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Diversity and Google+: Why it Matters

also posted at with links and formatting

"Over the past 50 hours I’ve lost a lot of friends here, and all of my transgender friends and family and all the older gay activists I was sharing with have all quietly mothballed their accounts. They can’t have their “real” names out there – they work with human rights organizations and do HIV/AIDS activism, etc."

+Violet Blue in a comment thread on Google+

Just a few days before Google+’s doors officially open on July 31, Google’s latest communications from +Vic Gundotra (via +Robert Scoble) and +Bradley Horowitz on the raft of account suspensions and “common names” policy seem unlikely to put the “identity crisis” to rest. It’s certainly a positive sign that they’re engaging, and process changes like giving people with names Google doesn’t like a week to change their account name before suspending them are certainly improvements. That said, the impression they’re giving is that they’re going to try to hold the line with the current policy even knowing that it targets transgender people, human rights activists, people at risk for stalking and harrassment domestic violence survivors, HIV/AIDS victims and caregivers, people with names that sound weird to Americans (or for that matter people in Hong Kong who would rather go by their English names) …

Hey wait a second, I’m noticing a pattern here.

So yes indeed, as I predicted a week ago in A Work in Progress, it’s a crucial time for diversity on Google+. Given which it seems like a good time to step back and talk a bit about a couple reasons why diversity matters. For me, it starts with some very intensely personal things.

From the personal …

“I do not feel safe using my real name online as I have had people track me down from my online presence and had coworkers invade my private life.”
“I’ve been stalked. I’m a rape survivor. I am a government employee that is prohibited from using my IRL.”
“Under [this name] I am active in a number of areas of sexual difference for which it would not be wise for me to use my flesh legal name.”
“This identity was used to protect my real identity as I am gay and my family live in a small village where if it were openly known that their son was gay they would have problems.”
“I go by pseudonym for safety reasons. Being female, I am wary of internet harassment.”

– excerpts from early responses to +Skud’s survey of people whose G+ accounts have been suspended

A lot of my friends and acquaintances are women, blacks, Latin@s, lesbians, gays, transgender people and others who have to deal with similar situations on a routine basis. So I care a lot about diversity, and when I see a company like Google basing their future strategy on creating a social network that excludes my friends and Violet Blue’s and the people responding to Skud’s survey and everybody else like them — or puts them at unnecessary risk — I react strongly.

Of course, personal arguments like that aren’t likely to convince everybody who doesn’t already see things the way I do. And many people at large corporations feel like their personal beliefs in social justice shouldn’t influence their company’s behavior. Back in 2005, when Microsoft dropped support for anti-discrimination legislation in Washington, I remember the pained look on the corporate counsel’s face as he talked with a group of gay and lesbian employees, trying to reconcile his personal belief in equality with his defense of the business reasons not to take a stand. Vic’s own comments at the time reflect somebody wrestling with similar questions.

In the end Vic and Brad and Sergei and Larry et al will make a business decision about what to do. So I’ll now put on my corporate strategist hat and talk about why diversity matters to Google. As I do that, though, I hope nobody loses sight of the people who are affected by the issue, because in the end that a zillion times more than the n-dimensional corporate chess match.

… to the strategic.

"Right now, in the early stages, what would help Google Plus most is feedback from female users — ones in both tech and non-tech arenas."

+M. M. Faulkner, Why Women Users are Important for Google+, on Pay Attention People

Indeed. For Google+ to reach it’s full potential and blow Facebook and Twitter out of the water, it needs to appeal to women just as much as guys — after all, women spend most of the money on the web these days.** So far, the naming discussions give the impression that even when Google gets feedback from women they’re not hearing a lot of it. As +Betsy Hanes Perry says

"Two people who are dear to me have already left. Others in my circle of friends are refusing to join. All of them are established professional women who have excellent reasons to avoid mixing their work-visible streams and their personal streams."

M. M. has a great description of the overall feel she’s noticed with Google+:

"Furthermore, although making a joke here or there, posting a somewhat mysogynist photo, or remarking on women’s love of Farmville may seem harmless enough, I think we need to recognize there is a larger picture. What I am speaking of is a collective conscience that forms when people are bombarded with the same images and messages over and over and over. The message for the past week has been ramping up and it seems to be suggesting that we are simply are not as “ready” for Google’s latest social media network. It reminds us, as women, we are in the “wrong place” at Google Plus."

As I was writing this, Hitwise released there latest numbers for the US showing the trend going in the wrong direction: 59% of the visits to Google+ are from guys, up 4% from the previous week. BREAKING: women who say “we are less likely to use Google+ if you insist on deciding what name I can call myself and don’t allow private profiles” are telling the truth!

True, it’s early days so far. But community norms set in relatively quickly. And network effects magnify the impact. The more of your friends who aren’t on Google+, or only use it in just a limited way, the less likely you are to spend a lot of time there.* So Google+ is setting out on a path likely to lead it to being a place that appeals primarily to guys who prefer to talk to guys.

There are many other dimensions to diversity as well; Skud’s survey, Geek Feminism’s excellent list of Who is harmed by a real names policy?, and +Kee Hinckley roundup all highlight how many market segments Google is alienating on just this one issue. But this post is long enough already, so rather than exploring all the different ramifications, let me just reiterate a key strategic takeaway:

Google’s current approach leaves them at a significant disadvantage with the largest and most valuable demographic.

“Don’t be evil”

Business strategy was a key part of the argument back in 2005, when a grassroots protest, strongly-worded letter from the LGBTQ employees group GLEAM, behind-the-scenes work by the Diversity organization and supportive senior executives, and series of blog posts by a high-profile employee very publicly criticizing the decision all led to the company re-committing to anti-discrimination legislation. In his email announcing the decision, Steve concluded that “diversity in the workplace is such an important issue for our business that it should be included in our legislative agenda”. But the underlying principles mattered just as much. What kind of company did Microsoft want to be? When we talked to our lesbian, bisexual, and transgender friends and relatives, would we be proud of who we worked for — or embarrassed?

Google’s facing similar a choice now. Of course, evil’s subjective; but none of the people I know who work there would feel proud of building a future where women, transgender people, dissidents, whisteblowers, and people with unusual names like their colleague Ping are marginalized.

So especially since the business case is pretty powerful as well, and employee bonuses are tied to success in social networking, I’m actually relatively optimistic that a sensible solution will emerge on the naming front.***

If so, it’ll be a great victory for all the feminists, LGBTQs, sex bloggers, privacy advocates, human rights activists, Second Lifers, usenet old-timers, people with disabilities, security experts, and everybody else speaking up. And if Google then builds on this by actively all these groups they haven’t been paying a lot of attention to so far, my money’s on them to dethrone Facebook and Twitter. We shall see….

To be continued …


* a somewhat-analogous situation: in the Washington Post, Ellen Nakashima cites a 2005 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project that “the proportion of Internet users who took part in chats and discussion groups plunged from 28 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2005, entirely because of the exodus of women.”

** Aileen Lee has some great data on this in TechCrunch, although the headline and framing are problematic; see CV Harquail’s Why women DON’T rule the internet and comments from ptp, Terri, and others on Geek Feminism for more

***Now that his account has been restored, +Sai .'s “mongopost” has some great suggestions about ways to better address the underlying issues
Originally published as a draft July 26; revised, July 27. Thanks to all for the feedback!
Beth Kanter's profile photoJillian C. York's profile photoJon Pincus's profile photoGretchen S.'s profile photo
I particularly like highlighting some of the respondents to Skud's survey, it gives them the voice they didn't have when they were summarily suspended. (And I know not all of them are coming back.)
Thanks +Gretchen S. Especially when I'm writing about diversity I really try not to let my (white, male) voice dominate too much ... glad to hear you think it works well here.
+Jon Pincus Articulate voices of reason are always welcome, regardless of the gender or color of the person behind the keyboard. :)
Thanks all for the positive feedback! I updated it with an additional quote from +Betsy Hanes Perry: "Two people who are dear to me have already left. Others in my circle of friends are refusing to join. All of them are established professional women who have excellent reasons to avoid mixing their work-visible streams and their personal streams."
I've seen a couple of people quit in my stream today. :(
I have a doctor friend waiting to see what happens.
I left a comment linking back here on Mike Elgan's post "Analysts say Google+ could succeed wildly -- if they change the idiotic "Weird Names Policy"" ... interesting to go back and reread the last two paragraphs of my original post :)
I am at this point no longer sanguine; it would still be good for Google to change this damaging policy, so that it is not used for further premise to close the net to pseudonymous use, but it seems very unlikely that they can now change to a point to regain full trust. They are now a tainted network, similar (and in some ways) worse than Facebook.
+Mike Elgan has a thoughtful post on Why marketers need to prepare for the Google+ of tomorrow at , including this on "diverse demographics"

Right now, Google+ is populated by technically savvy younger males, as well as wealthy suburbanites. Future demographics are likely to broaden, ultimately to teens, women, and the middle and lower middle classes.

Because Google+ is more sophisticated, complex, and later to launch than Facebook, however, the demographics are unlikely to be as broad as Facebook's anytime soon

Hmm. Putting aside for a moment whether or not G+ is substantially more complicated than Facebook, most of the teens I know are pretty good at dealing with complexity. So are most of the women. And a lot of middle- and lower-class people were using customizing the heck out of their MySpace profiles before Facebook came along, so they don’t seem to have any problem with complexity either -- or late adoption, because they're mostly on Facebook now.

So here's how I'd rewrite that last sentence, based on G+'s first few months:

Because Google+ chose an mostly-male and tech-focused "elite" group for their initial seed, and then adopted a policy that's harmful to women and marginalized groups, the demographics are unlikely to be as broad as Facebook's anytime soon.
Very much yes; in general people are better at complexity than they think they are. Women and people from non-professional backgrounds are in my experience equally capable of learning, but trained to behave as if they are not, so it is easier to teach them by using somewhat different methods.

This is setting aside the odd concept that it is somehow more virtuous to be a car mechanic in order to be able to drive a car at all, or a plumber in order to use a sink. A lot of technocrats (and I am one myself, so I know how they think!) like to spend energy on justifying overly complicated UIs rather than making it as simple as the UI you find in your kitchen. Or they do the electronic equivalent of not spending a little extra effort in polishing the metal handles on that sink, so they stay rough and jagged and hurt your hands, and then claim that it is virtuous not to do so, that you have to be tough to use this sink.

Think of an Internet service as a sink and suddenly it becomes less easy to romanticize cruft, and you start wondering why it isn't more practical and ergonomic.

Policy is software too, and policy can be ergonomic too.
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