A People’s Facebook

Facebook wants real names. Its users want a real public space.

Mark Zuckerberg delivering a speech at Facebook's F8 developer conference in 2011. Kimihiro Hoshino / AFP

Facebook’s policy of requiring that everyone use their “authentic” name on its website has proven more controversial than they expected.

This year the company was almost banned from the San Francisco Pride Parade as opposition to the measure has grown. Activists say that the restriction is unfair and dangerous and that users should have the right to choose a name that is meaningful to them.

Mark Zuckerberg made some last minute calls to get back in the parade, but LGBTQ activists and organizers of the #MyNameIs campaign still aren’t happy. Last Monday two busloads of protestors showed up at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters to decry the policy.

The real names rule has been in effect at Facebook for a decade, but people started talking about it in earnest last fall when San Francisco drag queens like Sister Rosa and Lil Miss Hot Mess got locked out of their accounts after other users reported them for using “fake” names. Sister Rosa and others called out Facebook for discrimination, arguing that their names were part of their identity, and that for many in the LGBTQ community, using legal names is dangerous.

Facebook immediately repented and promised to remedy the problem. In the months that followed the company reworded the policy’s language — asking for  “authentic” rather than “real” names — increased the types of identification users could present if challenged (bus cards, medical records, yearbook photos), and gave users more time to change their names or download their online content before their account got shut down.

But the problem hasn’t gone away. It turns out lots of people — even famous people like Salman Rushdie and Jay Smooth — are affected by the real names policy. Native American names often get flagged for including “unusual capitalization” or “phrases,” which violate Facebook’s naming rules. Dana Lone Hill was suspended from Facebook when someone reported her name as fake and despite promptly providing formal identification was locked out of her account for a week while Facebook employees decided whether she was a real person.

Shane Creepingbear, a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, has been reported twice. In a blog post written after his second lockout Creepingbear said: “This policy supports a narrative that masks centuries of occupation and erasure of Native culture. The parallel between Natives being removed from the space they occupied and the removal from Facebook’s space is stark.”

For others, Facebook’s policy has more dire consequences. Political activists, for whom the website provides a vital organizing tool, can be arrested or even killed for their online activity. Abuse survivors, particularly women, often eschew their legal name on social media to prevent violent or abusive past partners or family members from harassing or stalking them, and for many young people experimenting with their sexuality, Facebook provides a safe community, but only if they can control their online identity.

Facebook has been scrambling to tamp down growing public anger but isn’t making any moves to eliminate the policy. Chris Cox, the company’s chief product officer, says the policy is “the primary mechanism we have to protect millions of people . . . from real harm. The stories of mass impersonation, trolling, domestic abuse, and higher rates of bullying and intolerance are oftentimes the result of people hiding behind fake names, and it’s both terrifying and sad.”

The connection between name and behavior is a bit tenuous though. As has been tragically revealed in the rash of suicides by young people harassed on social media over the past few years, identification doesn’t prevent people from acting badly.

Lux Alptraum — a journalist who has also been locked out of her account for using an unacceptable name — recently challenged the usefulness of the policy in preventing abuse. “If the desire is to prevent abuse, banning people who are largely using the service as intended seems counterintuitive. Monitoring behavior, rather than names, seems like a much more useful strategy.”

So why doesn’t Facebook just monitor behavior instead of names and let people call their digital avatars whatever they want?

The short answer is that it would cost the company too much money. Facebook has a straightforward business model — it makes 94 percent of its revenue from advertising. It sells ad space to marketers who want their ads to be shown to real people. Facebook convinces marketers that real people are seeing, and clicking on, their ads by presenting metrics of account activity. It tracks total “daily active users” and “monthly active users” (MAU) on computers and smartphones all over the world and links these accounts to online activity. In doing so it shows marketers that people like and use Facebook and that companies should post their ad with them rather than Google+ or smaller regional rivals like Renren.

The only glitch is if ad companies don’t believe Facebook’s data — if they think the company’s accounts aren’t real (spammers, double accounts, etc.) and connected to an actual human with the ability to make real-life purchases. As Facebook’s latest 10-Q filing says:

If marketers, developers, or investors do not perceive our user metrics to be accurate representations of our user base . . . our reputation may be harmed and markets and developers may be less willing to allocate their budgets to resources to Facebook, which could negatively affect our business and financial results.

So the company goes to great lengths to be convincing by weeding out “duplicate” and “false” accounts, and while it’s vague about its methodology, it acknowledges that the company “applies significant judgment in making this determination, such as identifying names that appear to be fake or other behavior that appears inauthentic to reviewers.”

In its latest SEC filing Facebook reported to investors that its methodology is a success and it is confident that less than 2 percent of its global monthly active user accounts are fake.

If Facebook bows to public pressure and eliminates its real names policy it will have to find another way to convince marketers that its accounts are real. It could probably do this — after all, Facebook engineers have designed facial recognition software that rivals the human brain — but it would be costly and the global social media market is hyper-competitive.

Facebook is in a peculiar position, nudged between the social and the economic, and is acutely aware of its vulnerability to user mistrust and bad publicity. It warned investors in its latest SEC filing that it expects its growth rate to decline (its MAU growth rate has declined steadily since 2011–12) and that its competitors pose a very real threat. Most of the marketers who buy Facebook ad space make short-term, low-budget commitments and will happily move their money elsewhere.

For now it’s easier to maintain the system in place. You get to use Facebook’s free service to connect with friends and family, check up on old lovers, collaborate with colleagues, or whatever you use social media for, and Facebook gets to count you as a real person who can be marketed to.

But while the exchange is straightforward, most people don’t like it, and the intense anger over Facebook’s real names policy reveals the precariousness of the company’s balancing act of marketing digital selves while still maintaining public trust. Our digital selves might be the new frontier of commodification, but that doesn’t mean everyone is ready to give in and send copies of their library cards and utility bills to companies like Facebook.

People want control over their digital avatars; they don’t want them to be for sale. They want to embrace the possibility of connectivity and creativity promised by the Internet. As Lil Miss Hot Mess wrote recently: “most of us don’t merely turn to the Internet to replicate our daily lives, but to go beyond them.”

This is why it’s worth fighting the battle over names at Facebook. It’s part of a much larger struggle to transform the Internet into a public good, a decommodified space designed for people, not profits.

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