NymWars Gone To The Dogs

Engraving of Ambient Occlusion and Depth of Field
I’m not real enough for Facebook. But dogs are!

While I was drooling about Linden Lab’s latest developments — which will be covered on a subsequent article — I got an email by Online Media Daily Europe about an article featured on Red Rocket Media announcing that a lot of UK Facebook accounts were actually held by… dogs. In fact, 7% of the dog population in the UK has their own Facebook account.

The London Evening Standard and the IT Pro Portal also cover the same story. They show how “DogBook” or “FaceDog” is so popular, that Top Dogs get millions of Likes, and, as such, are great for marketeers to target ads. (Cats are, of course, featured on LolCats and perhaps that’s why they aren’t so popular on Facebook) The journalists think this to be a great idea.

But I’m envious of all those dogs. Although I’m a human being, although I have written for leading UK publications like The Guardian, although I’ve been quoted on books (both non-fiction and academic literature), well, I’ve been kicked out of Facebook and I’m not allowed on Google+. In spite of being a perfectly normal human being, I’m excluded from social media. Why? Because I refuse to post a real life picture of myself on Facebook/Google+.

Dogs violate other Facebook Terms of Service. Although knowing how to type is not a requirement for being a Facebook user (the ToS doesn’t discriminate against analphabets), they’re under the legal age for being a valid Facebook user. The minimum age is not species-specific; Facebook doesn’t restrict it to Earth years, either. Dogs, furthermore, share their passwords with their owners, which is also not allowed. Many go by their nicknames. All these are clear ToS violations. The only thing they’re not violating is that they have, indeed, their real life picture on Facebook. A picture that is venerated and adored by millions of users.

Well, this seems to me to be most unfair. Again, I have nothing against dogs. They’re lovely, wonderful, fluffy creatures. They’re sentient beings like I am; they all want to be happy and avoid suffering, like I do. They love warm and cozy places and adore their food, like I do. So I feel a strong empathy with them. I think it’s wonderful that Facebook doesn’t discriminate against species. It’s very forward-thinking of them, and I compliment their decision (which, as a side-effect, earns them more money — a win-win situation!).

However, I feel discriminated. Putting dogs side-by-side with humans is ok. Discriminating humans because they don’t want to have their real life data on Facebook is not ok. Nevertheless, people do that all the time. They put roses and trees on their profiles, to avoid being stalked. They put creepy pictures of themselves when they were 2 or 8 years old — which also goes against the ToS, but Facebook doesn’t really care. They photoshop their pictures to look completely different and thus avoid being recognised. All that is accepted.

Having a pseudonym is not.

Copyright Image from New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner. Source: Wikipedia

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. But if you actually are a dog, you can create a valid Facebook account. Some humans cannot.

I wish I were a dog.

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About Gwyneth Llewelyn

I'm just a virtual girl in a virtual world...

  • Is facebook that Important? … Note that they still haven’t banned me.

  • No, it’s not that important, and will become less and less important over time.

    Nevertheless, these days pretty much everything uses Facebook as an identity provider, and the trend is accelerating. It’s not just Cloud Party that only supports Facebook registration as an identity provider; I’ve been seeing more and more sites doing the same. A few still allow email as login — there are more emails than Facebook accounts, after all — but I see a trend where this is slowly disappearing.

    So this is more a question of principle. Nobody should be allowed to become an “identity provider” used world-wide where the provider is able to decide to exclude humans but accept dogs. It’s ridiculous!

    As for the Facebook bans, there is a common misconception that Facebook’s employees are sifting through all those 800 million profiles and ban whoever looks fake. No, this works the other way round: it’s users that flag profiles for review, and Facebook promptly deletes them without giving people a chance to complain.

    In my case, I actually know what happened. I commit the mortal offense to give my opinion on an open source project of which I used to be a collaborator. The Glorious Leader of that project didn’t like my opinion, and didn’t want it to be seen online, so he went to Facebook, flagged my profile as “fake”, and I was promptly removed — and of course the messages disappeared. He subsequently was also removed as well (there seems to be some justice!), possibly for the same reason — his opinions were rather harsh, and it’s not unlikely that someone disliked him, too.

    So that’s the kind of companies we have to rely upon for our online identities. Imagine that you’d lived in a country where, if you expressed your opinion publicly, but the Government disliked it, they would remove your ID card, your social security card, and your driver’s license. Immediately your bank would kick you out, and you’d be without money. Your employer, unable to transfer the money to your former bank, or to validate your identity, would also be unable to pay you or even remain in a legally binding agreement with you. You’d be in instant poverty — but you would not even be able to get access to social security. In fact, it’s likely that some of the most oppressive regimes on earth still work that way, and human rights associations complain to the UN about them constantly.

    Nevertheless, we allow companies like Facebook do exactly the same, and not only nobody complains, but people who complain are seen as “odd”. The old argument that “if you don’t like Facebook, don’t use it” becomes moot as soon as just a few companies have an effective oligopoly on online identities, among which Facebook is by far the larger, with Google and Microsoft coming next.

    We’re in their hands and can’t complain.

  • Gwyn, since the Google+ TOS was changed months ago Google has been a lot more lenient on pseudonyms. There are thousands of SL users on G+ (even more on Facebook, as you know).

    Some months ago I received a notification by Google that my account was under review and that I was supposed to be subject to an identity verification. I knew another SL user who had the same problem who got me in touch with Yonatan Zunger, a Google employee. Yonatan was quite supportive and assured me that I wouldn’t have any problem and that the notification I received was probably due to a bug G+ had at the time.

    As a matter of fact, nothing followed the first notification I received. The opinion I got from that experience is that Google will not close accounts with an established, recognizable web identity, even when a pseudonym is used. I use my SL identity everywhere on the web, it’s easy to verify. I say, give it a try. I am sure you won’t have any problem.

  • You know, my fear of using Google+ (I did have an account for about two weeks, just when it entered Beta, until they changed their policies) is because of the interpretation of “more lenient”. While Facebook is something I have little patience for, except for keeping people posted about some information that might be useful/interesting to them, I use Google’s services comprehensively — from email to ads — being registered to more than 70 services.

    Without clear statements, I cannot afford the luxury of getting an employee waking up one day on a bad mood and deleting all my account data (and not just the Google+ profile!). The risk is too high. For now, if I avoid Picasa and Google+, I’m fine and not violating any of Google’s ToS, and not being subject to any “interpretation”. I’m an old customer in good standing; Google has my real name, address, phone number, ID card, VAT#, credit card data, and bank account number — I trust them with all that data because they don’t make it public. For all services except Google+ and Picasa, they don’t demand me to “reveal” anything I might not be comfortable with.

    I’m not willing to throw all that away just because someone gets annoyed with my avatar picture 😛

    I suppose I could create a new account, separate from my main account, and open a Google+ profile for that. But it meant losing all contacts on Gmail and all connections and setups I have… eventually, I might be doing that at some point. A few options are already possible under Google: for instance, the same AdSense/Analytics account can be viewed by multiple users — so I know that even if they cancel one of them, my data — and revenues! — are safe. If they roll that ability out for all other services, I might be willing to give Google+ another try.

    Or, well, more clear statements about their relationship with pseudonyms. I mean, they don’t even sell ads on Google+; what’s the point of having unclear statements about the use of real names? What they’re doing is something similar to what LL does in their ToS: “We forbid this, but we’re not really going to go after you if you break the rules. Seriously. Trust us. After all, we’re the Company That Does No Evil. Right?” Well, it’s no fun for me.

    I have elsewhere suggested that we ought to be able to do a “pre-approval”: voluntarily submit a request to get a Google+ profile approved, which would be reviewed by Google’s staff. If they deemed it to be ok, then the profile would be created, and you’d get a guarantee — in writing, please — that you wouldn’t be randomly deleted at an employee’s whim. If you didn’t get approved, tough luck: you simply would be excluded from Google+, but all your existing data and account(s) would remain safe with Google. This would make sense for me.

  • I can understand your concerns. Have you considered creating a G+ Page? They are not subject to the same rules: http://support.google.com/plus/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=1710600

  • Hm, aye, I have thought about that. After all, that’s what I did on Facebook; thankfully, I managed to transfer ownership of that page before I was deleted.

    I might do the same on Google+: create a Google+ profile, create a page, add a few friends as administrators, close down my Google+ profile again, but let the page remain.

    It’s a possibility.

  • Gwyneth, thanks for saying this stuff. I feel exactly as you do about the risks to me and my data inherent in Google’s vague rules and judgement calls combined with severe digital punishment, and that is why I have not touched my Google+ account in almost a year. Otherwise, it’s been status quo for the time being, but I am not impressed that Google hasn’t really changed its stance at all. They just say, ‘Same basic rules — we’re just doing it nicer now and allowing more exceptions.’ That is unacceptable to me. And eventually if I do not see Google do a ‘mea culpa’ 180 on this, I don’t expect I’ll be sticking with Google for much longer. I didn’t sign up for this.

  • Your last sentence is what most people (including myself!) often forget: “I didn’t sign up for this.” At some remote point in time, it became common practice for companies to change their terms of service at whim, and make the allowance to do so in those self-same terms of service. Then everybody copied that — even outside the software service industry — and it became “commonplace”. What this means is that these days you can get excited with a new service, read the terms, find them agreeable, join, and start to use it for all your purposes.

    Then, a few years later, the terms of service change, and now you have two options: submit or leave.

    I understand often that these things come from a certain naïveté from the company. Let’s take an example we know well: Linden Lab. They started Second Life believing that all the cool kids running around would be fascinated with having fun and wouldn’t do anything questionable or illegal. So it went. But then we started getting griefers, minors, casinos, and scams. So LL had to change their terms or service to kick all them out. This is understandable, even if it comes to a loss of profit (for example, for casino owners…). But it was not the service we signed up with. Obviously we can all understand the reasons why LL changed those terms and sort of agree with the changes.

    Obviously this leads to abuse by the companies launching the services; they can easily use that “pretext” of constantly changing policies and “binding agreements” at whim. And this is exactly what Google did (and Facebook). When I signed up for either, the issue about “pseudonyms” wasn’t ever on the developers’ minds. So long as a profile/account wasn’t used illegally — which is forbidden by a country’s laws anyway — they wouldn’t care about who signed up and what. But pressure from advertisers — and probably many people who are in Facebook just for dating (after all, that’s what Facebook was designed for!) — made Facebook change their policies, and so did Google when they launched Google+. The difference here is that Facebook is just “one” service, albeit with a lot of functionality. Google has a constellation of services, all being used for completely different purposes. Binding them under a single agreement to protect their “dating service” is rather stupid. Google doesn’t even have a valid pretext to cancel “pseudonyms” — unlike Facebook, they don’t place ads on Google+ (one wonders why not, though). So the only purpose for ruling pseudonyms out is to make sure that people looking for a date get more accurate information (“meaningful connections with real people” is what Google euphemistically calls it). People like me, who are not interested in Google’s dating services, have nevertheless to comply with their terms of service and policies to use things like Google Drive, email, or, more seriously, ad selling & buying. It’s absolutely stupid — specially, as you so well put it, “I didn’t sign up for this” in the first place.

    But now I’m “stuck” with Google. It’s not that I haven’t an option: it’s that often those options require a lot of time and patience to set up (just thinking about the sheer level of my websites using Google Analytics and have to go through all of them scares me off — and even though there are free, open-source alternatives, they will not work on third-party sites like, say, FeedBurner — another Google product anyway). So “having an option” is not entirely accurate.

    As a consumer, I should have a reasonable expectation of joining a service under certain terms and conditions that would remain valid over the period of time I use them, and that discriminatory or ostracising changes of policy are not suddenly introduced into those terms and conditions. But consumer rights don’t seem to figure in the equation.

  • Ha ha, I have never been on Second Life but your characterisation of Facebook/Google+ as dating services gave me a good laugh. XD

  • Hehe @Laroquod:disqus 🙂 Well, I’m not really being original. I read up on Facebook’s history: “According to The Harvard Crimson, the site was comparable to Hot or Not, and “used photos compiled from the online facebooks of nine houses, placing two next to each other at a time and asking users to choose the ‘hotter’ person”” (that’s a quote from Wikipedia). So, yes, Facebook’s origin was to be a dating site at Harvard.

    If Google+ was launched with that very same idea in mind, I don’t know. Still, most believe that Google+ is pretty much an Orkut replacement, and of course Orkut was launched as a dating site, Google just bought them…

    So, yes, that’s what “social networking” means: looking up hot girls and send them messages 😛 That’s what 99%+ of those 955 million users are doing. The remaining are writing articles on how great Facebook is for business (ha! Unless they mean that we can now date anyone on the planet worth dating and not need to leave our workplace…). Granted, those are the vocal ones who shape opinions; the rest is just too busy searching for their ideal mate to take notice 🙂

  • From what I remember from your past writing and from sifting through Facebook’s maze of FAQs, it seems the missing link you need to firmly establish/verify a Facebook identity as Gwyneth Llewellyn is a picture of credit card, student ID, etc. (not necessarily a government ID), with Gwyneth Llewellyn’s name and a photograph of a human being on it. It doesn’t have to be a photograph of you, per se (it just has to be enough to satisfy whoever issued the card), and it certainly doesn’t have to be your profile picture! So what’s stopping you?

    See: https://www.facebook.com/help/205225009603943/

  • While I do have a credit card in the name of Gwyneth Llewelyn, it doesn’t have any picture on it (few credit cards have). And even if it had, I would need a second document besides the credit card…

    Thanks for the link, though, it summarizes the alternatives rather well..

  • Actually, it seems that Google and Facebook may be in breach of federal law with their “no pseudonyms” policy, as Will Burns points out: