Facebook is great at connecting people and even better at pissing them off.
The company’s “Real Name” policy – in which some mysterious arbiters behind FB’s algorithmic curtain decide whether a user’s name is acceptable or not – is rightfully unpopular. The social network’s effort to get everyone to be their “authentic self” on Facebook has been accused of being arbitrary and discriminatory.
Those affected by and critical of the policy range from journalists, to transgendered people to Native Americans to drag queens – along with pretty much anyone who doesn’t like being told that a huge corporation knows their “real” name better than they do. Often it’s people from marginalized or minority groups whose names are deemed unacceptable. Once they’re informed that their name “violates” Facebook’s “name standards” (it’s unclear what exactly these are), users are then left with the irony and indignity of proving to a website that they’re real people with real names.
— Shane Creepingbear (@Creepingbear) October 14, 2014
The “real name” policy also opens the door to exactly the kind of bullying and trolling it supposedly exists to discourage since any user can flag and report another user’s name as “fake” and cause them problems.
In fact, cases like these led Facebook’s Chief Product Officer Chris Cox to apologize to affected users in 2014.
Then of course there’s the issue of anonymity — of the vital pseudonyms that protect journalists, dissidents, and the vulnerable. It’s also a broader privacy issue, and it’s rather galling that a company would have the cheek to tell people how to represent themselves online or exactly how much information they’re required to reveal. Facebook doesn’t require users to use their legal name, so “real name” is incredibly subjective and personal. Your friends may call you “Steamboat Willie” but good luck proving it.
Facebook’s hardline philosophical opposition to anonymity (which it argues promotes bad behavior) has now led to the curious case of Ms. Jemmaroid Von Laalaa. That’s not her real name, and that’s precisely the bone of contention.
Ms. Von Laalaa, whose regular “real-world” name is Jemma Rogers, simply wanted to keep a low profile on the site and avoid unwanted friend requests. So she came up with the nonsense name to ensure her privacy. But after using the account for several years, she recently ran afoul of the “real name” policy and became locked out of her own account when she couldn’t prove that “Von Laalaa” was her actual name. Now, in order to regain access to her account and its content and photographs, she’s gone to the extreme length of legally changing her name to her former pseudonym. Tragically, thus far Facebook isn’t relenting and hasn’t restored her account to her. So now this poor woman is legally named like an Austrian circus performer for nothing.
If the lengths that she went to to get her account back seem absurd, consider how absurd it is to forbid users from coming up with their own user names on a social network in the first place and then to ban them when they don’t conform to ever-changing and ever-arbitrary guidelines.
Here’s a wild idea: If you want your users to be their “authentic selves” on Facebook, then let them use the tool the way they want to. Let them get creative. You might be surprised and delighted by what they come up with.
Or would that make it harder to collect and sell their data?