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No anonymity on social networks! Why the hell not?!

Over the weekend Google+ let loose a tempest in its shiny new teapot when the company expelled folks using fake names on the social network. By all accounts Google could have been a bit more careful about kicking people off.
And there are powerful arguments for anonymous voices online.
Now, Google execs say they will create a way to appeal these kinds of decisions in the future. But Google's not alone in insisting members use a real identity on a social network. Facebook has a nearly identical policy. So you might be wondering why do social networks care if you use a real name or not?
Sure - limiting anonymous users online cuts down on obnoxiousness. Flame wars and offensive, nasty comments. And all of that is important - but there's an even more compelling reason Google wants you to use your real name and to understand it you need to think back to the very beginnings of the company and the creation of search as we now know it.
Back in the beginning Larry Page had an idea. It was incredibly simple and powerful. He wanted to help all of us search and discover the most useful stuff online by tapping into the collective wisdom of the crowd. Even back in the late 90s, the company could index every web page on the planet and categorize it. But Page realized webizens were doing that work for him.
Just as academics can measure the value of a journal article by checking to see how often it is cited, Page thought Google could measure the value of a webpage by measuring how many other pages linked to it. Those links were a recommendation - and in the beginning at least the links were created by real people with real opinions.
The system worked incredibly well and Google was born and grew. Then money ruined everything. Google's page rank became so influential in driving traffic, web designers began to game it - they started creating millions of sites that included nothing but links to other sites. Links no longer really meant a human being was actually recommending something. Google has spent the better part of the past decade battling this kind of spam. And search has suffered.
That's were social comes in. I don't think Google really cares so much about creating a website that is as big a time suck as Facebook. That wouldn't be bad -but what it is really after is establishing real identities for real people online. Then their preferences, web surfing habits and links can be used to make search work again. Links no longer reflect the wisdom of the crowds. But G+ offers Google a second chance. It could let Google finally separate spam bots and bogus links from real human recommendations. If that works Google searches might get a lot better - and after all helping make the world's information accessible is what Google is supposed to be all about.

About the author

Steve Henn was Marketplace’s technology and innovation reporter for the entire portfolio of Marketplace programs until December 2011.

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