Every few months, a story surfaces of someone being kicked off Facebook for refusing to adhere to a little-known, sporadically enforced policy that requires users to use their “real name” in their profiles. The summer saw two high-profile cases of blocked Facebook accounts: Laurie Penny, a British journalist who uses a pseudonym due to the rape and death threats she regularly receives; and Zip, a former Facebook employee who had used her name for six years through her employment, both had their accounts deactivated. However, German regulators have forced Facebook to stop enforcing the rule, claiming that banning users from using alternate names and pseudonyms violates German law. This is a step in the right direction, but change must come from within: Facebook should drop their real name policy entirely.
Facebook’s rationale for the policy stems from their belief that real names push up user engagement on the site. Facebook is inherently less valuable if you cannot easily find your friends or the cute person you just met at a bar. But not only that — Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg cannot fathom why someone would have two names. “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,” Zuckerberg said in an interview. He has also said that privacy is no longer a “social norm” people care about. This is a belief that benefits Facebook but is incorrect and should be abandoned.
There are plenty of reasons people may not use their real name online. Facebook is positioning itself as the gatekeeper of our social interactions: if everyone at NYU knows me by a nickname and not “Tommy,” it should not be Facebook’s decision which name I use on the site. Alternatively, users could be transitioning, closeted or victims of stalking or domestic violence who want to use the site for support and outreach without leaving themselves vulnerable to their abusers. They could also be Native Americans, whose accounts have been suspended by the social network in the past. Facebook seems to have a pre-existing idea of what a name should be, and “Dana Lone Hill” does not fit the idea. Suspending accounts for this reason in no way Facebook’s jurisdiction, and this odious practice must stop.
On an iPhone, if you ask Siri how old “Bruce Jenner” is, it will correct you and say that Caitlyn Jenner is 65 years old. If you type “Bruce Jenner” into Wikipedia, the site redirects you to the article on Caitlyn Jenner. These subtle shifts, prompting users to refer to and see Jenner by the name she has chosen, is an example of how technology is not neutral, and can shape our realities. Last year, Facebook introduced custom genders, allowing users to identify as genders other than “male” and “female.” They must now take the next step and end their toxic real name policy.
This column originally appeared in Washington Square News.