Google+ was built on identity. Like Facebook, the 3-year-old social network required you to use your real name. When Google started linking Google+ to its other services, it seemed like the company was creating a Google-centric ecosystem that used your identity as a jumping off point.
That changed Tuesday, when Google announced that anyone could use any name they like on Google+.
"We know you've been calling for this change for a while," the company said in a Tuesday post on Google+. "We know that our names policy has been unclear, and this has led to some unnecessarily difficult experiences for some of our users. For this we apologize, and we hope that today's change is a step toward making Google+ the welcoming and inclusive place that we want it to be."
This is the network's second recent step back from identity-based profiles. In June, Google removed profile photos and G+ circle counts from search results where the owner of the link is a website, which takes authors (and their identities) out of the search equation altogether.
Too little, too late?
For some users, specifically YouTube commenters, this change comes way too late. Last November, Google began requiring YouTube users to https://plus.google.com/+JohnMueller/posts/PDkPdPtjL6j to comment. The move was intended to clean up the notoriously terrible comments on the video network, but it was met with outrage from people who preferred to remain anonymous.
But Google stuck to its guns, leading many to ask: Why now? Google+ chief architect Yonatan Zunger took to the comments of the name announcement to answer questions:
"I spent two years working closely with the YouTube team on comments, and I think we have a much better understanding of what turned them into the wretched hive of scum and villainy we all know," Zunger said. "It had to do with more subtle aspects of the interface there: things like 'top comments' rewarding people for getting the most interaction, rather than the most positive interaction. We've changed all those broken behaviors that we could find and are definitely not changing those back."
The sudden change also led to speculation that maybe Google is pivoting from former G+ chief Vic Gundotra's identity-based vision for the network, but Zunger said in the comments that "Vic was 100 percent involved in the process and approved the whole thing months ago."
So what does Google get out of the change? Well, it doesn't actually need real names to know who you are--if your account is linked to a Gmail address and a phone number, Google will still be able to suss out your identity and keep track of what you're up to. You also can't associate multiple names with one account, so if you want to use a pseudonym for some activities and your real name for others, Zunger suggested creating two G+ profiles--a move that would definitely inflate the network's user numbers.
Learn how to change your Google+ profile name here. The change occurred immediately, so new names should take effect soon after changing them--but Google isn't allowing a name-change free-for-all. There are still limits to how often you can switch pseudonyms.