What is a real name anyway?

What is a “real” name anyway?

Facebook LogoAccording to Facebook it’s your legal name. The one you’d be married under, or arrested under. They want it. They’ve always had a policy that says you have to set up your Facebook profile with your legal name, but many people ignored that, and nobody at Facebook seemed to take much notice. There was only apparent enforcement of the policy on dubious spam profiles, rather than of the profiles of real people – whatever they called themselves.

But suddenly, Facebook is cracking down, enforcing a policy more often honoured in the breach than the observance previously. You’ve no doubt seen the headlines about Facebook going into battle against drag artists who have profiles set up under the name they use on stage. Facebook says they should be using Pages instead. Why they’ve apparently clamped down on drag artists in particular, who can say? But for sure this will only be the start. Lots of people use a name that’s not their legal name on Facebook, and this has implications for all of them.

Page versus Profile

Before I go on, let’s define the terms. The difference between Profiles and Pages is key to this issue.

A Profile is what you set up when they go on Facebook. When someone says “I’m on Facebook” they generally mean they have a profile. With a profile you can go around friending other profiles, following Pages, joining communities, liking statuses, commenting on statuses, sharing them, making events, joining events, posting statuses, uploading pictures, all the things you think of about Facebook.

A Page is a different kettle of fish. Also called a Fan Page. An artist, writer, company, a charity, a political party, an organisation, all sorts of people, places and things can have a Page. The person or people who run the page can post statuses, like other pages, upload pictures, create events. People can comment on those things and sometimes can post to the page wall, and the people running the page can reply.

So what’s the problem, I hear you ask? Why don’t these drag artists and writers and whoever else, just create a page? There are a few reasons why:

Pages are almost useless unless you pay

You might think that if 100 people follow a page, all those people will see a status from it on their timelines. You’d be wrong. Facebook throttles the posts on most pages, not having them show up for most of the people following the page. Unless that is, the page owner is prepared to pay to “boost” the post. So what, you might say, Facebook doesn’t exist to provide free advertising space to writers and bands and drag artists and small businesses and charities. But many of those pages don’t purely post “advertising”, they post interesting content that keeps people coming back to Facebook. They garner the likes and shares from profiles that are so valuable to the great data mining engine that is Facebook.

But I’m not a page!

Pages also don’t cover all the cases of people using fake names on a profile. Some fake profile names might be pen names or stage names etc. But some are used by people who don’t want to be found by a stalking ex, or who require anonymity to be able to use Facebook without real world consequences, whether that be a gay teen, or a political activist in an oppressive country. A trans person may not have changed their legal name yet, but use a new name for their life now. Pages are not appropriate for those people. If told to use real names or leave Facebook, they will have to leave Facebook.

Using Facebook is not an absolute right, and neither is anybody forced to use it. But it is a service many people want to use. If it has a policy that makes it all but impossible for a particular group of people to use it, then even if there’s no explicit policy that says, for example “trans people are not allowed on Facebook”, a de facto policy exists and is discriminatory.

Islands in the Stream

Ball's Pyramid North by by Fanny SchertzerThere’s another problem with pages. They’re islands. Sure I can make a post on my page and people can come and comment on it. If I answer those comments I do so as my page. So far so good.

But – I can’t go and comment on another page or a profile with my Page’s name. I can like a page as my page, but I can’t become a friend with a profile. Basically, I’m stuck on my little island unless people come to me. And since Facebook only shows the posts to a fraction of the people who like my pages, they’re basically wiping my little island off the map.

These “islands” work fine for a big business who is going to post advert-like statuses and answer questions and stuff, but isn’t out to make friends or Like your picture of your cat sitting in a box. It’s less fine for an author or artist, who—silly of them I know—thinks that they should be able to actually do some “networking” on this “social networking” site.

Some people are more accountable with a fake name.

Facebook claims having real names makes the Facebook community more accountable. This is both disingenuous, and wrong. If you do something illegal on Facebook, then unless you’re trying very hard, you can be tracked down. You can be anonymous on the web, but it’s very hard to be untraceable. Twitter doesn’t ask for all the info Facebook does, but people have been arrested and convicted over tweets. You can always be tracked down, whatever you call yourself.

For people who are known to a larger number of people by a fake name, as a stage name or pen name, than their real one, the fake name holds them accountable. The fake name is their “brand”. If they act like a dick on Facebook under their real name, few people care. If they act like a dick with their fake name, suddenly they being tarred and feathered in the court of the internet.

Facebook like to claim that real name policies help to protect us from stalkers, trolls and perverts. You may have noticed this is the same way governments erode the rights of every one of us, (say over data they collect, or how long we can be held without charge) by saying they’re taking tough measures against terrorists and paedophiles. It’s the exact same argument. I don’t buy it from them either. Some people will always used internet anonymity for nefarious purposes, but the same anonymity also gives a safe way for people who were silenced before to make their voices heard at last.

Back in 2010, Mark Zuckerberg himself said

“the days of having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end very quickly…. Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

But, sorry, Mark, you saying so, don’t make it so. People juggle identities all the time. We’ve all got many faces, for different contexts. Some of those faces have different names. Some of those names feel more “real” to them than the one on that person’s driving licence or passport. And people do feel the need to keep them apart. They have the right to keep them apart.

I’m not even touching that “lack of integrity” crack.

The top and bottom of it is that this is nothing to do with accountability or authenticity, or integrity. It’s about money. Push some people onto pages, to make them pay to get their posts read at all. If they don’t like it, tough, they can leave. Make everyone on a profile use a real name, because the real name is much more valuable to sell to Facebook’s customers—the advertisers.

Facebook has always been a site that tried to make people use it they way Facebook wants them to use it. Not all sites do that. Twitter adapted to the way people used it—users invented the @ reply and the hashtag, Twitter later added them as features. Because it looked at how real people were actually using the site in the real world. That is often not as predicted.

In the end I don’t think Facebook cares if people like me with my pen name, or those drag artists or other similar folk flounce off. They don’t need us. They don’t want us. They only really want real name profiles sharing nice pictures, with all their friends carefully tagged in them, and interacting with large “brands”. As far as they are concerned the awkward squad can disappear off into the black hole of Google +, never to be seen again.


8 thoughts on “What is a real name anyway?

  1. Well said. I suspect it’ll take them longer to work out people using pen names etc as they’ve got billions of accounts & it’s much easier to sort the Dusty O Tastic drag queen accounts from the Sheila Shannon’s pen name ones, but I could be wrong.
    Also how are they making ppl Prove their ID? If they start asking for passport scans people will I suspect just walk on Principal. *touches wood & shrugs*. Liam Livings

    1. Yes, some names are more obviously fake than others. But a person can also report a profile for using a fake name, so you just need one person to get narked at you and report your profile to sabotage your Facebook strategy!

      If they don’t reach some kind of compromise with the drag queens and won’t modify their policy, which I think is discriminatory against trans people especially then I may indeed flounce. I won’t want to be part of a club with those rules.

      As for proviing ID, then it must be some kind of official documentation, like passports, driving licences etc. What else could it be after all? That’s a line in the sand for me there!

  2. They might have trouble wandering over to G+. I appear to still have a Mara account there even though they said they were going to delete it as ‘Mara Ismine’ isn’t a ‘real’ name, which is true (and my profile picture isn’t a ‘real’ face, which is untrue – that’s me trying to stop Brat taking my pic with his phone). I did try arguing with them but my appeal was denied. I should create an account with my real name and use Mara as an alias… not happening!

    With any luck Facebook will delete my account before I work up the enthusiasm to try and log in again.

    1. I read that Google had given up on the real name policy, when they realised it was stupid. But whether they only stopped enforcing it, or removed it, I don’t know. If it’s still in the Ts&Cs it could be enforced again any time they want.

  3. As Mara mentioned, G+ wants your real name too. In fact, Google in general wants your real name. There was some kerfuffling about this a few years ago, when they started insisting on real names, and all the arguments you’ve brought up above plus more were aired. Google doesn’t care any more than Facebook does.

    Google doesn’t seem to be trying to enforce their real-name rule so long as you sign up with something that LOOKS like a real name. Which is fine for (most) writers, but sucks for a lot of other people — not only for folks who’ve been known as something like GlitterChris since the days of GEnie and CompuServe, and as you pointed out have more invested online in that identity than they do the one on their birth certificate, but I also heard of some folks whose actual legal names don’t look like what Google thinks they should. [sigh]

    I’m hoping Google doesn’t go any farther with this than they have. I could give up G+ without much trouble, but I love Gmail and being forced to change to some other system would piss me off. Facebook has so many other issues I’ve never bothered with it, and every time something else pops up, I just shrug smugly and go on with my day. I agree, though, that there’s a huge uninhabited niche in this ecosystem for some company willing to put together a social networking system that could be just as popular as Facebook or even just G+, without all the real name crap. And in the case of Facebook, without all the exploitative anti-privacy crap.


    1. Yeah, Google can’t be trusted any more than Facebook. Even though they seem to have given up on their real name policy for now, they could bring it back and start enforcing it any time.

      Flouncing from Google would be a whole different kettle of fish than Facebook though. My Gmail is my world. 😀 I have an Android phone, use the Google calendar etc. Facebook I can leave tomorrow with no consequences. Google would take more planning!

      The only difference really would be that Facebook is all Facebook has. All its eggs are in that basket. It has to work. Where Google’s got loads of products, and they are pretty ruthless about culling ones that don’t make them enough money. So Google + could go any time Google decides to give up on it.

      Also, G+ just kind of sucks.

  4. If I wanted to use Facebook under my real name (which I don’t), how could I prove my identity if I don’t have a passport or a driving licence?

    Rhetorical question, not expecting a solution. 😉 Just pointing out, as if we didn’t already know, how ridiculous this policy is.

    I don’t use Facebook and never will…unless Mark Zuckerfuckwit pulls his head out of his own arse.

    1. And who wants to give Facebook even *more* information? They already know so much.

      They seemed to have backed down from it a bit, but the policy is still there, so they could start enforcing it again any time they liked.

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