Facebook’s ‘real name’ policy and the strange world of internet identities

UPDATE: This is getting silly. A week after writing this I can now list 3 more friends and 2 organisations who’ve had their profiles disabled because of this policy. FB insists they’re not on a drive but thats beginning to sound dubious…

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/u/chooter/ was fired this week from reddit and sent the ‘front page of the internet’ into meltdown.

When @Zozeebo tweets a link to a video, thousands of teenagers race to be one of the first 301 people to view it before youtube begins verifying views.

From LulzSec, Solo and Dark Dante to Berkeley Blue and Oaf Tobar, hackers are shaping our economic, social and political landscape.

What all these people have in common is an internet identity tied to a community, strongly expressed through their actions online that differs from their ‘real world’ name. Forums and online communities have long offered users the chance to define their online identity through their choice of user name. Those usernames, especially for individuals who contribute significantly to the life of online communities become synonymous with their character and within the shared language of internet socialisation, don’t seem to impede the building of relationships. It’s the ultimate example of a performed identity, the username or avatar construction becomes a vehicle for someone’s self to the point where they and their avatar are indistinguishable.

My own username history (including the infamous pre-teen buffy_angel_spike_4eva) reflects my growing sense of self and construction of my online life, but usernames do a lot more than communicate your interests (@iluvonedirectionomgwtf) or appearance (@talldarkandhandsome), they also enable people to try on new identities or genders and to hide from real-world dangers. It’s this particular facet of identity that is proving newsworthy.

I was prompted to post as a friend just shared this on facebook:

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 17.43.30

A public individual with an impressive career in the digital world, he has clearly been reported to Facebook under what they call their ‘real names’ policy. This controversial part of Facebook’s terms of service requires users to go by the name they use in the real world and which they can prove with official documentation. Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg’s justification for this is that “There are a lot of online communities that are separated from reality and the world. That we ask everyone to use their real name kind of grounds it to reality and ties it back to the person’s real identity,”. Whilst his point is interesting and in some ways represents the appeal of facebook to me, its not a generalisable principle for a number of reasons:

  • The ‘real world’ name someone has is not always the name they wish to be known by. This causes particular harm to members of the transgender community whose legal or documented gender may not correspond with their felt gender and for whom mis-naming and therefore often mis-gendering can cause harm. In that sense requiring someone to go by a documented ‘real’ name that they do not identify with is a form of violence.
  • Requiring ‘real names’ has become particularly problematic for the Native American community, with a number of individuals experiencing account shutdowns on facebook as users report their names (e.g. Shane Creepingbear) as ‘fake’. This is discriminatory.
  • Individuals who have been stalked or abused may wish to be able to hide from those who committed crimes against them, and using a real world name online makes them vulnerable.
  • Professionals in high profile or responsible positions e.g. musicians, doctors, politicians, journalists who receive a lot of attention are vulnerable to invasions of privacy if they can be found online. This can also expose their friends and family to unwarranted attention or invasion of their personal lives.

There are some fundamental problems with Facebook’s explanation:

  • It conflates offline life with real life as if online identity is bound in the social constructs of offline life.
  • It assumes that online friends aren’t able to connect more than one name or identity expression to a single individual.
  • It makes a value judgement about where authenticity lies and how it can be measured
  • It doesn’t acknowledge the strength of online community that is built through encountering an individual in conversation or exchange rather than through consuming their profile like reading a book.

As I reflect on how my perception of online identity has changed I am surprised that, given the fact that the constructed or performed nature of online socialisation feels socially and intellectually  problematic to me, I find myself wanting to strongly defend the right of people to self-define their identity and particularly their name online. Having said that I’m in little doubt that there’s a responsibility involved here on the part of internet users to be judicious in the way we manage the privilege of anonymity should we wish to avail ourselves of it, as it is misuse of this privilege that threatens our right to have it.

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