It’s been a few days since the climax of Facebook’s “real name” saga, and the furore seems to have mostly died down. Facebook has officially apologised to the hundreds of drag queens, members of the LGBTQIA community, DJs, stage performers and others who use pseudonyms on Facebook for the policy which forced them to switch to their “real”, legal names on Facebook or face being locked out of their accounts and networks. It has made also made noises to the effect of revising, reinterpreting or otherwise adapting the policy to account for the ways in which a good portion of Facebook’s demographic use its service.
A lot took place in a short space of time, by way of protests, petitions, heartfelt personal accounts, hashtags, a suddenly viral new social network and more. So how exactly was it that we got from then to now? And where does the future of identity on Facebook really stand? In this post, I’ll attempt to break down what happened with a timeline of key events, and get to the bottom of where the policy is going.
First off, it’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time the issue of identity on Facebook has been raised. Privacy and Internet ethics scholar Michael Zimmer blogged about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s problematic approach to privacy and identity in a post dating all the way back to May 2010. In it, he highlights a key quote from one of Mark Zuckerberg’s interviews with David Kirkpatrick, the author of The Facebook Effect, which spells out Zuckerberg’s unsettling approach to dual identities: “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” During the height of the outrage over Facebook’s policy, this quote was seized upon, refuted and mocked all over the Internet. Zimmerman’s post became so popular that on 19th September he added a note at the bottom to say that it had gained over 60,000 page views and 10,000 Facebook shares in the last 24 hours alone.
Social media scholar and youth researcher danah boyd also blogged in 2011 that “Real Names” Policies Are an Abuse of Power. She was referring to a spate of deletions on Google+, but she also made copious references to Facebook and the fact that marginalised youths often signed up to its services using handles.
It’s difficult to pin down exactly when the first victims of this ferocious wave of account bannings found themselves locked out of Facebook. One of the earliest news articles covering the issue came from Seattle Gay Scene, which mentioned that Facebook had been cracking down on pseudonym accounts “over the past few weeks”, although a Seattle drag queen by the name of Gaysha Starr had been forced to change her Facebook name three or four months prior. A follow-up post the next day noted that several more performers had fallen victim to the policy, and others were pre-emptively switching to Pages instead of profiles in order to avoid getting hit. Most major media coverage of the issue dates to around mid-September, such as this article by SFist which mentions drag queen Sister Roma, who was forced to switch to her “real” name Michael Williams, and who became a prominent leader of the protests against Facebook. It links to a Change.org petition created by Seattle drag queen Olivia LaGarce calling upon Facebook to change its policy, which as of the time of writing is still more than 13,000 signatures short of its goal.
Some of the earliest uses of the #mynameis hashtag appeared on Facebook and Twitter around this time as people used it to protest Facebook’s crackdown or assert their identities. Meanwhile, the controversy steadily gathered speed and attention with coverage from The Daily Dot, The Gaily Grind, Ars Technica, The Wall Street Journal and Metro Weekly.
A number of drag queens and supporters, including California-based queens Sister Roma and Heklina, announced plans for a protest outside Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California. However, these plans were very quickly derailed as Facebook agreed to meet with representatives from the affected communities the following Wednesday, 17th September, to discuss its policy.
A diverse crowd of drag queen and LGBTQIA community members, stage performers and other representatives met with Facebook’s public liaison, Susan Gonzales, and members of the Facebook LGBT alliance in order to open a dialogue on the issue. The Facebook representatives did not show a willingness to back down on the issue, citing reasons for the policy of requiring legal names such as preventing “bad behaviour” and “creating a safer and more accountable environment”. Evidently the numerous other issues with requiring legal names on the most widespread and inescapable online social network weren’t enough to outweigh these concerns.
Shortly after the meeting, Facebook announced that it would temporarily reinstate the accounts that had so far been deactivated, but only for two weeks: just enough time to make users reconsider changing to their legal names or converting to a Fan Page before the accounts were permanently deleted.
Another drag queen by the name of Unkle Mikey made an infographic titled “Why else would anyone use an alias?” which simply and clearly outlined a range of different reasons why people would want or need to use a pseudonym on Facebook. It promptly went viral, racking up over 20,000 shares from her timeline alone. On 24th September she posted that her account had been suspended that morning – in the middle of the two-week period which Facebook promised would be safe from suspensions. She was forced to switch to using her legal name to keep all 20,000 posts with her graphic from vanishing off Facebook.
In the event page (on Facebook, ironically) for the original 15th September protest, it was announced that a new protest was being planned for 2nd October at San Francisco City Hall. The date coincided with the end of Facebook’s two-week “grace period”, when the accounts belonging to anyone using their non-legal name were set to be deleted.
The San Francisco Business Times published the results of a ‘Business Pulse’ poll asking respondents whether or not Facebook should make drag queens use their real names. An overwhelming 92% chose “No. People may need to use other names for safety or other reasons.” Only 6% agreed with the policy, whilst the other 2% “hadn’t given it much thought”.
Meanwhile, Atlanta performer Brigitte Bidet made her own response to the debate with the satirical video “WTF, Zuck?”, a parody of the song ‘That’s Not My Name’ with lyrics referring to Facebook’s real-name disaster.
I haven’t managed to pinpoint a date for what exactly started off the avalanche of social media site Ello‘s recent popularity. A couple of forward-thinking early birds covered Ello in early to mid-September, but don’t make reference to droves of people leaving it for Facebook at that point. Most of the hype surrounding Ello dates to around 24th-25th September, by which time it was already virally popular.
Ello mostly benefited from being in the right place at the right time to take advantage of Facebook’s fiasco. It has been much vaunted as the “anti-Facebook” due to its no ads policy, but while Facebook’s real name policy admittedly helps its ad strategy a great deal, protesters weren’t boycotting Facebook over it selling their data to advertisers. It would have made more sense to defect to a site like Moli (which Michael Zimmerman also blogged about in 2010), which bases its ethos around managing multiple identities. But Moli seems to be down for the count at the moment, whereas Ello was ready to step up to the plate. Mostly.
At the same time, the outrage and publicity around Facebook’s policy built steadily with petitions, protest messages and heartfelt personal accounts. Actor and drag queen RuPaul spoke out about the issue in support of the drag queens and “creative individuals” who had been affected. Although performers and members of the LGBTQIA community were still leading the way, it was becoming increasingly apparent that it was affecting everyone, from gamers to furries, from fandom community members to individuals under witness protection.
Right as the momentum fuelling the October 2nd protest reached its peak, Facebook executed a master stroke, once again promising to meet with representatives from communities such as LGBTQIA and hear their concerns. I’m loathe to praise Facebook’s strategy in ignoring people’s concerns to preserve a damaging policy, but just look at their tactics. Both times, they successfully managed to derail protests by agreeing to meet with activists right before the protests were due to take place, and gave just enough to appease them without actually making any meaningful change.
Facebook went so far as to issue a public apology for the way victims of the policy had been treated, and a press release was issued to say that Facebook would be altering its stance on using legal names. Yet when you look at the actual wording of the statement from Facebook Chief Product Officer Chris Cox, he doesn’t say the policy will be changed, he actually praises it:
He claims that the idea Facebook ever required legal names from people was a misinterpretation. Which, no, it wasn’t. The wording of Facebook’s policy may not have used the word “legal”, but it clearly stated “your name as it appears on a credit card … Or bank statement”. That is the same thing. Facebook has now switched to using the word “authentic”, which does nothing to disguise the fact that it is still demanding documentation in order to allow people to use a social network. Facebook is not a government body; it has no right to demand ID. This should be the subject of legal action, not blog posts.
Facebook restored the accounts and names of several who were prominent in the protests, but the day after the protests would have taken place, producer and sex education Sunny Megatron was locked out of her Facebook account. In a blog post about the blocking, Sunny makes reference to “countless sexuality educators and friends from Chicago who live alternate lifestyles” who have also been locked out of their Facebook accounts. Nothing has been solved, and nothing has gone away.
Yesterday the New York Times posted about plans by Facebook for a “stand-alone mobile application” which would allow Facebook users to use multiple pseudonyms to openly discuss the different things they talk about on the Internet; topics of discussion which they may not be comfortable connecting to their real names.” But what people want isn’t to be able to anonymously take part in discussions; anyone can do that on Reddit. People want a chance to build an identity for themselves, not just contribute remarks to a conversation.
A smattering of users across Facebook are planning to deactivate their accounts today to protest Facebook’s continuing punishment of those who want to choose the name they use to post there. As for alternatives to Facebook, some predictions spell doom for Ello, whilst others say that the forecast is good. Meanwhile, a study by SearchMetrics has projected that at its current growth rate, Google+ will surpass Facebook in size by 2016, which has become a widely talked-about statistic.
Google’s strategy of requiring Plus accounts for the use of services like YouTube has definitely helped with this, but I can’t feel too resentful. At least Google Plus saw fit to retract its policy of requiring real names – properly, and for good. Facebook could do well to follow suit.