Google Patent for Pseudonyms in Social Networks

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Google was granted a patent this week on the use of personas or pseudonyms in social networks today, with the patent originally filed a little less than a year ago. The patent explicitly points at Google Plus as an example of a social network that processes in the patent could be applied to. The patent doesn’t grant Google the ability to let people use pseudonyms in social networks, but rather that a pseudonym could be presented as someone’s name based upon their choices of who would see that name or their “real” name.

Screenshot from patent showing a user interface to create a persona
User Interface to Create a Persona for a Social Network

When Google first launched Google Plus, one of the policies in place was that people were required to use their commonly used names to join. After some very intense debate and discussion across the Web, Google started backtracking on their common names policy, and offered an alternative approach this summer.

Under the patent, someone could select a visibility level for their persona so that only their pseudonym would be visible to everyone else on the network, to just some people, or possibly just displayed alongside their common name.

Screenshot from patent showing an interface to select a persona.
User Interface to Select a Persona for a Social Network

The debate over use of a pseudonym on Google Plus raised issues that appear to be mentioned in the patent, including the fact that online social activities can become part of a permanent record that some people don’t feel comfortable sharing. Use of your identity on the Web could leave people vulnerable to things like identity theft, stalking, and harassment. In discussions about Google’s common name polisy, there were even a few people who noted that the pseudonym they like to use is their commonly used name, even if it doesn’t appear in places like their birth certificate or driver’s license.

The patent tells us that one approach that could have been followed would be to allow people to use multiple accounts with different names, but that could possibly be a burden on someone with multiple accounts, multiple passwords, and a need to keep track of which account they might use while performing different activities.

The patent is:

Social computing personas for protecting identity in online social interactions
Invented by Eric Mayers
Assigned to Google
US Patent 8,271,894
Granted September 18, 2012
Filed: September 27, 2011


A system and method for generating a plurality of personas for an account of a user is disclosed. The present invention uses an account engine to receive information for the plurality of personas and to associate the information for the plurality of personas to the account.

The information for each of the plurality of personas includes a visibility level. A persona engine receives a selection from the user and transmits the selected persona to the user based on the selection. An authority engine determines an appearance of the selected persona based on the visibility level.

Under the patent, a person could also use their “real identity” at times, and at other times use a choice of personas instead:

For example, for a user that wants to upload a picture revealing the environment pollution of a city, the persona engine identifies the persona EarthSecurer with a description about being an environmentalist as the suggested persona for the user. The prediction is also based on the usage history of the personas. For example, if the persona Dark Avenger is often used to comment on posts related to anime, then the persona Dark Avenger is arranged before other personas when the user visits an anime blog.

Another alternative might enable a sharing option that would associate a single persona with more than one user. That might be used by a company that wishes to maintain a persona for posts about their company on a social network, or in leaving comments on a blog.

As for possible reputation scores that might be associated with a person in a social network, different reputation scores might be created for each persona.

For example, Sara Johnson has two personas, e.g., Dark Avenger and FoodGirl1. If FoodGirl1 is used to submit a lot of posts, comments, pictures and videos that receive many views, comments and approval indications, then FoodGirl1 is assigned a correspondingly high reputation.

Conversely, if Dark Avenger is used to leave nasty comments and mock bloggers, the authority engine assigned Dark Avenger a low reputation. Neither Dark Avenger nor Sara Johnson is associated with the reputation assigned to FoodGirl1. By treating each persona separately, the user is able to act as independent personas with different personalities. Likewise, if a persona’s content was generated by several individuals its reputation reflects the aggregate contributions of the persona.

I’m going to assume that such reputation scoring could possibly be used on some social networks and not others. With Google Plus, there’s a very real possibility that Google might be assigning reputation scores to users of the network that might potentially impact things such as how highly the content they create might rank in social search results, and possibly even in Web search results possibly in the future. Because of that, we might never learn what our own actual reputation scores (if any) might be on Google Plus.

Inventor Eric Mayers lists YouTube as the place he’s worked the past couple of years on LinkedIn, and I could see how this might potentially be used on YouTube as well as Google Plus. The granting of the patent isn’t an indication by itself that Google might allow us to start creating pseudonyms to post different things in different places. But it’s definitely a sign that Google recognized there were some potential issues with the common name approach that they started out with on Google Plus.

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29 thoughts on “Google Patent for Pseudonyms in Social Networks”

  1. Pingback: Google Patent for Pseudonyms in Social Networks -
  2. Bill, great analysis! How do you see Google overlaying link metrics with this scoring? Do you think that one persona might be an authority ( easily rank for “environmental terms) while the other is non-existent in the search results.

    PS – Looking forward to hearing you speak at SMX in 2 weeks


  3. Hi David,

    Thanks. Looking forward to SMX as well.

    The patent does mention that the different personas would acquire reputation scores independently, but it’s hard to say if those “reputation” scores are of the type that might influence search results, or if they are like the reputation scores in Google’s many Q&A type websites across the country (but not in the US), where people with the highest reputation scores in different categories are listed in leader boards on those sites.

    A reputation score could potentially be part of a ranking system that could include link analysis measures like PageRank. For recency-sensitive type results, like real time search (if Google brings it back), they might play a larger role still because many real time results wouldn’t have the chance to accumulate links pointed towards them.

  4. Is it just me, or does this seem a little ‘big brother’..?

    Pseudonyms on social networks can be ‘troll-ish’ , but look at the positive side to it as well – There are loads of hilarious spoof accounts on Twitter. I sometimes look to that list just to get cheered up from the stuff going on in my other streams.

    How will Google determine user value?

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  6. We have been using ‘screen names’ on the Internet for decades now. Patenting such a process is, IMO, ridiculous.

  7. The patent really isn’t just about using screen names, but rather about a process to use different pseudonyms in different places and different times, with different levels of access to audiences that a person might have control over. .

  8. I like the idea of having control over who sees your real name. As of right now–unless I’m missing something–Google+ makes it very tiring to run more than one meaningful account, whereas with Facebook, I can control multiple pages, and running multiple accounts is quite easy. I have two G+ accounts myself; one is on rock and roll, while the other is lonely and neglected.

  9. Pingback: The Latest Patent News from Google, Kodak, and Patent Reform - Weekly Link Round-Up | PatentCore
  10. Great article Bill, as always. I have always used my real name in everything, never used a pseudonym. To me it seems you have something to hide. But some pseudonyms are hilarious.

  11. Hi Adam,

    Thanks. Sometimes people have extremely compelling reasons to hide their real identity, such as avoiding political oppression, or stalkers, or harassers, and others. Some people are concerned about leaving comments on the Web that might come back years later as some kind of permanent record. And then there are people who really just prefer to use a pseudonym rather than the name they were given on their birth certificate.

  12. Thanks Bill interesting article!
    I can understand why some people would want to hind their real names some for good legitimate reasons like political oppression or other privacy reasons after all many writers and artists/actors use pseudonyms.I think the other side of the coin needs to be addressed though, but how you will ever be able to tell the good guys from the bad is going to be a problem for a while to come!
    Mick (My real name!)

  13. I like the idea of this Bill.
    I use my real name on all my accounts but I have different interests that take me into different circles. It would be a benefit if separation was more complete and less hassle than running multiple accounts.

  14. Hi Steve,

    Thanks. Being able to use different names in different places and for different purposes is the feature that makes this work. I usually use my real name for my accounts, too. I do think there’s a definite value though in letting people use pseudonyms when they want to, or think that it’s a good idea.

  15. Looks like Google is trying to get ready to push for its ‘Author Rank’ – or whatever they’d like to call it. I for one, embrace it as it will help give more authority to authorities in the niche.

  16. This is a good idea, I wonder why they have not implemented it sooner. With the way that people reacted to having to use their real names when on Google+ I’m honestly surprised it took google this long to do this. I wonder if it will be different when are just on your regularly used computer and when you are on a phone or a different one? I doubt it with cloud and all that, but you never know with Android phones uploading your pictures onto Google+ without you having to give your express consent. So would it just be a drop down menu after you log into your account?

  17. Most of people use pseudonyms. I can find 100 diferent reasons to do that, in my opinion they dont want to uncover their real name. Most of them participate in various conversations and maybe they fear of rage…but who knows..

  18. I agree with Steve & know celebs will often take on a persona on social sites. As we find our names becoming more like brands in the future, if anyone wants to have any real fun & let their guard down, they’ll probably be using a persona in the future.

    I definitely use personas & will continue to in the future. Sometimes one account just isn’t going to cut it.

  19. This points to the fact that “owning” a persona or a name on multiple networks for a brand / reputation management point of view is important. This will help to assign a rank to that name that G will most likely use. I think people should pay attention to this and monitor the effects on serps.

  20. Just wanted to let you know I am using my real name for this post. lol I have noticed some people have trouble getting Google+ accounts because of their last name. I have a friend with the last name South – and Google harassed him when he tried to create an account. I believe they let him through after 48 hours, but I thought that was kind of funny. Thanks for the post Bill! I am subscribing – looks like you have a lot of good info here!

  21. Isn’t it basically everyone’s right to be called whatever you want to be called. Writers use Nom-de-plumes oe pseudonyms so why can’t individuals on the internet also do this. Will they take away our freedoms?

  22. Pseudonyms I believe are something you have to take on especially now Google has gone all contextual on us. Thanks for the write up and I will continue reading. Dan

  23. This does seem a tad restrictive, since a real user could lose all of their pseudonyms eventually per “infractions” which have yet to be invented. Thus their username based access to the web is now terminated. This is however, just a hypothesis.

    Recently, I decided for the most part just to use my real name. I will say it’s a whole lot easier, and I try not to worry about overlapping audiences too much. I think, this makes you seem more like a “real multifaceted person”, than an avatar dedicated to a single niche.

  24. I was using pseudonames in the not too long ago, but now I started using my name all over and really its much more appropriate this way. Google has choosed a good option here!

    But there could be some that would still want to hide their details …

  25. I love the idea of enabling a sharing option to associate a single persona with more than one user. That is the option for pages, such as “managers” for a given page.

    Currently Google+ allows users to repot on other users that the think are not real people. I haven’t tested it but assume after a given number of reports the profile is human validated. Or there may just be an automated removal process. Craigslist work in the same way.

    For me personally, I have a bunch of different websites and a bunch of different email accounts, so I route them all to the same one and will do the same with Google+… Just the one persona is enough, but it so much fun to use more than one.

  26. Anyone else remember when AOL allowed you to have 5 different screen names? If you were wicked on one, all were punished and only the person on the credit card could reactivate the account. I spent many late-night hours trying to make my teenage boy voice sound like a middle aged woman to get out of trouble! Also, being a subscription service, you couldn’t hide. Some friends of mine found this out when the police came a-knocking for harassment they thought was “anonymous”. The only thing that has changed is we’re being policed by the content providers, not the service providers.

  27. Funny how some people are agreeing that they should have their real name but on these comments some only put their first name. How do we know that is not made up. lol

    In saying that, being your own identity is good for business and to gain personal friends but for fun, a pen name, pseudonym or AKA, it isn’t a bad idea, as you can be adventurous with your thinkings. Ask Mark Twain (Sorry Samuel Clemens. lol

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