Google's real-names policy for its social networking service has created a tempest that could have easily been avoided.
There's irony in Google's actions.
The company is known for keeping products in what often seems like "perpetual beta." It ordinarily likes to bake things until they're well done before removing the beta label from them. That kind of patience would have served Google well in the latest situation.
Microsoft researcher and Harvard Berkman Center fellow Danah Boyd didn't mince any words recently when evaluating Google's efforts to enforce a "real names" policy on Google+.
It's "just plain stupid," she declared in her Apophenia blog.
By cracking down hard on Google+ users trying to open accounts with "handles" rather than real names, the company threw gasoline on a fire it could have easily kept under control, Boyd argued. "It's no longer about whether or not the 'real names' policy was a good idea in the first place; it's now an act of oppression," she asserted.
She said Google+ would've been much better off had it subtly encouraged the policy without making a big deal out of it, had it chosen to only enforce it in the most egregious situations.
"But now they're stuck between a rock and a hard place. They either have to stick with their policy and deal with the angry mob or let go of their policy as a peace offering in the hopes that the anger will calm down," she said.
Boyd finds it ironic that Google adopted a ham-fisted approach to the issue when, by and large, most people were complying with the policy.
"A few weren't," she wrote. "Most of those who weren't were using a recognizable pseudonym, not even trying to trick anyone."
Boyd reasoned that the 'real name' culture on Facebook didn't unfold because of a 'real name' policy.
"It unfolded because the norms were set by early adopters and most people saw that and reacted accordingly. Likewise, the handle culture on MySpace unfolded because people saw what others did and reproduced those norms," she said.
"When social dynamics are allowed to unfold organically, social norms are a stronger regulatory force than any formalized policy," she continued. "At that point, you can often formalize the dominant social norms without too much pushback, particularly if you leave wiggle room. Yet, when you start with a heavy-handed regulatory policy that is not driven by social norms -- as Google Plus did -- the backlash is intense."
She said designers of a social network should encourage behavior that helps its members engage each other in healthy and fruitful ways, but they should not be intrusive.
"No one likes being spanked, especially not a crowd of opinionated adults," she said.
Pulling a page from Spider-man's playbook, Boyd observed: "Companies that build systems that people use have power. But they have to be very very very careful about how they assert that power."
"It's really easy to come in and try to configure the user through force," she blogged. "It's a lot harder to work diligently to design and build the ecosystem in which healthy norms emerge."
Despite the discontent over Google's enforcement of its real-names policy, since it opened the flood gates to its socnet, Google+ has been growing faster at this stage of its development than competitors Facebook and Twitter, attracting 25 million visitors in less than a month after launch.