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 harvard.edu 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.