In recent weeks, Google+ has been a topic of discussion amongst those for whom “social networking” has become a regular part of life. Many have been dissatisfied with FB’s information sharing policies and its obvious ad-driven business model, thus G+ was touted as the next great thing, an “enlightened” version of FB, the party where all the cool kids have gone, etc.
I admit – I am resistant to new technology. I don’t enjoy learning new things that have to do with interfacing with a machine, but I will if I absolutely have to, if the payoff is worth the effort. So, after my third official invitation (this one from my friend Hacksaw), I crossed over. There were already several people there with whom I regularly interact – generally, the closest friends with whom I keep contact online, so what the heck? I’d give it a try.
Immediately, before I was even properly set up, I received a note from Hacksaw, one of my closest friends, that his G+ account had been suspended for not adhering to their proper name policy. He is Hacksaw – he has always been Hacksaw – this is not some randomly generated nomenclature to assure his anonymity – it is his name. But not for G+. Oh no. Not for them.
To me, any party that kicks out Hacksaw is a sucky party that already has a strike against it even before they turn on the music and I start dancing. Suspicious, I was. And surly. Though I understand the desire for accountability on the net – I totally agree with that – I also value freedom of expression, and especially the right to autonomy within one’s identity.
This idea of identity and the questions these practices raise has been a really fruitful topic of discussion and debate, and if G+ really embodies the ethos it espouses, it will take these issues into consideration as it alters and edits the features for this service. However, at the moment, it is also bringing up other questions as well, specifically 1) What is the nature of identity and who defines it? and 2) Who is allowed to speak? What public discourse is allowed to flow, and what is regulated? Why? And by whom?
Question 1: Identity
Who am I? What criteria defines me? Who decides upon what is and is not legitimate information for me to include within what I conceive of as “identity.”
G+, albeit inadvertently, brings up a lot of questions around this issue of identity, since on G+, if you don’t present your identity in a way that conforms to their rules of use, you are not allowed to speak in that forum – they decide what aspects of your identity are acceptable and legitimate, not you.
These questions came up almost immediately in discussions on G+. On one side of the arena, I read opinions from those who thought Google’s policy is great (or at least good enough for now) and/or that those who use names that are not their legal, given ones maybe should be allowed to do that, but only if they are willing to put the disclaimer “Anonymous Coward” next to it. On the other side, I found myself – still, repeatedly, upholding the idea of accountability on the net, but with different ideas about identity and nomenclature. These were questions I raised in a comment thread about this issue:
"I have known people for whom their name was an integral part of their identity - why does someone have the right to take that away from them? I've also known people who had changed their names after a particular point in their life had past, identifying as a "new person" and wanting to be called by that new name -- I honor and respect that. I understand the complications that people who believe they are "anonymous" can raise, how hate-filled rhetoric is more likely, etc. What I have a problem with are people who are not anonymous -- they ARE the person they call themselves -- but that name hasn't been legally legitimized by larger cultural institutions. It is that lack of choice about one's identity that bothers me -- I don't like to see people's identity's regulated like that, and I understand that for some, their name is part of that identity. (Race, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, etc, would likewise fall into those categories of identity markers that no one else gets to decide for others.) I am not sure why an arbitrary marker that someone else decided upon for a person without their consent before they were born is something that they MUST continue to drag around with them, even if it is antithetical or outside of their currently held identity -- dictating that as a hard and fast "rule" seems.... well, rather fascist to me. I understand the issues around anonymity, but am not sure why the privileging of "legal name" is the only answer to that" (excerpted 7-27-11).
As pointed out in Hacksaw’s letter, their policy does not adequately resolve any issues of accountability – a plausible SOUNDING name is not likely to be flagged, thus “John Smith,” all 25,000 of him, can say whatever they damn well please. Hacksaw, however, can’t; that is where my problem lies.
Question 2: Whose discourse is suppressed?
I know that the aim is to suppress the discourse of spammers and haters, to use vernacular terms, but in this case (and the one following) that is not how the dynamic plays out “IRL.” Hacksaw is a large part of the reason that I am on FB, and one of the major factors in my switch over to G+. Talking to him is part of the reason that I’m interested in being “social” on this “network” to begin with. He is a highly intelligent, respectful, open-minded, (dare I say) enlightened being who has never, to my knowledge, engaged in any social interactions online for which he would be reticent to be held accountable – this is a man with genuine ethos. But then – suddenly – he’s not there.
Curious how this dynamic worked, I wanted to see what G+ would and would not tolerate, while staying completely within their stated bounds and guidelines for usage. I did use my legal name, per
What is one actually allowed to say and do on G+ and still be tolerated and allowed to speak? If I give my legal (“real”) name, is that enough? If I agree to “be accountable” for what I say as me, or rather, as the me that is institutionally endorsed and legitimized, do I then have free speech, given that I avoid (as I would anyway) hate-filled or threatening rhetoric?
How to Have One’s G+ Account Suspended in Three Days or Less
I’ll admit – I was rather astonished at the speed at which my account was (temporarily) suspended; it did not take long. Because I didn’t have a “control account” to compare my results with, I can’t claim that any one of these factors caused my account to raise whatever flag it raised, but in some combination (in case you’d like to replicate these findings at home), here are the various strategies I enacted to test what constituted “free speech” in the public space of G+:
* Made fun of their identity policy as part of my identity: I am She Who Mocks Your Policy, Even While Following It.
* Threatening, in a comment, “to go Fyshmom on their asses.”
* Posted this link about creepy Google+ activity .
* Made a post celebrating the inclusion of semen in my new calorie counter so that I didn’t have to develop an app called iSwallow.
* When told that was “TMI,” made comments about the suppression of sexuality in our culture so that its taboo nature could be exploited for commercial purposes, stating my refusal to “delete” that part of my identity from my public discourse.
* Generally questioning the identity politics/suppression that I was seeing as a possible outcome for Google’s policies.
I would like to note that despite the commercial, information-selling aspect of FB, it has never suppressed my ability to speak. Never. I have said the above and much, much more on there and never had a thing happen to my account because of it. (Note: I realize that this is not the case for others – I know people who have had art work deleted, for instance, because the figure was nude, or mothers who have had their pictures deleted because it displayed breastfeeding. I disagree with these practices as well and would be happy to address them elsewhere. For now, however, I’m sticking to a personal examination of text-based expression of ideas.) But not on G+. Nope. Not there.
The Virtual Panopticon: “I Can See Your House From Here”
When I realized that my account was unusable, that I couldn’t change, edit, or post anything, that the information in my Profile was suddenly blank, I realized I’d been “caught,” or whatever one is when they are being reviewed for…. Whatever we are being reviewed for. Just as the author of the article I’d linked to described, I just suddenly had no access to any of my account and could take no actions, even though I was signed in.
That’s when something occurred to me: I was being surveilled. Though of course we all potentially are at any time when we are online, I really was being watched. It was an odd, odd sensation….
And then I thought – hey – it’s Google – they can watch anybody. Heck, they’ve even shown me a picture of my own house with my van parked in front of it, Tibetan prayer flags fluttering on the porch. I had watched them watching me, and they were the ones to make sure that I could do that.
I was struck, then, by the utterly metaposttransmodern manifestation of Foucault’s panopticon, where we are the ones watching ourselves watching ourselves watching. With Google, we don’t exactly “pay” for this service, but in a sense we do – we get what we get but we also lose what we lose. We have made an apparatus by which we can surveil ourselves from within our own homes as though we are outside of them. It was twisty and astonishing – I laughed as I controlled the urge to lock the doors and close the windows because hey – I’m already inside the guard shack.
And I wondered… Where is this ride going? I know the stated ethos of the company, and neither believe nor disbelieve it – for me, that ethos is in a constant state of construction, always being legitimized or rejected by its audience (us) and being upheld (or not) by its members. This is the internet. It is really, really big. It “connects” a good deal of the world. And this is Google. (He who controls the spice…..)
The Narrow End of Liberalism
One boundary across which Liberals™ and Conservatives™ differ is in the strategies they see as most efficacious to guaranteeing freedom and safety. (Bear with me – this is not an irrelevant tangent.) What Liberals ™ often fail to understand about Conservatives™ is that, at least at an academic/philosophical/foundational level, they believe that Liberalism™ leads to (or can lead to) fascism. Leo Strauss, often associated with the neo-con movement, is one such proponent of this idea – having survived Nazi Germany, it was, to him, an outcome he had witnessed first hand. Just as Aristotle saw Democracy as just one small step above Tyranny, so too did Strauss view Liberalism as the precursor to Fascism – he and Aristotle were not at odds in this regard.
What is happening with G+ is a miniaturized, microcosmic iteration of the narrow end of liberalism, taken to a particular place and implemented in a particular way, moving toward a possible state of fascism, or at least having the potential to do so. I am not paranoid about Google’s motives, and don’t even pretend to know them. What I am noting, however, is the potential for exploitation, suppression, and regulation in what is gearing itself up to be a powerful site within this current iteration of the public sphere. What discourse is allowed or not allowed within that is, I think, worth discussing.
Who Am I?
This discussion of identity is, perhaps, particularly cogent and applicable to my own personal stake in “identity” and my expression thereof. I am me, and I am multiple-me’s. “Fyshmom” is not my legal name (I know – you’re shocked) but it’s not not me either. My legal name is me likewise, but it is not MORE me than this me. I have other me’s too – they are as legitimately “me” as this or any me. I define this. It is my identity. The rest of you – all 7ish billion of you – can keep your hands off of it; I do not need your legitimization or permission to be myself.
But can I speak? And as whom?
My legal name can speak, in most forums (unless I make fun of the distinction between “real” and “legal,” then all bets are off) as me with all of my experience, my resume, my CV, my education, etc., but my other me’s can only speak as themselves – solely alone without the particular cultural markers used to generate ethos in some rhetorical situations, despite their share in the creation of those authorities. (I won’t even go into my discussion of hybrid subjectivity here – that would make me more than me rather than just iterations of a singularly-embodied me. I will save that for another post, but suffice to say that I offered to create this type of identity as well – if G+ got wind of that, they wouldn’t like it either, I’m sure.) I’ve always wanted/planned/partially/half-assedly enacted these experiments with identity, legitimacy, and access to the creation of discourse, but now I think it is time to do so more actively and formally. I am, after all, beginning a new program of study tomorrow, which means…
It’s time to go Fyshmom on their asses.