One Name to Rule Them All: Facebook's Identity Problem

The site has apologized for suspending the accounts of drag queens who use alternative monikers, but it hasn't solved the problem.

Eric Risberg/AP

It’s not every day that Facebook issues a public apology. And it’s certainly not every day that the rights of drag queens win the day, a community that has historically been mocked, maligned, and misunderstood. But such was the result of a long-brewing battle over the politics of names, which came to a head after a slew of media attention in the past two weeks. After aggressively suspending the accounts of dozens of drag performers, in some cases demanding they submit legal ID to keep their profiles alive, yesterday Facebook apologized to the drag queens and the broader queer community supporting them. Their policy of requiring only “real names” in users’ profiles will now allow whatever “authentic name they use in real life.”

Sensational skirmish? Another bizarre dustup in the unruly world of social media? A mere blip on Facebook’s radar? Perhaps all of the above. But if we’re willing to look past the glitter, the makeup, and the fabulous hair, the issue beneath is an important one. And although the apology does represent an important policy shift, the concerns raised are far from resolved. Must we be “ourselves” online? Can we allow people to be playful or protective about their online personas, while still avoiding the abuses that seem to accompany pseudonymity? And most importantly, who decides?

For many of us, listing our first and last names is the most mindless step of filling out a form or profile. But not everyone has such a simple relationship to his or her name. Like many performers, drag queens carefully craft their stage names and public personas. Some wanted to be on Facebook exclusively under their stage name; others prefer to have two profiles, to help separate the different personas and social networks that belong to their on-stage and off-stage selves.

Facebook had its own ideas about how we should present ourselves to the world, embodied in its “real name policy.” Users may have only one profile, and it must be their given name. You can be Billy or Will or William, but beyond that your user name is supposed to be “you.” This is a legacy of Facebook’s Ivy League beginnings, when Facebook profiles were only eligible to people with a email address – establishing a de facto real-name policy without ever needing to enforce or justify it. But as Facebook expanded, the policy remained. (Google+ used to have a similar policy, but gave it up this past July in the face of similar criticism.)

Even in their apology, Facebook defended the real name rule, both as what distinguishes them from their competitors and as how they protect users from harassment, trolling, racism, and misogyny (although these problems persist). Critics have also suggested that Facebook needs our “real” names for economic reasons: The massive troves of user data it collects are valuable precisely because they map to real people. There’s even reason to believe that the logic runs deeper: Mark Zuckerberg once suggested that having more than one online identity indicated a “lack of integrity.”

But for drag performers, and many others, these choices came not from a lack of integrity but a lack of options. Despite the rule, many drag performers had gone ahead and developed multiple or stage-specific profiles. Some had built up years of social interactions around them.

Facebook’s apology allows for stage names in place of legal ones. The details of how they will discern between an “authentic name they use in real life” and a pseudonym made up on the spot remain unclear. Facebook can’t seem to get itself out of the business of policing our identity; it just moved the regulation line. And the statement is silent on the question of multiple profiles. Presumably, that rule remains in full force—which, for drag queens with two profiles, doesn’t help much.

But maintaining multiple identities online is not just for drag queens. We all perform versions of ourselves. When we use two different platforms, reserving one for our professional life and another for our side interest, we’re separating two sides of ourselves using the tools available to us. When we complain about our parents commenting on our Facebook posts aimed at our friends, we’re wishing we could maintain different public faces on a platform that prefers to push them together.

More leniency for users to choose a single and consistent alias is certainly a welcome change. But a bolder solution might be to separate identification from identity. Facebook could allow multiple profiles, as long as users linked them to a single, stable, legal identity—but in a way visible only to Facebook. Invisibly linked profiles would still allow Facebook to gather consumer data and police abusive behavior. And moving identification into the backstage would allow users, any users, to craft their performance of themselves as they choose, and as is the norm for their community. If this policy really is about protecting the community from those who harass others under cover of a pseudonym, or if it's really about having consumer-specific data, then having identification backstage—behind whatever identities people choose to use frontstage—answers that concern.

Instead, Facebook proposed no substantive change to the rule, holding fast to the underlying premise that they need us to use Facebook as our one and only public self (even if the name is adopted). They blamed their own process, suggesting that drag-queen profiles were being flagged by a single grumpy user, complaints that were then swept up into their massive mechanism for responding to user complaints. They even suggest that the “spirit” of the rule was always that a legitimate stage name was acceptable, despite ample evidence to the contrary, not only in recent weeks but for years and years. You can have a different name, a different identity, but you cannot, still, have more than one. This is likely to appease some and irritate others.

At the moment, it’s unclear how Facebook will proceed in a way that guarantees continued thoughtfulness about these choices and a proactive commitment to social justice rather than a reactive response to bad press. It took outrage, organizing, public protest, and face-to-face meetings for the drag queens to get Facebook to respond to their concerns. It should require much less.

It is reasonable that we press Facebook on these questions of public responsibility, while also acknowledging that Facebook cannot be all things to all people. We can demand that their design decisions and user policies be explicit, thoughtful, and open to public deliberation. But the choices Facebook makes, in their design and in their policies, are value judgments. These will, unavoidably, favor some users over others. They will privilege the practices of some, and render others more difficult or impossible. It is incumbent upon Facebook to recognize when they’re excluding or marginalizing communities of users, and when they’re having a constraining effect on all of us. The fact that drag queens spent years violating this policy was its own powerful form of evidence that many users want, even need, more flexibility about how they present themselves online. It’s evidence that Facebook could have more readily heeded.

And doing so is just good business: Being responsive to users and being humble enough to admit that you can learn from them is good PR. Apology notwithstanding, Facebook has hardly been humble, and their about-face was certainly in part to avoid appearing anti-queer—especially in San Francisco, where tensions between locals and tech companies are already high. (They may have also wanted to staunch the flow of users defecting to upstart competitor Ello, which promises not only to allow pseudonyms but also no advertising or data collection, and was experiencing as many as 50,000 new user requests per hour over the last few days.)

Tensions will continue to arise between the rules of conduct designed for a general public, and we can expect countercultural communities to sometimes find that those rules conflict with their values and beliefs. Every design choice and user policy will privilege some over others. But if those marginalized by a decision are the same people who are being marginalized again and again, it raises much deeper questions about the values embedded into technologies.

This is how inequity persists, despite our best efforts towards tolerance and fairness. And, while this is not Facebook’s responsibility alone, they certainly play a particular role in determining which face, of the many we all have, that we get to use online.