Google Plus Welcomes Minors, Still Has Issues to Resolve

BlogHer Original Post

At the end of January, Google's social network Google Plus quietly opened the doors to minors ages 13 and over. This is something that anyone managing a Google+ Page already suspected, based on the choices when creating the page to make it 18 and over. What users didn't expect was that Google+ would open its gates so soon, with so many issues still left to address.

Google+ moved fast before the announcement to implement a variety of security features to protect the new demographic. This post will go over these features, then list some of the outstanding issues that the network has yet to address.

Protections for Minors

Anyone using Google+ has the ability to select with whom each individual post they create will be shared. When choosing a post to go Public, however, underage users are prompted to remember that this means the post will be shared with the entire internet and that strangers may be able to comment (if they have changed their settings to allow this).


Prompt minors see when posting Public.

Changing settings can enable any user to specify who can see their profile, what specific parts of their profile are visible to whom, and who can contact them through the network. The profiles of minors are defaulted to allow only notifications and comments from people in their immediate circles.


The options given to users in Google+ settings.

In Hangouts, Google+ enables users to have live video chat sessions with a maximum of 10 other users at a time. Hangouts can be shared publicly or limited to Circles (pre-selected groups of people). Like certain house parties, Hangouts do not necessarily belong to the user who created them, so even if someone shares a Hangout with only a limited group, if someone in that group shares the Hangout publicly, anyone who sees it in their stream can join in.

To lend a hand with the issues that may result from a stranger crashing a Hangout where a minor is present, Google+ has added a feature that immediately stops minors' video and audio, so they can't be seen or heard. Immediately, a prompt pops up notifying minors about the newcomer and asks them whether they'd like to continue video chatting or exit the Hangout.


Prompt minors see when a stranger joins their Hangout.

Despite these strides in protection, several issues remain in need of address, both to protect the new demographic and to ensure that the adults already using the network can continue to share as they have thus far enjoyed.

Control

There currently exists no way for users posting about adult topics to do so in a way that prevents the underage crowd (or someone at work) from seeing these updates. Posting to a specific Circle can be useful in this regard, but that requires a user to Circle all the people that they think are interested in receiving this sort of content. That can work if one only engages with people whose content they enjoy equally, but presents a problem when people who are interested in this type of content add no value to a user's stream. Google+, it might also be mentioned, only allows people to Circle 5,000 other people, and for active users who have more followers than that, explaining that you can't add someone back because you're capped -- or having to remove someone because you need to add people whose content is more relevant to your online experience can be quite uncomfortable.

The solution I found was to create an 18 and over Google+ Page to share the content I think is unsuitable for minors. However, not all users are going to see the management of yet another digital space as convenient, raising concerns about a response from the network that promotes censorship over freedom of expression. To date, there is no word on whether Google will be developing this function, though when I posted asking for this capability, Yonatan Zunger, Chief Architect at Google+, responded in agreement that this would be a useful feature.

Notifications

While Google+ enables users to select who can send them notifications, the network does not distinguish among the types of notifications. As a result, if you want to allow the public or even Extended Circles (which works like Facebook's Friends of Friends) to send you private messages, strangers end up with both the ability to send you private messages and to tag you in photographs.

Because I write about relationships, I understand that some people may not feel comfortable talking about their partners in a public comment thread, so I allow private messages from Extended Circles. The downside is that anyone who is in a circle of someone I have circled can tag me in a photo. This seemed harmless enough until I woke up one morning, flooded with notifications from Google+ asking whether I wanted to accept the tags in photos of various men.


"Look at me!" photo tags.

It's an effective way to make someone stop what they're doing and look at you. But it's very inconvenient. And while Google+ has features in place to enable users to quickly flag inappropriate content, users are sometimes too fast for the network, enabling one to see herself tagged in sexually suggestive photos. I take it as a reassuring sign that despite 500,000 followers this has only occurred to me three times. Usually, by the time I get there, the image has been removed. I still would like the ability to change my settings so that while I receive private messages from Extended Circles, only people in my Circles (or even one specific Circle) can tag me in photos.

Pseudonyms

In the beginning, Google+ made it clear that it would be a place where everyone used their real names, the logic being that people are more civil when their real life reputation is attached to their comments. Problems quickly arose, however, as the algorithms and people involved in policing this "real name" rule began suspending profiles of not only pseudonymous users, but anyone with an "unreal"-looking name, such as tech commentator Violet Blue (whose legal name, in case you don't know, really is Violet Blue).

When my account was suspended for using a psuedonym, I lobbied that the policy was depriving the network of the voices of people who, for a variety of valid reasons (such as political dissenters who must protect themselves against retaliation, scientists whose lives are threatened by extremists who believe for whatever reason that their work is unethical, victims of domestic violence and hate crimes, etc.), choose not to use their real names.

My situation received enough media attention that my profile was quickly reinstated, but unfortunately, this was not the experience of a lot of other users. Eventually, in the face of mounting evidence, Zunger conceded:

We thought this was going to be a huge deal: that people would behave very differently when they were and weren't going by their real names. After watching the system for a while, we realized that this was not, in fact, the case. (And in particular, bastards are still bastards under their own names.) We're focusing right now on identifying bad behaviors themselves, rather than on using names as a proxy for behavior.

In an effort to address the backlash, Bradley Horowitz, Vice President of Product at Google+ stated last week that Google+ was planning to move toward a more inclusive naming policy on the network, adding support for nicknames, maiden names, and names in scripts other than the Roman alphabet -- all of which will now appear alongside already established "common" names. The message also stated the network would be allowing "established" pseudonyms.

There is no way to establish a pseudonym at registration. Usually, a user must wait until a profile is flagged before they can appeal to establish themselves. Horowitz also wrote that users who had started out using the network with their real names could apply to change their names to pseudonyms. He said:

If we flag the name you intend to use, you can provide us with information to help confirm your established identity. This might include:

- References to an established identity offline in print media, news articles, etc
- Scanned official documentation, such as a driver’s license
- Proof of an established identity online with a meaningful following

We'll review the information and typically get back to you within a few days. We may also ask for further information, such as proof that you control a website you reference. While a name change is under review, your old name will continue to be displayed. For new accounts without an old name, your profile will be in a non-public, read-only state during the review. Either way, you'll be able to see the status of your review by going to your profile.

The Google+ Profiles name policy elaborates on the things users can bring to the attention of the network to prove the name or pseudonym given merits acceptance:

If we challenge the name you intend to use, you will be asked to submit proof that this is an established identity with a meaningful following. You can do so by providing links to other social networking sites, news articles, or official documents in which you are referred to by this name. Note that this name and your profile must represent you, and not an avatar or other secondary online identity. Profane or offensive names are not allowed.

The policy remains confusing, however. While Horowitz told users to apply for a name change in his post, a Google spokeperson told Violet Blue that users who wanted to employ a pseudonym needed to apply for a new Google+ account altogether. This makes sense, as changing one's name to a pseudonym as Horowitz suggests will not change the name that appears on your previous posts. According to the spokeperson with whom Blue spoke (emphasis mine):

The original name tied to their Google+ profile will still be visibly retained. When you change your name, old posts and comments that were made with the old name continue to use that name.

Pseudonymous users who have repeatedly pointed out that other users with pseudonymous but "real"-looking names were still being allowed to exist on the network were unsurprised when further discussion with members of the Google+ team revealed that pseudonyms are acceptable if they look "real." While grossly unfair to brilliant commentators who operate under "unreal"-looking pseudonyms (especially those deemed to not have a “meaningful” following), this is good news for newcomers and minors, who may want to share somewhat publicly, but who don't want to be immediately identifiable.

Censorship

Google+ has always been very hard on nudity. Due to the lack of features that enable a user to mark a post NSFW (not safe for work), the fact that minors were poised to eventually be allowed, and possibly the way Google Search would eventually begin integrating Google+ updates in their results, the social network adopted a draconian position on content early on.

When Google+ censored the work of Paul Roustan, whose marvelous, intricate paintings use the human body as a canvas, many users joined together in protest against censorship. Eventually, Roustan's images were reinstated and Google+ changed its content policy to allow for posts and images that are "artistic, educational, or [have] documentary considerations, or when there are other substantial benefits to the public from not taking action" (i.e., censoring the post).

Previously, users were not notified when a post or image had been censored. Users would see some activity on a post or image and suddenly, despite ongoing conversation, the post would cease receiving notifications. Because the post or image was still visible to a user, it was hard to tell immediately that its view status had been changed from what the user selected (e.g., Public, Circles, Extended Circles) to Limited. This has become slightly less confusing -- going to one's photos tab within the network now shows a graphic that enables a user to locate images that have been deemed to be in violation of Google+'s content policy.


Attention graphic in photo section.


Notification that an image does not comply with content policies.

The policy, which is slightly more liberal, is not evenly applied, however. Profile images, for example, are subject to more intense scrutiny, as TechCrunch columnist MG Siegler found out when he uploaded a profile image showing his middle finger.

When Google+ photo manager Brian Rose was questioned about the withdrawal of an image I had uploaded for the 18 and over page I created on the network (which shows the middle section of a woman's nude body), Rose responded: "Profile photos are held to a stricter standard than photos shared in the stream, I believe because they may also show up on Google.com search result pages, other Google services, etc."

Censorship will continue on the network until a function is created to shield those who do not want to be exposed to mature or controversial content -- however educational or artistic -- and until controls are created to enable users to decide whether they want their pages to appear in Google Search, as profiles currently allow.

Response to Abuse

Last year, atheist and anti-censorship activist Brandon Campeaux quit Google+ despite his network of over 250,000 followers due to the number of death threats he had received for voicing his controversial views on the social network. Despite calling attention to the issue several times using Google+'s feedback feature, none of the accounts threatening Campeaux were suspended. The network eventually reached out to Campeaux and he returned, but to date no user that threatened him has been suspended.

What's more, Campeaux’s interaction with Google+ employees on the network about this problem eventually led Google developer advocate Chris Chabot to block Campeaux. According to Champeaux, Google+ community manager Natalie Villalobos blocked him as well after he criticized her for not taking down child pornography quickly enough.

This response is worrisome, though to be fair, my own has been markedly different: I find members of the Google+ team responsive and attentive to suggestions made by users. Zunger is very active with activists fighting for full pseudonym support, for example. Rose is quick to address questions about flagged images and bring issues to the attention of the photo review team. Villalobos has exceled in a handful of conversations about what constitutes a violation of community guidelines. In general, my own experience with people who are working at Google+ suggests that the people behind the network care about its users in a way that other networks simply do not, regardless of the missteps Google+ has made.

They illustrate a statement made six months ago by Google site reliability engineer Trey Harris:

I keep seeing people on comment threads about Google+ policy saying something along the lines of: ‘the service belongs to Google, they get to make the decision, if you don’t like it, use something else.’ … This argument -- if you can dignify calling it that -- is obvious, it’s facile, and it’s unhelpful. It amounts to telling the people you disagree with to just shut up. It isn’t a way to forward a constructive discussion.

Google+ cares about being the best social network out there and they should. There is a lot at stake for Google, which has positioned itself to bring together all the user-generated data from its services, including Google+, to improve targeting for advertisers. The question now is whether Google+ will adapt quickly enough to keep the users it has gained while attracting this new demographic of individuals aged 13 and up.

AV Flox is the section editor of Love & Sex and Health on BlogHer. You can connect with her on Twitter @avflox, Google Plus +AV Flox, or e-mail her directly at av.flox AT BlogHer.com

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