Building a Nation with G+
I suspect the fine people at GOOG HQ would intuit the folly of inviting a team of sociologists to solve a disk caching race condition. So why then did they think themselves, a group of engineers, could trivially solve a sociology problem? H L Mencken boiled down the issue delightfully: For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.
Requiring real names on Google Plus is that clear, simple and wrong answer. Spam, trolling, libel, identity theft, bullying, ... anything you can possibly name as a negative side effect of pseudonymous accounts is completely outweighed by an essential need to facilitate speech for people who, out of fear, dare not speak aloud with their real names. People such as: critics of harsh regimes, victims of crimes, whistle blowers, abuse sufferers, targets of bullying, youth at risk, ...
But the "real names" issue, while contentious, is only the first of what is I am afraid is going to be a long line of sociologically based problems with Google Plus.
Problems, ironically, brought upon by Google's clear engineering success. Success in creating such a useful suite of tools that hundreds of millions of people rely on Google’s services daily, if not minute-by-minute, to complete and compliment every facet of their online lives.
And now with Google Plus to tie them together, they have taken our online virtual lives and given them a place to co-exist, to form connections, to build relationships, to make a home for our ideas and information and communication. They've done done something new, something others have tried but ultimately failed to deliver at a global and self-perpetuating scale.
This is the point where someone interjects and says: “I know where you’re going and you’re wrong. Google is a business! It exists to make a profit. And you aren’t even Google’s customer! You’re the product; your eyeballs are sold to the highest bidding advertiser. They made almost $30 billion dollars doing this in 2010. The only thing you are to Google is $30 a year.”
Stop thinking of Google as a business. While this is true, it doesn’t represent the full value proposition of what is being offered through their combined service platform. Never before has one company offered so much to so many on the internet. The paradigms are shifting; have shifted. This is a new world.
With Google Plus, they have created a virtual nation. A nation, as of this writing, with 20+ million interested, engaged and thoughtful individuals. A nation that, on July 31, will fling open its borders to the entire connected population of the world: come in, everyone, join all your friends and family and co-workers in this new and wonderful online
Think of the $30 our eyeballs are worth, then -- what each of our accounts contribute to their bottom line -- as tax. A tax that must be paid for management, upkeep and infrastructure. If I’m worth so much to Google as a virtual citizen, if I’m paying my taxes, shouldn’t I also have rights? Due process? Representation?
And so I ask Google, as designer, creator and caretaker of this new nation: what kind of nation is it going to be?
Are you creating a police state where everyone must at all times be able to "show their papers"? An authoritarian autocracy, beholden to no one, where dissent is rewarded by disappearance fait accompli?
That's the path we've been shown; dark and shrouded in fear: one false move and poof. The blogs are afire with reports of these virtual deaths, these datacides, for crimes as trivial as having an name that doesn't match one's ethnicity.
Or, perhaps were you trying instead to create a nation that was open and egalitarian? A nation flexible and responsive to the needs of its citizens. Citizens, some of whom, like me, are perfectly fine with connecting their virtual lives to their real lives. And some of whom are not, for reasons as varied as fingerprints and as valid as their own uncertainties or fears.
Citizens whom, either through mistake or nefarious intent, may at one time or another break a rule. What then? Do we exist merely at your whim? If we violate one of your nation’s laws, is our online citizenship to be summarily not just revoked but deleted, with extreme prejudice? Are we to be wiped out, voided, elided from history by the actions of a Google-operated Ministry of Truth, only discovering when our passwords no longer work?
I will speak frankly: if that is your intent; if that is the nation you intend to create, a curt, cruel state that demands papers, please! at its borders, and is at any moment ready to strike-out a citizen from history for violating perpetually at-flux rules interpreted at the whim of a secret state police -- you will find your citizenry displeased, to say the least.
This is the cusp; I can feel it. The creation of the first truly successful global virtual nation. It's an exciting time, and as a long-term Google enthusiast, I'm very pleased to be here as the five-coloured g+ flag is raised. But if you want your citizens in good faith to remain, you must treat us with respect, openness and fairness.
Take your next steps thoughtfully, mindfully and carefully. Not with engineered solutions to sociology problems, but by careful application of the wisdom of history.
Create a nation that recognizes itself as such. A nation, importantly, with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, one that applies to all of its citizens.
I'm sure more thoughtful people than I will come up with a complete list, but here are the three I think are critical:
1. The right to maintain one's own information privacy, including real name, to whatever degree one is comfortable with.
2. The right to own one's online identity, including all of its data, and never having it made inaccessible to oneself (even if blocked from everyone else).
3. The right to have rules clearly specified and explained, and for rule infractions to be evaluated and handled by an organization of independent moderators fully accountable only to the citizenry -- not to your bottom line.
I can see the future; I know what your dreams are, Google. I know how you want to engage us. I know what you are building. But have a care how you get there. The data stored on your servers isn't just a bunch of bytes anymore. It's a significant portion of our lives.
We are your virtual citizens, Google. How will you treat with us?
(C) Sean M Puckett CC-BY-NC-SA