Getting people's names right in software design: a LOT harder than it looks

Charlie Stross weighs in on the Nym Wars and Google Plus's braindead "real names" policy. He reprints Patrick McKenzie's prescient list of problems with name-handling in software design, a must-must-must-read for anyone thinking about the subject, and then ruminates further.

People have exactly one canonical full name.
* People have exactly one full name which they go by.
* People have, at this point in time, exactly one canonical full name.
* People have, at this point in time, one full name which they go by.
* People have exactly N names, for any value of N.
* People's names fit within a certain defined amount of space.
* People's names do not change.
* People's names change, but only at a certain enumerated set of events.
* People's names are written in ASCII.
* People's names are written in any single character set.
* People's names are all mapped in Unicode code points.
* People's names are case sensitive.
* People's names are case insensitive.

People's names sometimes have prefixes or suffixes, but you can safely ignore those.
* People's names do not contain numbers.
* People's names are not written in ALL CAPS.
* People's names are not written in all lower case letters.
* People's names have an order to them. Picking any ordering scheme will automatically result in consistent ordering among all systems, as long as both use the same ordering scheme for the same name.
* People's first names and last names are, by necessity, different.
* People have last names, family names, or anything else which is shared by folks recognized as their relatives.
* People's names are globally unique.
* People's names are almost globally unique.
* Alright alright but surely people's names are diverse enough such that no million people share the same name.
* My system will never have to deal with names from China.
* Or Japan.
* Or Korea.
* Or Ireland, the United Kingdom, the United States, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Russia, Sweden, Botswana, South Africa, Trinidad, Haiti, France, or the Klingon Empire, all of which have "weird" naming schemes in common use.
* That Klingon Empire thing was a joke, right?
* Confound your cultural relativism! People in my society, at least, agree on one commonly accepted standard for names.
* There exists an algorithm which transforms names and can be reversed losslessly. (Yes, yes, you can do it if your algorithm returns the input. You get a gold star.)
* I can safely assume that this dictionary of bad words contains no people's names in it.
* People's names are assigned at birth.
* OK, maybe not at birth, but at least pretty close to birth.
* Alright, alright, within a year or so of birth.
* Five years?
* You're kidding me, right?
* Two different systems containing data about the same person will use the same name for that person.
* Two different data entry operators, given a person's name, will by necessity enter bitwise equivalent strings on any single system, if the system is well-designed.
* People whose names break my system are weird outliers. They should have had solid, acceptable names, like 田中太郎.
* People have names.

Me, I figure that Goog's stuck with a Real Name policy because they don't understand why Facebook has been successful, so they're cargo-culting its features in the hope of hitting on the solution.

Why I'm not on Google Plus

Start the discussion at bbs.boingboing.net

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  1. I work with customer data every day, and names are my number one hate. The absolute worst thing is that we have quite a lot of high-profile customers, and when you address someone with a knighthood on the “Dear Mr Smith” line of a letter, you’re supposed to use their FIRST name, like in “Dear Sir Alan” for Sir Alan Sugar. Screws up my mailmerges no end.

    And don’t even get me started on titles for the clergy.

  2. Could there not be some sort of compromise, that people could opt to use a pseudonym or opt to use their real name?  It could even offer a bit of more “verified” authenticity if you wanted to opt for it, that you were using what was in all likelihood your authentic name and identity.  And then it could offer settings to allow you to filter in or out or allow for or forbid comments from verified or non-verified users. 

    That would give the best of both worlds, on things where anonymity or a less-tied-to-your-real-world identity would be a benefit, people could still use pseudonyms and be free to speak their minds.  On things where anonymity and cutting the ties to your real world self makes the discussion less civil and less trustworthy and adds no benefit, you could protect the discussion’s level of decency and honesty. 

    1. Could there not be some sort of compromise, that people could opt to use a pseudonym or opt to use their real name?

      That sounds like a good idea, but the final result is likely to be few in any “real” names being used.  Instead everybody will be “LordSatan656”, “ButzSniffer7”, “CrankAddict”, and “UrMom” just like any of the other places that allow people to enter anything for their name.

      That’s fine in places where you don’t have to deal with these people in RL, but on social networks I expect to hang out in meatspace as well, or I’ve met them there some time in the past.

    2. There is… Its called using a different service if you dont want to use a real name on Google+, I ma kinda curious who on boingboing’s staff hates their name so much that we need 2-3 posts a day about it.

      1. I ma kinda curious who on boingboing’s staff hates their name so much that we need 2-3 posts a day about it.

        That would be Xeni Jardin. Which would make her in violation of their “Real Names” policy.

    3. You mean the exact same system that Boing Boing uses?

      Ya I think we could do that.

      P.S.  Charlie Stross is so fucking kickass.  After reading this on top of his earlier keynote speech about security of the future, I’m pretty sure I want to have his baby.

  3. A world government should just assign everyone a unique identifier at birth.  I call dibs on THX-1138.

  4. Why should I be limited to a single name at any given time, or expect to maintain a name for any specific period of time? 

    I have multiple circles that I can use for different purposes. I have a circle for my close family, who know me as “Robert Tables”, and I have a circle for my fans who know me as “Archmage Bobismo” and I have a circle for another interest where myself and several other people together represent an entity known as “D0rkus”, and I have one where I only have a public key, and no name at all.

    Why should any of these necessarily be linked to the others?

    The interface that I present online is not an identity (that is, it is not identical to ‘me’) it is a facade which may be operated by one or more actors, each of which may or may not be human. Application of rules of human identity (various naming rules and ideas about continuity an uniqueness of agency) to these facades betrays a complete misunderstanding of their nature and purpose.

  5. Just assume that everyone’s American or legally in America. Nobody exists anywhere else.
    Instead of using names which can be confusing (Mary Smith or Maria Gonzales? There are a few more than one of both..) just make everyone use their SSN when doing anything in the internet. Problem solved. /jk

  6. People whose names break the system will be assigned a UUID at the discretion of the IT department.

    Thank you in advance for your cooperation,

    Sincerely, The IT Department.

  7. A good friend of mine has five names then his last name.  His last name is a common first name, too.  His name is something like James Edward Howard Richard Michael Tyler.  (It’s not that both for privacy and because I can’t recall all of them right this second) He’s American, both his parents are American.  His mom is weird.  :)  She wanted to give him more names, but his dad finally said “five is enough” so she calls him by another name, Wesley.  As does his father, the rest of his family, his wife and kids (well, ok, they probably call him “Dad”), all his friends, and co-workers.  But it’s not his “real” name in that it is not on his birth certificate.  And all his names are not on his driver’s license as there was not enough room and the state made him leave some off.  What name should he use on google+ ?  

    My dad works with a man named Howard Howard.  He has no middle name.  His parents thought it was hilarious.  Will google+ allow his name, or will they throw it out as not a “real” name?    

    1. Google+ has ways you can verify your “strange” name like Howard Howard.  And as far as your friend with the long given name, His surname or last name is only one of those, the rest are classified as middle or given names.  

      1. gandalf23’s example specifically noted that the name that everyone actually knows the friend by is not actually a part of the given name.  So, your suggestion is that this person use an extremely truncated portion of a name that no one else calls him by as his identity on G+?  What precisely is the benefit of this supposed to be?

        1. It does not have to have a benefit.  Google is going to do what makes logical sense for Google.  They are a company that is made billions by acquiring data and using that to make advertisements tied more closely to the person viewing them.  Google+ is not a goodwill gesture to the world.  Its there to make Google money.

          And as far other names you known by, Google gives you the option to put those nicknames and other names your known by right there on your profile page.  

          1. Truly, your grasp of the obvious is astounding.  However, you seem to have missed that, despite what you’ve posted:

            1. what people are complaining about is that what Google is doing is NOT logical
            2. Google (and the people arguing for the use of “real names”) are the ones who are asserting that it *does* have a benefit
            3. As mentioned in TFA and other stories about this, Google hasn’t actually been abiding by the “common name” bit, even for people who have ample evidence

            So, statements like “Google+ is not a goodwill gesture to the world” are really rather off point.

          2. 1. How is it not logical for Google to be able to personally identify someone they are trying to advertise to?  If they can find out your Bill Smith at 100 Main St, and your a member of X, Y, an Z public organizations, how does that not help them to tailor better ads to you?

            2. And I am saying even if it doesn’t have a benefit to the user of the product, it has a clear benefit to the owner of the system.  Nothing in the world is ever free.  Google gives you a social networking site to use the data to better their primary business.  In reality this is no different than a site requiring you to register with a comment system in order to post.  By the act of registering i am giving up a great deal of privacy, and allow myself to be be tracked by said comment system and advertisers.  

            3.  Read exactly what they say “common” name is to them.  

            “Your common name is the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you.”

            If its not the name your mother calls you, then its not your common name according to google rules.  Google doesnt want you living out an different life than the one you present to said family friends and coworkers.  If your one of these people that has to keep secrets from those people, then the service is not for you.  Its just that simple.    

          3. Google gives you a social networking site to use the data to better their primary business… the service is not for you.  Its just that simple.

            Google should use this for advertising copy.

          4. And if I choose not to use G+ because of their silly, inconsistent, and inconvenient policy, they won’t be able to use even that information to sell my attention to advertisers. Honestly, how am I supposed to prove that my friends call me ‘Nel’? Collect signed testimonials from… how many? Two, three, half-a-dozen? Should they be witnessed? Stamped by a notary? If I do all that just to get a social site to recognise my handle and not just give up and use Phasebuk, is there any guarantee that I’ll actually get the ID of my choice?

            Google can be as silly, inconsistent or stubborn as they wish, you’re right. But that doesn’t protect them from criticism, or from wasting money ignoring good (as opposed to ‘common’) sense. They can ignore the criticism, but it’s not going to go away.

          5.  how does that not help them to tailor better ads to you?

            That’s rather short sighted.

            It might help them target the people who still choose to use the service, but:

            1. Address and “real name” information seem pretty valueless. They can already get geographic information quite well, if necessary (which is plenty good enough – the only reason you’d need actual mailing addresses would be to sell them to direct marketers or something — which isn’t happening, but in which case we would have a whole different problem here). And much, much more interesting than anything they could possibly use a “real” name for are the various inferences they can make based on the interests of you and your various circles of friends. (But the latter is provisional on you actively using the service, which brings us to:)

            2. They’re not going to be able to advertise at all to all of the millions of people who decide not to use the service because they can’t actually be themselveses (compound plural) on it.

          6. If its not the name your mother calls you, then its not your common name according to google rules. 

            UmWut?

            You just quoted the google rule in question. I repeat: friends, family or co-workers. You see that word OR? If your mother always calls you Aloysius Popewhit Dumbledore, but your friends call you “Sharkster”, then Google’s written policy is supposedly to accept either one. That doesn’t appear to be what they’re doing.

          7. Then be upset that they are not following their policy, not that you think the policy is unfair.  I do believe there are some people with common names that have a valid complaint, but the complaint should not be this policy is unfair and hurts the underage, suicidal gay abused mother runaway who is a political activist in a third world country that is being stalked and cant say anything because of religion….   

          8. Then be upset that they are not following their policy, not that you think the policy is unfair…but the complaint should not be…

            BOTH complaints are being made. Loudly. And they BOTH have merit.

            Also please note that strict adherence to the stated policy allows pseudonyms. A great many people are known to large circles of friends (and even co-workers) only online and pseudonymously. The policy does not specify “real [meatspace] life”.   

          9. And they have a place where you can put and be found though those pseudonyms.  They have provided you the ability to still be found though those other names, they just ask for your real name as well.   They allow you to use a pseudonyms, but they also are requiring you to have a real identity as well.

    2. My mother had a cousin-in-law named Evelyn. Except that her name was actually Harriet. And her family called her Susan. It makes you wonder why they even bothered naming her in the first place.

  8. Peter Brülls There is a difference between “anonymity” (logging in under any name you please, at any time, or no name at all) and “persistent pseudonymity” (where you have a name that you go by, and you want that name to be used as your indentifier.  It’s consistent, and you are accountable for what you say under that name.)Xeni Jardin is an example of a persistent pseudonym.  If she signs on to G+ and is an abusive troll, people know it’s her, and she is accountable for her words.  People stop taking her seriously, block her, etc.  If you force her to sign up for G+ under “Jane Doe,” her friends and fans won’t know it’s her, they won’t be able to find her if they’re looking, and her words are actually LESS accountable to her public, well-known persona.  Not to mention that you’re then asking her to risk her safety (assuming Jane Doe is her real name), because it’s ridiculously easy to find someone’s address and even a photo of their house and a map to it, if you’re using your legal name online.It harms no one to let her use G+ under the *common name* (XJ) that she’s known by, and it actually causes HER harm to be forced to either sign up under the name on her driver’s license, or a “real-sounding” (i.e., Western “normal”) pseudonym that is tied to neither her given name or her common name.

    1. Have you even checked the google policy?

      “Google+ makes connecting with people on the web more like connecting with people in the real world. Because of this, it’s important to use your common name so that the people you want to connect with can find you. Your common name is the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you. For example, if your legal name is Charles Jones Jr. but you normally use Chuck Jones or Junior Jones, any of these would be acceptable”

      It allows for the use of common names, but if you have no proof of that name being your common used name, then you should expect problems.

      1. That’s what their policy say, but Skud’s experiences show otherwise. Her “government ID” name is Kirrily Roberts (which is public information), but everybody in the industry knows her as Skud, yet Google won’t accept that.

        Reality meets Google policy with predictable confusion. Hence threads like this, because Google aren’t even allowing their own policy to be followed (let alone the bootstrapping problem of how your common name becomes commonly known).

  9. geekandwife, that is, in fact, Google’s stated policy.  It is not what Google is actually doing – and that’s one of the problems.  Whoever wrote that policy didn’t actually know Google’s actual policy.

    Second: Lady Gaga gets to post as Lady Gaga.  Google specifically makes that decision if they feel a user is “important enough”.

    Third: you’re right, Google is free to do whatever they damn well please, because they’re not the government.  However, there is still harm done to society if an entity as ubiquitous as Google makes the wrong decision – and there’s the harm done to Google as well.

    Google’s actual policy is a poor match for reality on many levels.  First, they think the government should be the authority in what you call yourself.  If you happen to be a dissident, well, too bad – you won’t be using Google.  Second, they make a lot of the assumptions on Patrick’s list.  The “Howard Howard” cited above would probably have a great deal problems getting an account reenabled.  (And unfortunately, he could lose his email as well, if he were foolish enough to depend on Google for it.)

    You seem to have some really deeply felt opinion on this topic, so it’s a little discordant to me that you don’t seem to have followed this topic as it’s evolved over the past couple of weeks.

  10. It’s also worth pointing out that, for many people, it’s important for their private and professional and/or family identities to be separate, and I think that’s a valid concern.

    For example, Joe’s mother is a devout ——, and would likely have a heart attack if she discovered that he had given up —– and, worse, become a *****. Therefore, he uses Joe Realname for his traditional fasebuk account, and Joey Truname for his other fasebuk account. (Yes, of course he has more than one. Doesn’t everybody?)

    For professional connections, though, he uses Joseph.S.Realname at geemail.com, so he can keep that correspondence and associated professional activity separate from his real life. And he’s got a work email as well, which will be void (but probably still receiving mail) when he changes jobs.

    I’m sure this and similar arguments have been raised in the many, many discussions on this topic. I’m also sure that there are many people who would dismiss this argument as being useless, because they’re not “weirdos” (or whatever) like Joe. Or the other Joe Realnames that are out there, who can’t use Joe Realname because it’s already taken by Joey.  :-)

  11. Wouldn’t Google’s current policy make it more difficult for the government and spooks to make up fake personas online? Just a thought.

  12. I also know some people with ludicrously unlikely real names. Such as an unfortunate Asian-American woman named “Bamboo Dong” – she was a friend of my roommate in college.

    Particularly offensive about the real names policy is that 1) some people use false names because of issues with stalkers, and 2) apparently it only goes for people who aren’t currently REALLY famous, because guess what names Lady Gaga and Fifty Cent are allowed on there with? Even though OTHER people with pen/stage names aren’t being allowed to use them or have two profiles.

    1. Here is an idea… if your being stalked, maybe you should stay off social networking sites.  The best way to avoid attention is to avoid attention….

      1. Here is an idea… if your being stalked, maybe you should stay off social networking sites.  The best way to avoid attention is to avoid attention….

        Ooooh. I missed this one. 

        So, [slightly longer but more explicit] geekandwife: “Bad stalking victim! Bad! Don’t you know that the internet is only for decent people who have never had to deal with being threatened by a creepy stalker who wants to control your life? If anyone’s ever stalked you, make sure you shut up forever and stay off the internet!”

        1. If your being stalked, its a bad thing, i am not saying they should stay off the internet… i am saying they should stay off services that by their very purpose is to allow strangers to be part of a social network.  Its the same as if you have a seafood allergenic its probably a bad idea to decide to eat at a red lobster, or if your an alcoholic you probably shouldnt work as a bartender.  

          1. Using a pseudonym is usually going to be perfectly safe. And it’s not really your business to tell them what’s good for them in any case, is it?

            And what part of people interacting with each other in an online social network is incompatible with that exactly? What’s in it for the rest of us to effectively ban such people from the space? How does it make the experience anything but poorer?

  13. That’s fine in places where you don’t have to deal with these people in RL, but on social networks I expect to hang out in meatspace as well, or I’ve met them there some time in the past.

    This may come as a shock to you, but not everyone uses social networks the same way you do. I.e.: to interact exclusively with people you already know in meatspace.

    I’m reading you as expressing quite a vociferous desire to make G+ (and maybe other social networks) exclusively useful to people who use them exactly the same way you do. Doing your best to neuter and poison them for all of the other variations of use cases the rest of us out here might have for them. 

    And all, basically, to make it slightly more convenient for you to locate your meatspace friends whose online nicknames you don’t know.

    Yeesh. That’s fine if that’s what you want, but I think you could stand to be more explicit about your aims.

    1. “This may come as a shock to you, but not everyone uses social networks the same way you do. I.e.: to interact exclusively with people you already know in meatspace.”

      What your not understanding is Google is wanting to only really support that concept.  They are not wanting to be facebook, they want it, at least as their design has gone so far to be mainly be a way to communicate with those people that you do in meatspace.  

  14. And they have a place where you can put and be found though those pseudonyms.  They have provided you the ability to still be found though those other names, they just ask for your real name as well.   They allow you to use a pseudonyms, but they also are requiring you to have a real identity as well.

    The policy, the controversy and the bannings concern the “display name” at the top, not any optional nicknames further down. If we accept that a “display name” can in fact be what your [online] friends call you, then there is NOTHING in the policy which requires the use of (let alone public sharing) of anything like a “real” name.

  15. What your not understanding is Google is wanting to only really support that concept.  They are not wanting to be facebook, they want it, at least as their design has gone so far to be mainly be a way to communicate with those people that you do in meatspace.

    To the extent that’s true, this is what Corey called cargo-cult copying of Facebook. It’s stupid – the whole point is supposedly to be better than Facebook.

    But also, I don’t actually know that that is true. Is there a Google exec on record as saying G+ is only for your meatspace friends? I doubt it. It would be a stupid thing to say. (But we do have the stupid policy that implies it…)

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