Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Google+ and Nymwars: Part 2 (Love it or leave it)

A common retort against those who are pro-nym in this debate is "if you don't like it, then you can go elsewhere."  The claim is that Google, as a private entity, has the right to dictate the terms of their service.  There is no law that tells them they must have pseudonyms.  And you, as a free agent of choice in the great market place of capitalism and online services, have a choice to go elsewhere.  The belief is that if enough consumers jump ship it will send a signal and either Google will change their policy or another alternative will start up to provide such a service.

Here are a few reasons, in my opinion, that such thinking is flawed and why it's not quite as simple as they wish to make it sound.

1)  Network Value Derived From Size

Social networks obtain their value (both for the provider and for the user) via the size of the network.  From the point of view of the provider, of course, the size relates to number of eyeballs, brains and ultimately dollars that can be targeted.  The user, on the other hand, has a vested interest, in meeting new people, or connecting with old friends.  As for meeting new people, the more people on a service (the early adopters) that are around, the  better chance one has for finding like-minded individuals.  When it comes to "old friends" many of these are not the early adopter/techy/net crowd...  As such, they will wait before taking the plunge.  They need to see that the service is worthwhile, and that enough of their friends will be on it before making a huge jump to another ship.

If there is a groundswell of support and a large number of people flock to the service, then more people will continue to do so.  Once this happens, you get a snowball effect.  It becomes a question of crossing that threshold.  If you look at Google's previous attempts, it's obvious they never were able to cross that threshold.  Google+ was the first Google social network attempt that seemed to have potential.

Google is a large company and has many resources to throw at the problem and fail at it.  Many alternatives do not have that opportunity.  Certainly they do not have a lot of resources so if they do it, they have less of a chance to make a mistake and they have to have to make sure that they get it right on the first go around, because failure in such a market means that you might not have the capital to invest in either an improvement/change in the system nor to start from scratch on something completely different.

So, there are some alternatives around, thankfully.  Places like Livejournal, Dreamwidth (and all the other Livejournal based sites), and the up-and-coming Diaspora offer alternatives that seem to support the idea of openness and pseudonymity that G+ and FB lack.  I hope that these services can still exist and remain competitive.

So why am I upset about this?  Why not just use those services?  Well, I do, in fact, have accounts at various social networks (and when it comes to social networks, Livejournal (aka: LJ) is pretty much the granddaddy of all the currently existing ones, having been in existence since 1999)...  But the well has dried up there as the mainstream took notice of Facebook.  Combine the large mainstream attraction to Facebook and add in the poor decision making by the leadership at Six Apart (the company that bought LJ in the mid-late 00's) you saw an exodus of people leaving for either other LJ style sites (and in fact, I believe dreamwidth was started as an alternative for some of these 'refugees') or jumping ship onto the network with the broader userbase (i.e. Facebook and Twitter).

No, the question isn't whether I can use those services, of course I can, but where does the value come from?  It comes from size.  As I see my friends slowly leaving LJ, and only but a few of the more dedicated and hardcore fans continue to use the service, it feels silly to use it as much.  It's a reverse sort of situation.  Instead of a critical threshold for gaining users, there comes a point where a service loses the numbers and a rapid outflux occurs.  But this is not about Livejournal or any other service, this is about the Nymwars.

So.  My point is that if there are not a lot of alternatives, and certainly not the alternatives that have the eyeballs, it's harder to "leave it".

2) Dominance and Setting the Standards

But this leads us to the second issue, and one of the concerns I've seen mentioned in many of the pro-nym posters, and that is this: Google+ is attempting to be the dominant player in the space (well, at least, I'd gather that's what they're attempting to do).  Facebook, right now, is apparently the dominant player.  Both of these services have a "real name" policy.

Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, has come out and said that they see Google+ not as a social network platform, but as "an identity service".  So this is their main thrust, to lead the market in a sort of platform of identity.  If they do lead and succeed, then others will follow ("If you build it, they will come.")  Once the standard is set, the ability to "leave it" is going to be more difficult because other social networks will attempt to emulate Google+ (in the same way that Google+ is attempting to emulate Facebook).

This, of course, doesn't mean that all services everywhere will force you to use your real name, but it does mean that future services will see this as a signal that this is the route to go.  Once a real names policy is normalized, it gets harder to get back to a pro-pseudonym mindset amongst the populace.  In a sense, what Google+ is doing is attempting to create a paradigm shift in online identity.  If they succeed, people will willingly accept these rules as they creep ever outward into other services that don't end up needing them...

When this happens, there will be even fewer alternatives that support a pseudonym policy, and the alternatives will remain on the periphery of social interaction.

3) Market Dominance and Censorship

Let me put it in the terms of censorship and private entities like Wal-Mart refusing to sell albums that carry a "Parental Advisory" sticker.  Because the market is dominated by Wal-Mart, you end up with a de facto form of censorship.  Producers of music, in order to sell albums to the largest numbers of consumers, then have to self-censor in order to get into the stores that sell albums.  This is the potential that is concerning us.

I hadn't even quite grokked what Google meant by Identity Service until recently when a friend shared a post with me.  What they are implying in this concept is a cross-platform service to tie into all different areas.  This exists now with the technology of OpenID.  OpenID is a great service that allows you to have an account at participating services (I should note here that by "participating", I merely mean "implementing the OpenID technology" -- there is no single actual service proper named "OpenID" which gets to the heart of the matter as you will see.  OpenID is a DECENTRALIZED identity system.  Google seems to want to supplant the OpenID concept with a supposed "open" platform, based upon their system, which is the Google Identity Platform known as Google+.  At least, that's my understanding of what they mean by "identity platform".  No longer would there be an open platform linking comments/accounts to a pseudonymous identity (which, IMO, is "real enough") they are pushing for a link to the Google Service which would require a Real Name.

If this takes off (and they win this war - I don't mean the war between the users and Google, but the war between the two dominant players - Facebook and Google), they will have effective control of identity over online interaction.  I don't mean to make this sound completely as ominous as it might come across.  I'm not the excitable Alex Jones type of character (though I might have my moments ;P)  There is room for competition, and my main hope then is that someone else can "route around" this sort of dominance.

But the point stands that once a general monopoly over a system is established it becomes that much harder to break it, and not only break it, but to find alternatives that work (especially since the concept is to find a platform that works across various sites -- witness the ubiquitous Facebook "Like" button) -- it's not just escaping from Google+ the "social network" service provided by Google, it's about escaping from Google+ the "identity service" which goes far beyond the social network service.  You can bet your sweet bippy that if Google gets its way there IS no "leave it" because it will have its tentacles in every social network and service you find across the net.  It just wants to build up its network big enough so that there is no alternative.  Once that happens, you cannot just leave it.

And those people on the other side of the aisle who argue that we should just leave implies that the future internet will always remain the same as it is now in terms of identity and persistence of identity and alternative services -- but if the internet and the technological revolution has taught us anything is that nothing stands still, and the game keeps changing.