Google+ says your name is “Toby” NOT “Kunta Kinte”

This post is about what is going on at a deeper level when Google+ says your name is “Toby” NOT “Kunta Kinte”. The punchline video is at the bottom feel free to scroll there and watch if you don’t want to read to much.

This whole line of thought to explain to those who don’t get what is going on with Google+ names policy arose yesterday after I watched the Bradley Horwitz – Tim O’Reilly interview (they start talking about the real names issue at about minute 24).

More on my personal Google+ suspension that continues to Day 29.

Tim is struck by the Steve Jobs element of how Bradley and Google is talking about designing for the way the world will be not how it is….implying and even explicitly saying that in the future we will just all use our real names for everything so lets get started doing that now. :)  – you know happy future vision of benevolent design choice by humans of large corporate controlled digital systems.  Yes, many Googlers like Chris Messina who used to have a handle online “Factory Joe” made the conscious choice to bring it together with his “real name”. For him the cost-benefit trade of for this and decided that for him it was no longer worth it. Totally fine choice for him. What is at issue is when his choice becomes all of our choice because he and others like him have the power to decide for all of us.

Young men like Chris have a lot of privilege in the world and they can do things/make choices that others have less freedom (privilege) to make without those choices affecting their lives in material ways (chances of employment, social acceptance between different contexts with different norms, having accepting family members who are not bigoted against their personal life choices).  I thought that one of the things Chris got form his years dating Tara Hunt was more of a clue about the issues that women and others who are not young white straight monogamous men living in western liberal democracy, liberal metropolises face. His posts on the topic include the following but some how…I guess he still doesn’t get this issue in relation to Google (maybe he does but it seems like people who work at Google stop blogging upon their date of employ and Google employees who have spoken up on the issue have been gagged).

* Kirrily Robert: Standing out in the Crowd where he highlights these posts

  • Recruit diversity
  • Say it. Mean it.
  • Tools. (Tools are easy.)
  • Transparency.
  • Don’t stare.
  • Value all contributions.
  • Call people on their crap.
  • Pay attention.

* Future of the White Boys Clubs

* Future of White Boys’ Clubs Redux #fowaspeak

Fundamentally technology systems and techno-social systems are created by people making choices AND it is at this time in the history of the web we get to as a culture and society choose the range of options available for human expression of identity online.  IF THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE ALL THE POWER to make this choice in these digital systems have the demographic profile of Brad and Tim then we will get one outcome – it will favor them and their world view and exclude others who are different (ala the very long list of people negatively affected by real names policies). It is an abuse of power as danah boyd eloquently explains on her blog.

Tim goes on to say (at min 28) that his own reaction to “some of the strident calls for you guys [Google+] to change what you are doing” lead him to the conclusion “give me a break, lets try some different things lets figure out what we learn from them..the market will tell you what it really demands”

Lets look at this more deeply – Tim’s specific labeling of the resistance to the policies as “strident” is coming from a position of power and privilege that is judging these people in a way that demeans, what they are saying.

From Wiktionary: Strident

  1. Loud; shrill, piercing, high-pitched; rough-sounding
    The trumpet sounded strident against the string orchestra.
  2. Grating or obnoxious
    The artist chose a strident mixture of colors.

Because the opposition is so sharp and clear – people are speaking up in shrill, piercing, “high-pitched” ways because they are being hurt so badly and deeply by requirement for real names and how suspensions are being handled.  The words of these people are being heard by Tim and others in power as grating and obnoxious because they aren’t supposed to speak up…they should just accept what is happening to them right?

One response of Google+ leadership and technology leaders like Tim O’Reilly could have is to be to be empathetic, to look inward and connect to the human beings speaking and say something like:

Wow, we had no understanding of how “unfree” some people feel online and in our society broadly.

We had no idea about how many different kinds of people (who are not like us) are affected real names policies.

We didn’t really realize existed, or had any needs different then ours and how can we struggle with them to make a more just society so they are not affected negatively if they were out/public about those things.

In the meantime lets really listen and get that they have real and valid needs for safety and the right to express themselves and lets and not ban them from our services for their choice not to use use their real name.

Instead Tim and others are dismissing the real hurt and anguish being felt by people saying they are being “strident” for speaking up for their right to pick their own name and to be for Google’s continued insistence they have the right to decide what an acceptable name is for people.

This is about power and those who speak up to it being judged and labeled negatively for doing so. I asked in twitter yesterday if women suffragettes were strident, and were the stonewall rioters and the subsequent movement for gay rights strident? Yes they were! They were standing up for what was right and against and unjust social system that was harmful to people.  I am concerned about the rights and freedoms of nyms both because people have personal life issues they want to be free to create accounts to express/deal with AND because they have political beliefs they want to share.

Imagine if the people who were standing up and organizing for gay rights in the 60’s and 70’s had digital tools to do so and imagine all the major places were public discourse about this happened were in online social spaces where “real names” were required and imagine that all of their families and employers would therefore know about their status as a GAY  (LTBTQ) PERSON. Do you think we would have had the gay rights movement? Do you think it would have been possible? Do you think that enough people would have stood up knowing they would be laid off, fired, black balled, told their kids couldn’t play with neighbor kids.

Many groups who are systemically and socially oppressed (yes in our modern liberal democracy there is lots of oppression going on) fear to speak up TODAY about the issues going on in the system that affect them.  Many people have ideas that would transform the social order but challenge power will fear speaking up about these new ideas if all speech in online public fora must be linked to real names seen by their real employers who could really fire/let them go.

Unless we embed the freedom to have pseudonymous speech in major online social spaces where serious public/political dialogue occurs then we risk not having a free society any more.  Free meaning the freedom to challenge injustice the freedom to seek greater accountability by those in power (government and corporate), to open up the systems that run our society.

Over the course of yesterday I continued to think more about the deeper nature of the issues going on and the fundamental nature of the power we have to name ourselves and what it means to have this freedom.  I remembered the series Roots  and suggested that young Googlers rent it from/watch it on netflix and then have dialogues about privileged and oppression.

For those of you who didn’t watch it in the 70’s (I was born in the 70’s do didn’t watch it then either),  it is the story of a Alex Haley’s black family descended from a man who was stolen from his village in Africa and brought to America as a slave. He is very clear on his identity, who he is, he is a Mandinka warrior and his name is Kunta Kinte,.  One of the first things his white slave owner Master Reynolds does is rename him Toby.  He refuses to accept this new name, this identity that they have said he must take on…he does accept the name but only after great human suffering inflicted by his master to get him to comply with his wishes.

This is the sort version:

“Bonus suppression” Google runs YouTube and they took the clip of the movie scene down for “inappropriate nudity or sexual” – it has neither, it just made a dramatic point and made them look bad. In the clip Kunta Kinte is facing the camera with part of his chest showing being whipped from behind by a white man who is working for the slaveowner until he breaks. After repeating his name is Kunta Kinte when asked what his name is, he finally says… it is Toby. 

For slightly more context for the scene this is 8 min.

I highly recommend watching the WHOLE movie if you haven’t seen it.

Just to be really clear for those of you who might not be tracking the point I am making. I and the other people in Google+ who choose to have handles/nyms that are persistent and that we are known by but are being rejected by Google+ are Kunta Kinte and the Google+ name police is the slave owner whipping him until he submits to calling himself Toby.

Metaphorically this IS what is going on.  “Yes” I and other people who use handles and use nyms have a choice “not to use the service” – we are technically “not slaves” like Toby is. However we have already been using Google e-mail and other services for years with the names we chose – in changing the rules on the Google plantation they have undermined the social contract that it had with existing users. Google is a major forum for expression of ideas and is THE dominant search engine (one could argue monopolistic search engine). It will be using people’s +1’s to determine search results and these will shape public discourse.

Many different people are now fearful of speaking up in Google+ about these issues (even if the are not affected) because they fear the will be affected (having their access to their accounts turned off). Just look at what has happened Google+ turned off Violet Blue’s profile knowing full well it was her real name and people rightly so imagine this is because she was speaking out for those who were suspended and could not speak.

Back to what Tim said above – he says that “the market will decide” these things. The core issues here are freedom of speech and power within the social sphere not about “the market”. It is about what is right and just in a society. The market decided that it was ok to do slavery for hundreds of years, the market decided that it was ok to discriminate systematically against black people with Jim Crow laws and the market decided it was ok to discriminate against women in professional fields like law and medicine until things changed in the 60’s.

Continuing the quotes from Tim “lets the arguments be from efficacy not from self righteousness”

Let me ask you this Tim: Was Kunta Kinte being self righteous to insist on his own choice of his own name?


Tim thinks that I am being self-righteous for even asking this question. He agrees with me that Kunta Kinte is not self righteous to stand up for his name but adds that that I am self-righteous to ask this question which in this post was explicitly drawing the analogy between Kunta Kinte’s struggle for his right to assert his own identity and mine along with others with handles and Nyms in relationship to Google+. The fact that he is judging us as being “self-righteous” kinda proves my point that we are challenging the the power and authority of the system and being judged negatively by the powers that be for for doing so.

Tim thinks that this issue is just a matter for the market to decide. Sadly he doesn’t see it as the silencing of voices and the inability for those who are not as privileged as he is to speak with their own voice on the Google platform the dominant search utility for the web.

In the morning there was a whole much longer set of twitter responses kicked of by Kevin Marks and going back and forth with Tim O’Reilly and others.

Update: inspired in part by this post an amazing post “about tone” as a silencing/ignoring tactics when difficult, uncomfortable challenges are raised in situations of privilege was written by Shiela Marie.  


  1. Euan says

    I’m one of those white guys with privilege, yet I use and value pseudonyms. Three Google accounts, withdrawing from Google is not a pain free choice but ethically what other choice have I got?

    It’ll take me a while to figure out all the sites I’ve signed up to and unfortunately I can’t get rid of my primary all together because of Android. That’s all it’ll be for, though.

  2. says

    I don’t understand how one can speak of markets in this case. There is little substitutability and there is no friction-free cost of substitution. This is not a free-market situation, it is a monopolistic competition situation and Tim should know better.

    These are not cost-free choices, as you clearly point out, and it is disingenuous to claim otherwise. Also, righteous and self-righteous are not the same. I commend you for taking up this righteous cause.

    [Second Life would be a very different place if there were a real names policy. I use a recognizable pseudonym, so it is not about anonymity for me. But it would be a pretty sterile if we were compelled to use real names.]

  3. Sling Trebuchet says

    Google want our IDs, our connections, our interests and our spending habits. They want this primarily so that they can direct specific advertising at us in the expectation of high conversion rates.

    They want to make the selection choices for us.
    Schmidt on what we should see incoming “Some people are just evil and we should be able to ID them and rank them downward.
    Schmidt on TV (GoogleTV): with so much ‘content’ floating about people needed to be shown what to watch.

    According to Schmidt, Google can recommend content on Google TV through a series of winks and nudges. “Online, through a combination of algorithms and editorial nudges, suggestions could be individually crafted to suit your interests and needs, he said.”
    This is something that he has already made clear about Google+ (and Google Search).

    The end result for society would be disastrous – a true evil.

    Everyone ends up with the their own tailored X Fox News. Republican Fox News. Democratic Fox News. Muslim Fox News. Paranoid Security Fox News. Creationist Fox News. Ultra-Fundamentalist Fox News. WASP Fox news. Sane Well-balanced Informative Fox News.

    More and more, people would be reinforced in their prejudices / pre-conceptions. People of other opinion and taste would become invisible to them. There would be no understanding – no generosity of spirit – no community.
    Pack large numbers of people of different conflicting extreme certainties into a physical space like a city or town and you end up with violence. Civil authorities step in. Unfortunately, these will exhibit their own extreme certainties about what the world should be.

    Society is destroyed.
    It is destroyed not so that some extreme political movement can rule out minds. That would only be an accidental byproduct.
    Society is destroyed so that Google can sell more advertising.

    That’s what happens when engineers are allowed to create what they want because they can.

  4. Horst Günther Burkhardt says

    Since our identity is such an important part of our relationships with others, it is baffling that a supposedly social network would decide that we must use their idea of how we represent our identity in place of how we would actually represent it if given the freedom to do so.

    While I think Google is handling this really stupidly, I can’t help but think that many of the protests against the issue are also suboptimal.

    I agree with the policy. You should use the name you’re commonly known by. However, the implementation (“you must have a first name and last name, and they must conform to our ideas”) is ridiculously Anglocentric (and not even that, if you’ve come across Welsh names before) and precludes the possibility that not everybody uses their birth name to introduce themselves.

    TL;DR Policy is fine, implementation is shocking considering that Google pretty much /are/ the web and should know better by now.

  5. Euan says

    @Horst, the problem with Google’s policy is that some of us have more than one common name. Some of us have distinct circles that we don’t want overlapping, yet in those circles we have relationships that are valuable to us.

  6. says

    Very basic psychological group experiments show how disharmony starts when you divide a group into Us and Them. Google is doing this … we are now either Verified or UnVerified.
    While this does not present a huge problem today, one could imagine a future in a Google-run world where UnVerified become synonymous with terrorist, hacker or, at least, troll.
    The move by Google+ is bad, but the possible consequences of a world based on this type of attitude is plain scary.

    Nymwars are about this attitude, not about Google+ and are worth fighting.

  7. Sling Trebuchet says

    Google is like the TSA.
    Everyone is a potential terrorist.Even mothers might be concealing bombs in the baby’s nappy/napkin.

    If you present to the checkpoint as lightly-clad WASP with no or simple baggage, you’re through easily.
    If you seem in any way ‘odd/difficult’ to the particular indifferently-trained TSA droid, you’re likely in trouble.

    I think that Google do actually want TSA power. Eric Schmidt “The only way to manage this is true transparency and no anonymity,” Schmidt said. “In a world of asynchronous threats, it is too dangerous for there not to be some way to identify you. We need a [verified] name service for people. Governments will demand it.”

    Google engineers see everything as a technical issue to be resolved by technology and algorithms. They see nothing particularly wrong ( what’s not to like?) in a world where everyone who goes online is indexed in a database. They see that governments would like that – for control purposes. They want to be the supplier of the technology.

    If the idea of having to be (wallet-name) identified online gains traction, then anyone not so indexed is going to be highly suspect when they try to travel. “M’aam – are you telling me that you have never used the Internet?”
    Ditto for job-seekers. “You don’t exist. What are you hiding?”

  8. Sling Trebuchet says

    “Nobody is being forced to use Google+”

    OK( for the sake of argument), but be prepared to dump your Android phone – if you were misguided enough to get one. Apparently it will nag right into your face until you surrender to it.

    Don’t even think about their ChromeBook.

  9. says

    I don’t like the Google policy so I do support your overall point, however, I believe you’re misusing the Kunta Kinte metaphor, not only in scale and scope, but also literally: he was born with the name Kunta Kinte and that’s what Google would force him to use. So in this regard, the metaphor could all too easily be turned on you to say that Google is doing right by requiring that he use his African name and not the imposed Anglicized name.

    Also, you’re well beyond “not technically” slaves. You’re really, really, really not a slave. Google is NOT physically abusing you, raping you, or even stripping you of your chosen identity everywhere you go (and restricting where you can go). I absolutely agree that Google is wrong on this issue but by likening them to whipping slaves you are so grossly overstating it that you push the valid point into the realm of hysteria that will weaken it.

    Seriously, choose a better metaphor. This one makes the legitimate movement look foolish and is appallingly insensitive to the struggles of actual slaves.

  10. says

    Google is deciding what my and other people’s names can and should be. That is the point and on that level the metaphor IS accurate.

    If we refuse to accept we are forced with continued suspension (that is the inability to speak in the service) and likely termination of our digital selves as they are on that service. They are our “master” in this context and they are using their power in an unjust way.

    It is recognized in common law that people have the right to choose their own name and as long as they are not doing so for fraudulent purposes this can be anything – it does not have to be in any way related to their “wallet name”.

    Because google is such a dominant party on the web it is not fair to say “just go somewhere else” my profile on google really matters in terms of how I will appear in their search engine and the +1’s and comments that I make in the G+ service will influence their whole index and what is seen by others.

  11. says

    “It is recognized in common law that people have the right to choose their own name…”

    What do laws say abt unilateral and retroactive changing of agreements (user agrees on ToS while signing), I wanted to know for a very long time?

    And it seems not linked to Google+ to be subscribed anew but to old Google accounts at large:
    See my question:
    I’ve Never Subscribed to either Buzz or Google+ but My Google Private Profiles ‘re Unilaterally and Retroactively Published, then Dumped, Now Will Be Suspended?

  12. Patty says

    Kunta Kinte: My name is Kunta Kinte.

    White Slaveowner: Sorry, that’s not a recognized name on my plantation. How about Toby?

    KK: No, my name is Kunta Kinte, not Toby.

    WS: Well then, I guess you can’t register to work for free on my plantation.

    KK: Aww c’mon, man…that’s just not fair. Doesn’t this country support the right to free speech and the right to choose my own name? And that’s doubly not fair that you’ve decided to rename me Toby now, after accepting me as Kunta Kinte for the entire journey over to this country on that big slave ship. I was totally mislead into thinking that I’d be able keep using my name once I got here.

    WS: Look, technically you’re right, but this plantation is private property, and I have the right to call you whatever I want on it, even if it means calling you something different from before. Plus, I own you.

    KK: Wait, you own me? Oh, that changes everything…I totally thought this was like that Google+ nickname controversy, but I forgot that Google doesn’t own the people who use its services. So I guess that would be a dumb analogy, eh?

    WS: Yeah, totally.

    KK: Ok…well I guess you’ll just have to beat me until I change my name.

    WS: Sounds like a plan!

  13. Daniel Rice says

    I’m sorry i scrolled down before i read it… I guess i feel the video as an analogue was both unnecessarily strong and almost completely inappropriate. I’m strongly in favor of a body’s freedom [sic] to choose a pseudonym for peace of mind, but i just as strongly dislike messy weapons and metaphors. Gross.

  14. G. Lopes says

    In my understanding, this debate is part of the larger issue of ‘persistent identity’. Moot, the developer of the site 4chan has an interesting perspective on the drawbacks of it View it here on Slave plantations are privately owned enterprises, as are Google’s servers. Any identity and content developed using these servers and the trademarked code therein is more than likely ‘their property’ so the slave metaphor can hold water.

    Personally, I don’t tweet, facebook, or Goog+. It has become an issue between my wife and myself in the terms of what is appropriate fodder for general consumption and what is not as she is a prevalent facebook user with thousands of friends, most of which I have never met. Her desire to share details of our shared life leads to feelings of being stifled by my assertion of privacy and discretion when it comes to even the most mundane details of our life.

    I would encourage anyone not in agreement with the policies of services offered online to incorporate alternative systems that can achieve similar goals yet don’t fall under the scope of corporate ownership and their restrictive licensing agreements. These so-called ‘social media’ policies are far too broad and inclusive for me to ever entrust future stakes in. There exist GPL and open source alternatives to just about any service offered by these mega-corp web applications. Google is not the web!

  15. G. Lopes says

    Concerning O’Reilly,
    The institution, more so than the man, has much at stake in this debate. Would you realistically expect him or his employees to take a stance that jeopardizes massive endorsements and investments within these same entities up for critique? They are in no position to compromise their symbiotic relationship with these behemoths. That would be self destructive. To me it is understandable why O’Reilly would sidestep and smother a topic such as this. He walks a very thin line. “Who the cap fit…”

  16. says

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