There's an accepted piece of wisdom which says that if people know who we are on the internet, we'll behave ourselves. It makes sense. After all, who'd want to be identified publicly as an abusive ranter who responds to even the mildest provocation with a stream of expletives?
No, we associate that behaviour with anonymous trolls, surely; pseudonymous, fleetingly active Twitter accounts, or forum-lurkers who snipe from behind the safety of an alias. When the Google+ social network was created three years ago, that was certainly the thinking; requiring people to use their real names would, as well as being a handy data-gatherer, avoid the etiquette problems faced by Twitter. Vic Gundotra, the driving force behind Google+, likened it to "a restaurant that doesn't allow in people who aren't wearing white shirts". Identifiable is good. Real names make us more civil.
We responded to Google+ with indifference for a whole heap of reasons, few to do with anonymity. Back then we read that people who were deemed to have broken Google's naming rules had had their accounts disabled, and that felt bad. Then, as the social network floundered, it was repositioned as a connect-o-scope for all your Google activity, including YouTube. Google's CEO, Eric Schmidt, referred to it as an "identity device". It became about knowing what we got up to, and our attitude towards that was, in the main, a shrug of acceptance.
But feelings have shifted. Anonymity is now seen less as an opportunity to harass and more a way to avoid harassment. It has always been stressed that anonymity is necessary for dissidents and whistleblowers to operate online, but today many more of us feel that this is applicable to us, too. Anonymity, pseudonymity, polynymity – surely that's our right?
Gundotra has now left Google, and the white-shirt approach has gone with him. This week, Google+ adopted what it describes as a more "welcoming and inclusive" approach, ie you'll be allowed to choose any pseudonym. Well, almost. You'll still need a first name and a surname, so Meatloaf might have a problem. Rude words and impersonation are not allowed. But aside from that, you can construct your own identity, run amok in the somewhat deserted world of Google+ and, perhaps more importantly, access other Google services – YouTube, Google Play, etc – using that name. You can, in the words of an uplifting soul ballad of the 1980s, be whoever you want to be.
It's a curious backtracking. It's been only months since Google forced us to use real-name Google+ accounts when commenting on YouTube, supposedly to usher in a new era of placid online behaviour.
Some studies have shown that anonymous comments are indeed more likely to be vulgar, racist, profane or hateful, but that doesn't mean that banning anonymity makes the anger disappear; for many, the compulsion to unleash bile is greater than any desire to preserve their online reputation. As Yonatan Zunger, the chief architect of Google+, says: "One of the reasons this [pseudonymity] is safe to launch is that our troll-smashing department has got very good at its job."
What this seems to be (and it's hugely ironic, given Google's reputation as an all-seeing eye) is a repositioning of the company being more privacy-friendly. Its recent move to swiftly implement the "right to be forgotten" ruling by the EU could be seen as another manifestation of that. Whether we buy it or not is another question, but hey – at least we can openly vent our spleens on the topic on Google+ using the name Saucer McBanjax, without Google knowing who we are.