Oh, Facebook! The issue of names and social media

This post was originally written in December 2014.

A couple of months ago, I was delighted to read that Facebook had apologised to members of the LGBTQ+ community for locking accounts based on the use of pseudonyms. I was even more delighted to read that Facebook’s policy apparently “has never been to require everyone on Facebook to use their legal name”, according to Chief Product Officer, Chris Cox. This seemed to imply a welcome relaxation of Facebook’s real names policy. So why are so many of my friends now being locked out of their accounts unless they change their name or provide ID to prove that the name they use on Facebook is ‘real’?

Before I go any further, I would like to make it clear I am fully aware that a service such a Facebook can create their own terms, conditions and policies which users must adhere to if they want to continue to use the service. I’m aware that Facebook’s users are their product and paying advertisers are their customers. I am aware that if someone doesn’t like the way a service operates, they can simply stop using the service. I’m also aware that Facebook has an absolutely huge user base and actually functions pretty well when it comes to keeping in touch with friends, arranging events and managing groups of people, so it’s understandable that “just use something else” isn’t an entirely realistic option, especially as there isn’t really a viable something else just yet, or at least not one that is fully developed.

Facebook has been an outstanding resource when it comes to promoting the local charity I volunteer with. Even without the frustrating paid-for post Boosts, we have achieved a seriously impressive continuing level of reach and engagement. Facebook is our main social media outlet and our content there gets more hits than our frequently updated blog and website. Facebook has also proven to be super effective when it comes to organising groups of volunteers for events and for promoting the events themselves to a global audience. It’s annoying that about 90% of the people who Like and Follow our page don’t see our posts by default, unless we pay for them to see the posts, which we don’t. The expectation that non-profits, social groups, communities and individuals who use Facebook Pages (as opposed to personal profiles) for non-money-making ventures should pay to ensure the people who actively want to see their content do actually see it seems somewhat misguided, but that’s a post for another day.

For personal use, I would pay for the level of function and service that Facebook provides. Seriously. If there was an option to Do All The Useful Stuff without being bombarded with ads (or using AdBlock Plus to get rid of them) or having data sold to third parties, I would honestly part with money for that. I assume I’m not alone in this. I assume that the powers that be at Facebook have considered this potential revenue stream and decided that a lot more money can be made by treating users as the product not the customer. Perhaps not enough people would be willing or able to pay for an ad-free, privacy-respecting service. I assume that the people who run Facebook don’t care if they annoy a certain proportion of their users to the point where they delete their account or only use it for a fraction of the purposes it could potentially serve because there are no genuine competitors at this point.

What we have is a huge, global social media network filled with people who continue to use it even though the company that owns the network profits from selling their information to other companies, even though there are serious question marks over what information is sold and how it is obtained. Plenty of people don’t care but plenty will weigh up risks to their privacy against convenience and decide to continue to use their Facebook account anyway.

Common sense plays a part here. I don’t understand why anyone would have a completely public Facebook profile. I don’t understand why anyone would fill in ALL the information requested – where you’re from, where you live, where you’ve been to school and university, where you’ve worked, your favourite films and books, your email address and phone number, your full date of birth, your parents listed as Family in your Friends list, adoption of pets listed as Life Events and your full name as it appears on your birth certificate. Where else have you seen this information – full name, contact details, date of birth, mother’s maiden name, name of first pet – being asked for? Yep, security questions for services like online banking. Think carefully about whether or not you really want 561 of your closest friends and online acquaintances (or anyone and everyone, if your entire profile is set to public) to have that information.

I’ve been online since I was 15. I’m almost 34, so that’s quite a long time. I remember when everyone used pseudonyms, when a/s/l (age, sex, location) was a question you had to ask because that information wasn’t simply shared everywhere as standard, and you had no idea what the people you talked to every day in Yahoo chat rooms (remember Yahoo chat rooms?) looked like. I know there’s a whole set of issues that comes along with that level of total (optional) anonymity but there’s also a whole set of issues that come along with no anonymity at all.

I’m not secretive online, as you will probably know if you’ve browsed around my blog and thought “Ye gods, that woman is uninhibited” as you read deeply personal accounts of various experiences and opinions. I’m an open book. The contents of my head are out there for anyone wanting to read them. I will happily talk about what I got up to at the weekend, what I had for breakfast, my physical and mental health, sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, my cats, my marriage, my inside leg measurement (32 inches, by the way) and the fact that when I type the letter ‘m’ into my browser’s search bar it automatically populates with ‘Mads Mikkelsen smoking’ (I have unconventional image-based coping mechanisms – don’t judge me).

But. And there is a but. A big but. I like big buts and I cannot lie. I do not use my parentally-bestowed birth-certificate name on the internet. Even with a name that does not appear on my debit card, I am completely and utterly, painfully and shamelessly, over-sharingly, me. Right down to my chosen name.

So, about my chosen name. I answer to it. If someone shouts it in the street, I will turn around and look for the source of the voice. Last year, I was kind of amused that someone who had known me for months was surprised to find out that December wasn’t my ‘real’ name. This is the name I write under. This is the name I use on all social networks. I don’t use twenty different pseudonyms and pretend to be a 50 year old architect or a 21 year old professional crocodile wrangler. I am me, everywhere, all the time, in everything I do. There is no falsehood or fakeness at work here. I just don’t want to use my given name on the internet. Is this not quite logical, actually?

If I believed that communicating any of this to Facebook would make a difference to their policies (and not instantly result in me getting locked out of my account), I would send this to them printed on bright pink scented paper and wrapped in rainbows and kisses. Since I’m not a significant source of income for Facebook, I do not believe that anything I say or do will make any difference to anything about the way they operate and am resorting to writing about it on my blog instead because I’m annoyed and word-vomming here will at least stop me from ranting at my husband, who doesn’t deserve to have my rage hurled at him by questionable virtue of existing in our shared personal space.

So, without further ado, here is a non-exhaustive list of completely legitimate reasons why you might choose not to use your birth-certificate name on social media…

  • You have experience of abuse or intimate partner violence and do not wish to be found by the people who inflicted this suffering on you.
  • You are estranged from your family and do not want them to be able to contact you, or would prefer not to have obvious connections to them or that part of your life.
  • You experienced bullying or harassment at school or in a previous job and don’t want people from your past to appear in your present.
  • You live in a country where expressing non-mainstream political views could result in attack, arrest, imprisonment or death.
  • You are gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, trans* or otherwise not cis-het and would prefer not to be outed to acquaintances, family members or employers on anything other than your own terms.
  • You actively speak out about issues that would put you at risk of threats to your safety if your real name and location were to be made public.
  • You run a business or for whatever reason have to provide work clients with your full name and would prefer that they weren’t able to easily seek you out on social media.
  • You work in, or are studying to work in, a field where a loss of privacy could directly affect your reputation and/or safety, as well as employment prospects. Think law enforcement, caring professions, educators, maybe even political office in 30 years time because who knows?
  • You would prefer that your children’s friends, or your parent’s friends, or your children’s friends’ parents, aren’t able to locate your social media profiles.
  • You would be happier if you didn’t pop in up in the “People you might know” section when your teachers, students, doctors or patients log in to Facebook.
  • You haven’t used your birth-certificate name for years and everyone knows you by your chosen name. Especially if you live in a country where you don’t actually have to change your name by deed poll for a new name to become real, legal and accepted (hello, Scotland!).
  • You have just applied for a job and don’t want your potential employers to form an opinion of you based on the sum of your recreational activities before even deciding whether or not to invite you for an interview.

This might not be such an issue for John Smith, as there are likely to be numerous people with the same name as you in any given town or city. It is more likely to be an issue for Marietta Jacobsen-Grynt. I pulled that name out of my head, but if you’re reading this and you’re actually called Marietta Jacobsen-Grynt, I sincerely hope I haven’t made you feel uncomfortable.

It is not wrong or dishonest to want to keep your work-life and life-life separate or to want to protect yourself from people who might wish you harm, or to publish erotic literature under a nom de plume while running an I.T. consultancy under the name on your passport. Yes, some people use pseudonyms to deceive, but using a pseudonym isn’t inherently deceitful. I know there’s the “If you want to keep something private, don’t put it on the internet” factor, but we live in a rapidly-changing world where it feels short sighted to simply grunt “No internet! Internet bad!” at the situation.

We should absolutely be practical and considerate when it comes to what we share online and how we share it, understanding that once we put it out there, it is potentially out there forever, out of our hands. I am not suggesting that we all renounce personal responsibility and expect gigantic corporations to set the bar for our values and ethics. Also, we can never even be 100% sure that a pseudonym won’t be connected to a given name. We take these risks, or we don’t. What we decide to put on the internet is, of course, completely our choice.

Often a collection of fairly mundane details, when viewed in a context of your choosing under a name that you are comfortable using, is not dangerous or scandalous. It’s the sum total of all those harmless, innocuous slices of every day life or opinion PLUS your legally identifying information that has the potential to cause serious problems. It’s an issue of freedom, of choice, of control, and these things should rest in the hands of each of us, ourselves, as autonomous individuals, not in the hands of companies that view us as units of data to sell to the highest bidder.

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