be happy.
 
Sounds like a sensible interim solution--and for everyone's reference, the ability to use +esr is in fact user-dependent; Eric doesn't show up on my list of +esr's.
 
+John Drinkwater You're right about disambiguation already existing. However, for a lot of people with newly created accounts on G+, there isn't enough information yet. It depends somewhat on how common your name is.
 
For more info about what's really happening with names, check out +Matt Cutts - he's the head of the Google Webspam team and has reshared a few posts from people in the know - and there are some specific references to aliases, and what you can do right now.
 
Why is G+ insisting on real names, but not real profile photos?

....I just thought I'd muddy the waters.
 
please don't howl at the moon for the moon may hear and bark back… ;)
 
I too don't see what this does that "other names" doesn't. It doesn't solve the problems for people who don't want to connect the name on their government IDs with their established online identities, often because they face professional or personal risks from doing so; +***** is in a better position than many in that regard. And positioning this as "value-neutral" is part of the problem: it assumes that the neutral position is one where a name that (looks like it) is found on a US government ID is ok by default, and others aren't. If, by contrast, you mean that the alias could have its own existence, and that users could choose "don't publicly connect Name 1 with Alias 2, and allow them to have separate profiles," then that would be a big step forward--or anyway, back towards the status quo ante, where I could have my pseudonym as my public face and then use my legal name to, for example, pay for services (Google Checkout).
 
additionally, about the pseudonym issue and abuse (Google concerned about people acting uncouth behind a veil of anonymity)... the android market is able to police itself relatively well - its "open" and malware does raise its head from time to time, but the community reacts to it and it gets expelled

why can't the same be the case on G+??
 
Instead of trying to move nicknames from the 'Decentralized and human-meaningful' side of zooko's triangle to the 'Secure and human-meaningful' side, it might be more useful to look at work done on petname systems.
 
The problem with this approach is that it requires human beings to do the verification and approval steps as there is no clear way to automate the process. Human beings are expensive. Google is, therefore, unlikely to implement the plan for cost reasons alone.
 
+Jack William Bell Right. Part of the challenge is to design protocols that allow the conflict-detection process to be crowdsoured so Google's admins aren't stuck with constant needle-in-haystack problems. That's why my proposal requires a challenge from a user before an alias is contested. Of course the user could be an admin wearing his user hat; the point is that a challenge-based process will scale better.
 
+Eric Raymond Crowd sourcing does solve the cost issue for Google, but the devil is in the details. As you say, ". . . the challenge is to design protocols that allow the conflict-detection process to be crowdsoured so Google's admins aren't stuck with constant needle-in-haystack problems."

If G+ had a clear and open API we could experiment with various ideas now and come up with something workable, which Google could later appropriate and move into the G+ infrastructure. In the current case, however, we are stuck with Google doing the design and implementation internally. I am guessing they won't come up with something that meets all your criteria. I'm further guessing that it will be slow in arriving and flawed in design from a user POV.

Of course I am a pessimist about most things involving large corporations. Come to think of it, I am a pessimist about anything involving large groups with top-down decision-making systems.
 
I would propose an alternative model where not you but your contacts would be allowed to refer to you by the alias they choose for you. In such a way your alias could have a weight dependent on both the number of people who refer to you with that alias, and network of the person who is looking for a given alias.
 
Sai, I see a lot of demands and exhortations there and not a lot of fixes. If you want these features, why aren't you proposing protocols to address the known problems I and others have been pointing out?

It's just childish to yell "Waaah! Do what we want!" without acknowledging that the choices have costs everyone is going to have to deal with. I'm disappointed that you've chosen to utter a rant rather than an engineering design, and it leaves me with less sympathy for your agenda than I started with.
 
+Eric Raymond it doesn't read like rant to me, the suggestions are at "Better ways to address the underlying issues". The rest is mostly a definition of the scope of the problem.
 
This is a really interesting proposal, but I'm not sure it works for everything. I often go by 'foxxtrot' online, and my Google Profile lists it as a nickname. It's my gmail account, and I've got it in a lot of places all over the Internet.

But not everywhere. And who is to say that my claim to 'foxxtrot' is more valid than the person who owns foxxtrot@yahoo.com, or the 'foxxtrot' account on DeviantArt? I know I feel my claim is most legitimate here, but odds are the others would disagree.
 
I think it's a great idea to have names registered to a person, eg Lady Gaga, could prove that it's her, so be the 'official' lady gaga, whereas some girl who used Lady Gaga on a BBS back in the day could have it in her nickname field, but not as registered.
 
+Sai . Nonunique nyms could work as you describe for me. But they'd be be a poor fit for the Lady Gaga case, and probably even for the Skud case. And I don't think pageranking would really address the issue you brought up, which is that "ESR" might be a different reference in different social networks, because pageranking would give it the same referent everywhere.

I don't think this inconsistency is a superficial one. I've seen you and others flapping back and forth between prescriptions that imply nym nonuniqueness and others that imply that there is at any given time a unique most-privileged holder of a nym that doesn't vary by social affinity (like using pagerank to disambiguate). You're trying to have it both ways because either choice has consequences you find unpalatable.

But I don't think you can have it both ways. That's why I bit the bullet in my OP and suggested that personal brands should be a curated namespace; I don't think anything less subtle and polyvalent than human judgment can handle the inevitable conflicts.
 
"We already know that Google is customizing pagerank based on social nets;" Do we in fact know this? Citation, please.
 
+Sai . This doesn't look relevant to the nym debate yet, though it might in the future if they start using G+ circles topology as an input.

Besides, as I've mentioned before, I'm distrustful of social weighting as a way of disambiguating nyms. Among my friends, I don't think nyms have the right sort of continuity properties for this to work. Admittedly the reason for this is that my friendship network is large and crosses a lot of social boundaries, but isn't that the case in which a working disambiguation algorithm is most important?
 
I don't see any reason that the issue of "disambiguating nyms" needs to be treated any differently from the issue of "disambiguating names". Heck "who gets to be Steve Jobs" is probably more important than "who gets to be Lady Gaga".
 
+Sai . I think you're handwaving. First, you defended nonunique nyms by saying pagerank could be used to disambiguate them. When I pointed out that this implies a unique best fit for the nym because pageranks are global, you said Google is already using social weighting. When that turns out to be an experimental feature that doesn't use G+ circles, you say you meant it as analogy. The harder I look at your positions, the more they seem to dissolve into vapor; I'm having increasing difficulty taking you seriously.
 
Y'all talk a lot without saying very much. I'm still unsure why my original suggestion of "let people define what nicknames they use for people" doesn't work - and in the case of Lady Gaga, where your pseudonym is more widely used than your birthname, well, wouldn't that be your real name, with Stephanie being a nickname that close friends and family use?

This way, friends who know me as "emsenn" can call me emsenn, and friends who know me as Morgan, can call me that.
 
+Morgan Sennhauser I don't see how your proposal would address, for example, the resolution of + references. What do you want to have happen when a random person types "+emsenn"?
 
The same list of profiles that pops up when you search for it in "Find people" up there at the top.
 
I think you're all stumbling into Zooko's Triangle in this discussion...
 
Don't nyms have the same name collide problem with + names as wallet names do. Google is going to have to solve that for common names anyway.

 
We actually have hundreds of years of common law and Scotts' Law tradition on how to deal with this, but that has faded out in our modern world.
The Scotts' Law tradition is that any name works so long as there is no intent to defraud.
 
It doesn't serve two purposes. For meany there nym is there primary identity. Having it as an extra name is inadequact. And for those who are trying to hide there wallet name for fear of harassment it is counter productive as it exposes there nym.
 
I like the idea of isolating a "namespace" and if you will "brand" that you are known by...Eric Raymond, I agree with your case. Let's go circles...
 
Heywood Jablome and Heywood Jablomeh don't seem to be having any trouble with their accounts. :)
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