Rhodri Marsden: Thanks to troll-bashers we can go anonymous on Google+

Google Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt. Photo / Getty Images
Google Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt. Photo / Getty Images

There's an accepted piece of wisdom which says if people know who we are on the internet, we'll behave ourselves. It makes sense. After all, who'd want to be identified publicly as an abusive ranter who responds to even the mildest provocation with a stream of expletives?

No, we associate that behaviour with anonymous trolls, surely. When the Google+ social network was created three years ago, that was certainly the thinking; requiring people to use their real names would ... make us more civil.

We responded to Google+ with indifference for a heap of reasons, few to do with anonymity. Back then we read that people who were deemed to have broken Google's naming rules had had their accounts disabled, and that felt bad.

Then, as the social network floundered, it was repositioned as a connect-o-scope for all your Google activity, including YouTube. Google's chief executive, Eric Schmidt, referred to it as an "identity device". It became about knowing what we got up to, and our attitude towards that was, in the main, a shrug of acceptance.

But feelings have shifted. Anonymity is now seen less as an opportunity to harass and more a way to avoid harassment. It has always been stressed that anonymity is necessary for dissidents and whistleblowers online, but today many more of us feel this is applicable to us, too. Anonymity, pseudonymity, polynymity - surely that's our right?

This week, Google+ adopted what it describes as a more "welcoming and inclusive" approach - you'll be allowed to choose any pseudonym. Well, almost. You'll still need a first name and a surname, so Meatloaf might have a problem. Rude words and impersonation are not allowed.

But aside from that, you can construct your own identity, run amok in the somewhat deserted world of Google+ and, perhaps more importantly, access other Google services - YouTube, Google Play, etc - using that name.

It's a curious backtracking. It's been only months since Google forced us to use real-name Google+ accounts when commenting on YouTube, supposedly to usher in a new era of placid online behaviour.

As Yonatan Zunger, the chief architect of Google+, says: "One of the reasons this [pseudonymity] is safe to launch is that our troll-smashing department has got very good at its job."

Whether we buy it or not is another question, but at least we can openly vent our spleens using the name Saucer McBanjax, without Google knowing who we are.

- The Independent

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