This is the story of how I helped with the repeal of Google’s “Real Names” policy.
However, because my own name figures into the tale, and because several people have asked for the story behind it, I’d like to give a bit of personal history.
Origins of “Talin”
I never much liked the name I was given at birth, but it never really occurred to me to do anything about it until the mid-80s when I became a well-known game developer. I was much inspired by Richard Garriot a.k.a. “Lord British”, and I figured that it would make sense for a game developer marketing their personal “brand” to have a flashy, colorful nom de plume.
How I came up with the name is a story in itself. I had recently read a Scientific American article about “travesty generators”, programs that would read in a body of input text, compute the probabilities of letter sequences, and then use a Markoff-chain generative algorithm to output random gibberish that stylistically matched the input.
I wrote such a program in Perl, and then meticulously typed in all of the elf names from Tolkien’s Silmarillion, as well as the names of characters from several other fantasy and science fiction novels. The output of the program looked like this:
Arwood Narnilvars Aurin Finnethyst
Sylvand Elvarion Bereteelan Galan
Branor Gamaldor Arth Benus
Gamariel Teriandond Silvand Jupion
(In fact, my original generator program still works, and you can run it yourself by visiting this web page: http://www.sylvantech.com/talin/names.php)
I test-drove a couple of different names, which was pretty easy to do — all I had to do is go to a science fiction convention and write my chosen name on my convention badge as my “fan name”.
I remember the first time someone called me “Talin”, and I felt a shock of satisfaction — it really seemed to fit.
Initially I had intended only to use the new name as a pen-name for my software projects — my assumption was that my friends and family would continue to call me by my birth name. But I got used to people calling me “Talin” and I realized that I just liked it better. So I just started introducing myself as “Talin” everywhere.
I didn’t bother changing the name on my driver’s license or passport, since none of my friends ever saw those. I did, however, put the new name on my resume — when I worked at EA and Google, only HR knew what my legal name was.
I had thought it would be cool to adopt a mononym: a single name like “Sting” or “Madonna”. And initially this wasn’t really that arduous — while most websites and programs had input fields for both a first and last name, it was fairly easy to fool them by putting a space or hyphen in the last name field. In rare cases, I had to do something elaborate like enter a Unicode non-breaking space, or in some cases I used a Unicode peace symbol ☮ which some sites would (oddly enough) consider to be a letter.
However, as the years have gone by, this has become much more challenging. With the increase in security threats around the world, web sites have gotten much more strict about what inputs they accept. And then there’s the whole “real names” policy of social networks like Facebook (and initially, Google Plus).
While I don’t regret my decision, and adopting a last name at this point feels wrong to me, in hindsight I probably should have chosen a surname as well. Kids, let this be a lesson to you!
In 2010 I was working on the Blogger team at Google, and I had just finished work on the new template editor. Google was feeling the challenge from Facebook, and had started a new project code-named “Emerald Sea” which was supposedly going to be a “Facebook-killer”. This project would eventually be branded “Google Plus”.
Like a lot of other Googlers, I didn’t really want to work on a social network. (I had tried the concept of social media briefly in the Friendster / Six Degrees / Tribes era and came away unimpressed. Since then I’ve briefly used sites like Facebook or Twitter, but have stayed far away from them for the most part. I prefer “long form” news, in-depth analysis, most of which I get via RSS.)
However, back then the Google management knew that it would take a heroic effort to “turn the ocean liner” and get developers focused on social media. Director Urs Hölzle, in a move dubbed the “Urs-quake”, mandated that every product team in Apps would have to give up a percentage of their staff to the new project.
I decided to volunteer, not because I wanted to work on the new project, but because I was one of the newest people on the Blogger team, and I felt that my leaving would be less harmful to Blogger than having one of the old-timers go.
I spent about a year working on the G+ profile page, and then later transferred over to the growth and engagement team.
During this time, there was a lot of controversy about the so-called “real names” policy, which required that users use their “real world” names instead of online handles or pseudonyms.
Management insisted that it would provide positive benefits of both searchability (find your friends) and accountability (encouraging good behavior). And besides, they argued, this is the same policy that Facebook has.
The rank-and-file, on the other hand, were up in arms about it, and offered plenty of use cases where pseudonymity was not merely helpful, but could even be life-saving (like Syrian activists filing new stories under assumed identities).
Initially I was persuaded by the rationale behind the real-names policy because of my experience with MMORPGs — I knew that holding users accountable for bad behavior is difficult in a world where identities are disposable. However, evidence continued to mount against the policy, and I eventually sided with the other employees, who at this point were on the verge of outright revolt.
Somewhere around 2012 the Google Plus profile team got a high-priority request from community relations to fix the problem of celebrity mononyms. You see, a lot of celebrity PR departments were making Google Plus pages for their clients, but Google Plus required you to fill in both a first and last name. The PR departments were working around this by using the same tricks I once used — by putting a period in the last name field. This meant that when you went to Madonna’s Google Plus page, you saw her name as “Madonna .”
The Google Plus management (including my boss, Wayne Crosby) decided that I would be the perfect person to work on this — not only because I had a mononym myself, but also because my first job at Google had been working on the GMail contact manager, which meant that I was intimately familiar with the databases used to store user’s names.
The goal was to allow a certain select set of users to have a blank last name. This was not as easy as it sounds, for two reasons.
First, unlike most web sites that store user names as “first name” and “last name”, the Google user profile database instead stores “given name” and “family name”. The people who designed this database were trying to be culturally sensitive — not all cultures put the family name last. But at that point, no one had ever taken the time to work out how to format names for each of the locales that Google supports, so most frontends displayed the full name simply as given_name + “ “ + family_name, which was wrong for many cultures.
The second problem was that the database that stored user profile information was used by maybe fifty different Google applications. There was no way to predict whether all fifty apps would correctly handle an empty last name field. We couldn’t risk simply breaking those apps.
The solution took several months and involved a lot of testing and deploying of experimental code. The name given to this effort was “Project Madonna”.
(There was also a “Project Bieber”, which was focused on making Google Plus compliant with COPPA, the Child Online Privacy Protection Act and other laws governing use of online services by minors. However, I was not involved with that effort.)
The controversy within Google over the “real names” policy continued to rage. A number of high-profile working groups had tackled the problem, but their efforts came to nought, and the execs like Vic Gundotra remained adamant.
Because of my work on Project Madonna, I was asked to be part of a working group that was going to specifically look at the issue of pseudonyms. The other members of the group were project manager Saurabh Sharma, and Yonatan Zunger, a brilliant engineer vastly senior to me. (I highly recommend checking out Yonatan’s insightful articles on Medium. The one about tolerance is particularly good.)
One thing you should know about Google is that it has a very “evidence-based” company culture. Whenever two engineers get into a disagreement about something, their manager is likely to say “Go gather data to prove your point.” And there’s plenty of tools and data sources that any employee can use to do just that.
So we started looking at data. Particularly, we started looking at the list of names, from the abuse team, that were getting rejected because of the Real Names policy.
And what we found was…unexpected.
Only a tiny fraction of the rejected names were attempts at entering pseudonyms. The biggest category was people who had names in more than one language, and were trying to cram both their English and non-English name into the name field. The second biggest category was people trying to enter the name of their business as their personal name (because business accounts have restrictions that personal accounts don’t, Google doesn’t want people registering their businesses as personal accounts).
At this point, we knew we had something, but the data alone wasn’t enough. We also needed to understand the real motivations for having the policy in the first place. We knew what the execs had claimed — that forcing people to use their legal names increased accountability and searchability, but Yonatan sensed that there was something more to this — a deeper reason.
Saurabh and Yonatan scheduled a series of interviews with the execs of Google Plus, including project head Vic Gundotra. I tagged along on these meetings. What we learned was that the deeper reason for the policy was “ambiance”. They wanted Google Plus to have a friendly, familiar feel to it, and they worried that if large numbers of people had edgy or mildly offensive names, it would make the service seem creepy and threatening to the average user.
At this point, we were able to present our data, showing that the number of users who wanted to have pseudonyms was a tiny fraction of the user base.
At which point, Vic said, “Okay.”
The decision was made — Google wasn’t going to get rid of the policy entirely, but was going to make it significantly less restrictive. You were no longer required to use your legal name, you merely had to use a name that was “name-shaped”, in other words it had to look like a person’s name.
(There was a second part to the decision, which was that you could use any name you wanted provided it wasn’t abusive hate speech or the name of a business, so long as you could prove that you had a significant online following under that name — but I don’t know if that part of the policy was ever implemented.)
There was still a lot of technical work to be done to implement the new policy. Yonatan posed the question, “what should the code-name of the project be?”, and I immediately suggested “Project Zorro”. Yonatan’s response was “That name rules.”
(The rationale is that Zorro is a hero whose power stems largely from his hidden identity. While other superheroes such as Superman have secret identities, their primary power comes from other sources, like being born a Kryptonian.)
Project Zorro actually consisted of several parts:
- Deprecating the “Real Names” policy.
- Supporting “nicknames” which could be displayed in conjunction with the first and last name, such as Jon “Mad Dog” Hall.
- Solve the long-overdue problem of formatting given and family names (and now also nicknames) for different international locales.
I worked on the second and third part. Over the course of several months, I updated the database schema to include nicknames, added experiment flags to allow frontend applications to selectively enable the new name displays, and worked with the internationalization group who did the research to determine how to properly display names for many different cultures. This work had to be done carefully and meticulously, because so much of Google’s application code depended on this low-level subsystem.
In one of my life’s more amusing ironies, shortly after this happened, Facebook decided to lock out my account because I was using the name “Talin” with no last name. I had originally created this as a test account during my Blogger days because I was testing being able to post to Facebook from Blogger. Back then, it was possible to fool the Facebook input form using the techniques I have described.
Facebook claims that if you can show two forms of identification with your name, such as a membership card, you can unlock the account and use that name. So I went and got a CostCo card and a AAA membership card with the name “Talin” on them, and submitted the photos to Facebook.
Facebook refused to accept my documentary evidence, with no explanation as to why, and no way to appeal the decision. My account remains locked to this day, with no way for me to access it.
It’s OK; I don’t actually miss Facebook all that much.