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.)
- Don’t stare.
- Value all contributions.
- Call people on their crap.
- Pay attention.
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
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.