July 29, 2011

Google Plus Might Be a Minus for Sexuality Communities

by Kal Cobalt

It's what every geek wants this summer: an invite to the beta of Google Plus, the social network du jour. As with any beta, problems abound — but one in particular is causing quite a fuss. Why is Google Plus the latest accidental foe to the transgendered/genderqueer community and the current enemy of sex writers everywhere? Read on.

Identity Matters

For transgendered and genderqueer individuals, legal names are often a source of discomfort. Social networks have always been places where trans/GQ folks could present themselves as they experience themselves to be — something often impossible to do in face-to-face interactions. Without fear of losing one's job, getting beaten up at the local bar, or facing the wrath of extended family members, trans and GQ people could go online and say, “This is my gender, and this is my name,” without anyone checking their ID or wanting a look inside their underwear. At this point, many of us have long and well-established pseudonymous online identities for no more nefarious purpose than simply being who we are without fear. Many of us do not plan or want to overhaul our entire lives and legalities to reflect our preferred pronouns.

To use Google Plus, one must surrender all of that. I am, for example, encouraged to enter my legal name as my Google Plus identifier, and also any nicknames or other names by which I might be known. Obviously, this is not useful — the moment I do that, everyone who knows my legal name knows everything I have said or done publicly using that other handle, and vice versa. When a bigot targets a genderqueer person's online persona, it is frightening but usually relatively harmless; when that bigot can, say, associate that masculine handle with Sally Smith on Google Plus — the name in which the genderqueer individual owns his home, is listed on his company's Facebook page, and has his car registered under — then it is a personal risk far greater than a company should be able to insist a user make to satisfy their data integrity standards.

Ironically, Google Plus allows users to identify their gender as “Male,” “Female,” or “Other,” which renders the service's own logic completely inconsistent. One cannot legally be "other" (at least, not in the countries where the vast majority of Google Plus usage takes place). Why allow this acknowledgement of non-legal identity while simultaneously forcing Bruce to call himself Elizabeth and Mary Anne to call herself Edward?

Writing Authors Out Of The Picture

Writers use pseudonyms for enough reasons to fill a book, but for authors who write about sex and gender, protection is paramount. The Google Plus insistence on legal names has been shown to extend to these kinds of pseudonyms as well (noted sex blogger A.V. Flox recently got the Google Plus axe), and given that Google's reinstatement procedure involves providing a scan of one's driver's license, it would seem to be a quite intentional shutout. That said, the logic breaks down here, too; Google will also accept links to websites proving that you are who you say you are, and suggest Facebook as an example. Though Facebook also has a Google Plus-like requirement for real names, the oft-cited case of the profile page for Mark Zuckerberg's dog proves all too well that the company doesn’t care that much — so what's the point?

At best, writers are given a questionable cost/benefit: use Google Plus to network and create a connected fanbase, aware that at any moment it may be suspended or outright deleted (along with your email account and cloud documents, perhaps), with only an iffy possibility of getting it all back by proving something according to standards which are simultaneously too rigid for you to achieve (no author I know has a driver's license in their pen name) and idiotically simple (the mere existence of a Facebook page proves ... what, exactly?) While Google Plus's interface is the most comfortable one I've seen for my own particular quirks, I can't imagine working to create a community with the awareness that it's only a matter of time before someone at Google decides the noun-ish qualities of my pseudonymous last name merit taking it all away from me.

As In Face-To-Face Life, So On The Internet

A few months ago, San Francisco's Entertainment Commission held hearings about a proposal to increase safety in clubs and festival settings. They suggested that establishment that could hold over 100 people would ask attendees to present ID, which would be scanned and kept in a database for 15 days so that it could be given to the police on request. It's not hard to imagine how well this went over: It didn't. And even the Electronic Freedom Foundation weighed in very publicly on the invasion of privacy the proposal's requirements constituted.

For most, it is perfectly understandable why someone would not wish to have a record kept of their attendance at gay bars, drag shows, burlesque lounges, or erotic readings. But Google Plus requires all of this and more: a permanent record accessible to anyone. While Google Plus's “Circles” features are promising for keeping one's various facets separate, I would wager that no one is coming to Google Plus without an existing online community to manage, and for many of us that means not just segregating into “Circles” but segregating into “who knows my legal name and who does not and should not.”

If Google chooses to continue this requirement, there is really no choice but for its users to behave only as they would under the combined scrutiny of their boss, grandmother, and hometown. I don't know about you, but I sometimes like to talk about things I'd rather not say in front of those people. When I choose a social network, I'll go where my friends feel comfortable and I can be myself — and unless Google Plus changes, it won't be that place.

Further Reading

This is a complex issue, and as with all things that are an outrage on the Internet, information moves quickly and often inaccurately. For some more information and perspectives, I recommend the following:

-- Xeni Jardin's repost of some information straight from Google execs.

-- Jay Freeman's roundup of the issues.

-- Scott Madin's explanation of the policy as “Incoherent, Unenforceable, Harmful, Ineffective”

-- Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols update on ZDNet, “Google revises Google+ real name management policy”