Congratulation on Google+! Contrary to many predictions, you’ve nailed it. Your team has certainly learned from successes and failures of others and it shows. Google+ Circles make targeted content sharing a breeze, the no-strings-attached Twitter-like following is going to be a solid weapon against Facebook, and even the terminology is thoughtful – finally, the word friend in a social network can be meaningful again. But your team didn’t finish the job. For some reason, they chose to imitate a Facebook policy that should not have been touched with a ten-foot long pole.
Two days ago my Google+ account was suspended for violation of your Community Standards. I was informed that in order to unblock it, all I need to do is to provide my real name. This is not something I’m going to do — even if this means being kicked out of Google+ for good — and this is why I’m writing this letter. I’d like to be very clear, it is not about moral principles or consumer rights. In this context, things like this simply don’t matter. Google+ is your company’s product and it’s completely up to Google to decide what policies to enforce. However, as a business decision, it’s a very shortsighted one, since it turns what could have been your major differentiation into a serious weakness.
When after decades of usernames Facebook came out with Thou Shalt Expose Your Real Name policy, it was novel. It is not anymore. Clearly, it has not prevented 750 million people from joining Facebook, but the fact that millions of people have been trained to sacrifice their privacy in order to use a social network doesn’t mean they like it this way. Privacy may be gone forever — and Google knows more about this than any other company in the world — but people still want to feel private. They agree to let companies like yours to watch their every step online, but they still wish to be in control of what they disclose to everyone else. The growth of Twitter and Tumblr is a testament to this. The “real name” condition pioneered by Facebook ignores that desire, and while imitating it may seem attractive now, in long run it’s simply bad for your business.
Self-promotion and attention seeking aside, what people want the most when they join a social network is to be themselves, while connecting with others. “Real name” policy puts limits on self-expression, which is why the depth of connections on a network like Tumblr is orders of magnitude deeper than on Facebook. Facebook connections extend our existing relationships, based on our work, location and background. Tumblr creates new relationships based on who we are or who we want to be. By creating a Facebook-like system with superior features and an open self-identification policy you may have a real chance to beat Facebook in its own game. But when you borrow Facebook’s obsession with “real names” you position Google+ as a cute me-too solution. It may have some superior features, but not enough of a value to drive sizable migration of users from Facebook. After all, how many ways to connect with the same people do we really need?
The deep irony of the situation is that neither Googe+ nor Facebook actually ask for my real name. You only ask for what looks like a real name. I could have called myself Joe Smith or even Larry Page — and your system would’ve let me in, without bothering to verify correctness of my claim. In fact, you already have much more valuable information about me – my IP address, a list of sites I visit, and even my personal communications. And yet, when I state openly that on Google+ I want to be known as Unmaskd, it’s not good enough. Ironically, it is good enough for thousands of people who over the last year have connected with me on Twitter, Tumblr, WordPress, YouTube, email and even Facebook (that somehow let its guard down). These people may be curious about my real name, but they keep connecting with because they are interested in me as an individual, regardless of the sequence of characters printed on my driver’s license. They would’ve connected with me on Google+ (and some of them already did), but alas, your policy prevents them from doing this.
It’s no secret, that when it comes to social networks, it’s not about features. It’s all about getting and keeping a critical user mass. You have a chance to create a next generation social network – one that operates on a huge scale that only few companies in the world can support, yet allows people to be open in expressing themselves. A social network that would actually enrich people lives instead of simply being a utility for connecting with their existing networks. I hope you will use this chance.