Matters surrounding our personal and corporate "identities" on the Internet are among the thorniest concerns that face us today when we use the Web. All sorts of complicating factors -- many of them emotionally laden -- come into play, including complexities involving pseudonyms, anonymity, commerce, law enforcement, and many more.
After Google+ launched, identity issues quickly became a matter of some controversy, which regular readers will recall I discussed in considerable depth at the time.
As the G+ platform evolved, Google (as they had promised) implemented various changes that satisfied many (but not necessarily all) parties' complaints in this area -- keeping in mind that G+ with its view of identity is not meant to be a platform aimed at all possible forms of communications. There are some communications for which a social media system like G+ is ideal, and others for which (by design) it is not necessarily best suited.
When Google recently announced the initial rollout of "Custom URLs" for G+ (these are more popularly being called "vanity" URLs by many observers), it apparently triggered some echos of the original G+ identity controversies, though in reality the actual issues are different in key respects.
The vast majority of G+ profiles are currently identified via URLs using a long string of numbers. Obviously, this isn't ideal to include on a business card, and is not particularly memorable for most of us.
Custom URLs change this so that "THE" Albert Einstein could have a G+ URL that includes his name, rather than the numbers.
Naturally, if we're strictly using the name there can only be a single G+ URL for Albert Einstein, and given multiple people with that name, only one (the most "famous" one?) could be assigned that URL.
This takes us toward the heart of the current controversy -- namely, who deserves to get these URLs when multiple users share the same actual name? Is it appropriate for "celebrities" to always get preference over "ordinary people" in such circumstances?
To really address this aspect, we also need to explore what "verified names" mean on G+, because at the moment, it appears that verified names are first in line to be offered custom URLs (though this linkage seems likely to loosen over time).
A G+ profile with a verified name gets a little gray check mark on the associated profile page. But what does it really signify?
Essentially, it says "this is probably the one you're looking for."
That is to say, the vast majority of people looking for the person of that name will be looking for that particular profile. That's why at the moment G+ verified names are mostly (with some exceptions) restricted to celebrities or other well-known persons, companies, and brands.
These verifications are performed by Google pretty much on an ad hoc "as needed" basis currently, though they're working on more formal mechanisms to expand this (along with the offering of more custom URLs).
At this point, don't be too concerned if you're feeling at least a bit confused about this.
After talking to folks at Google, it seems clear that their goal both for verified names and custom URLs -- for right now -- is to help make it easier for most people to find the well-known personages and companies they're looking for, without users being misled by possibly faked or misleading false profiles.
Within this limited context, the relatively ad hoc mechanisms Google is currently using for these purposes seem to serve adequately.
Once we move beyond the realm of A-list celebrities and well-known brands though, both verifications and custom URLs are going to represent much more intriguing questions, both from policy and implementation standpoints.
And given how much investment we have in the emotional, personal, and business aspects of our online identities, an awful lot of people around the world will be very interested in how this is worked out over time.
I conducted a (rather hastily arranged, so most of the technical glitches are my fault) Google+ video Hangout On Air on these topics for 45 minutes yesterday afternoon, where we discussed many of these issues in more detail.
As always, your comments and questions on these topics are very welcome.
Take care, all.