Facebook, LGBT, and Internet Identity

I thought I’d start off my foray into blogging with a brief discussion of the recent news about Facebook’s real name policy as applied to LGBT persons and some of its implications for online identity.

For a little background, Facebook requires that its users use their “real name” for their profiles. (It’s in the terms of service, didn’t you read?) The requirement has numerous valid justifications, such as deterring bad behavior and ensuring accountability in an online environment. Despite the theoretically strong requirement for real-name usage, the system in practice is policed by users. It turns out a website with 1.23 billion active monthly users is difficult to police. The system relies on bad actors being called out by other Facebook users, and explains why we all have friends with idiosyncratic name alterations who seem to skirt under the radar: most people don’t care that you’re using a false/modified name, as long as you aren’t abusing it. You were technically breaking the rules, but so what?

Among those who occupied this real-name limbo were members of the LGBT community who don’t identify with their given birth name (normally still their legal name) and choose to adopt a different one, both in public life and online. In a culture that is still grappling with how to handle gender identity, life can be very difficult for an LGBT person. Through the use of a pseudonym, many LGBT persons have found a new sense of confidence, self-identity, and community. And Facebook was none the wiser because no one reported them.

But of course, this shaky balancing act came crashing down when a user reported several hundred “drag queens” that were violating the real-name policy. Their accounts were frozen, and they were required to verify their identity with credit cards, photo IDs, etc., which would not match their assumed names. It appeared for a while that Facebook was going to stick to its real-name guns and ostracize an already marginalized minority. But on October 1, Facebook announced that it would allow these users to maintain their assumed names, shifting from a real-name policy in a legal sense, to a real-name policy in a practical sense: aka the real name you use in real life. In addition, they announced that they are developing new authentication tools to avoid these types of problems in the future.

I’ve been following this issue casually for several months now, partly because I find the LGBT issues interesting, but mostly because it represents a few larger issues relating to identity online. Facebook has always stood for accountability in online identity, but saying that Facebook provides an accountable identity really doesn’t address the complexity of what our online identity is. In one respect, this is an easy question: online identity means we can track online actions to an identifiable person. But this is a literal interpretation. Identity is also how we want others to perceive us, and it is in this respect that is so challenging.

Facebook is all about control over identity. We select profile pictures that show the world how we want to be seen; a relationship status is acknowledged as a test of a relationship’s ‘officialness;’ every album we upload; every post we edit; all of this is identity. Yet identity is as much about the unseen as the seen. The photos we untag; the status updates we rewrite a dozen times before discarding (which they still track). We want the world to know that our favorite movie is Citizen Kane (never seen it) as much as we don’t them to know how many times we’ve watched Mean Girls (too many.) This is the nature of privacy; it is control over information about ourselves.

Yet behind these limited exposures is a reality that is being molded. We may select certain photos to represent us, but untagging the bad photos doesn’t mean we never looked that way. Both are equally true. So what is the status of this unwanted, yet true information? This was the question Facebook had to confront. What do we do with the true information regarding people’s names who don’t wish to identify with it? While Facebook probably couldn’t force them to maintain a page with their legal name, they could make it a Hobson’s choice.

At first, Facebook’s policy seemed to be a hard line with regard to names: you can select your profile picture, but you cannot select your name. Facebook’s new policy recognizes that names aren’t so black-and-white. My name is Scott, but I may choose to go by Scotty (not a chance); a James may go by Jim; or a Larry may identify as Lana. But all of these are still grounded in the notion of real-life accountability. You can use a pseudonym on Facebook, but only if you use that pseudonym in your daily life. The problem of the drag queens is averted (and apologized for), but other questions are raised. What details about our lives are subject to this degree of personal control?

Notions of identity must be balanced against the deceptiveness they entail. For instance, sex offenders are not allowed to create Facebook pages (also in the terms of service). Clearly, Facebook has identified some facts that we cannot self-identify away from. But this is a restriction on the creation of accounts. There’s no requirement that ex-convicts who aren’t sex offenders have to identify themselves as such. But should they? Is our criminal past part of our identity, and is that in our control? Certainly in daily life, an ex-con interacts with many people who would be unaware of their criminal history. We don’t brand them with a scarlet letter . . . except when we do. For public housing, voting rights, rights to carry weapons, rights to sit for certain bar exams, job applications, and so forth. Right or wrong, it would appear our society has decided that your criminal record is a part of your identity, at least in certain circumstances.

This brings up the complicating factor of the various types of identity. We each craft different identities with our family, our friends, our bosses, the government, and so on. Mark Zuckerberg might think it shows a lack of integrity, but for most of us, this is a natural part of life. Facebook is really just a social identity, and society has decided that we are entitled to greater control over our social identity than, say, our governmental identity. But even among governmental identity, certain traits are changeable. You can legally change your name, but not your social security number. You can get juvenile criminal records sealed, but not adult ones (I’m simplifying, but you get the idea). And who’s to say what traits people choose to care about? Some people feel a sense of identity in their phone number area code (I’ll always be 703). This complicated calculus of multiple identities with varying degrees of control, all subject to personal opinions, is one of the reasons that privacy is such a difficult topic to discuss. And this matter is only made worse by the expanding role of Facebook in our society. What was once “a better MySpace” is now becoming a form of internet identifier recognized across many platforms, from news sites to online video games.

This argument can probably fall back on a pseudo-business judgment rule. Facebook is a business, and they can basically do whatever is in their best judgment. If they wanted to maintain a hard line, real-name policy, that would be their right. You don’t have to use Facebook, and there’s no evidence of discriminatory intent on their behalf. Facebook’s decision to allow for more lenient name usage doesn’t reflect a fundamental right of the users, it reflects good business judgment.

Yet this does raise important points for online identity generally. You don’t have to use Facebook, but it’d be harder to say you don’t have to use the internet. At least with Facebook, we have some control over our profile. Data brokers like Acxiom generate profiles about us without our knowledge or consent; do you have a right to control that profile in the same manner you control your Facebook profile? From an accuracy standpoint, Acxiom would actually prefer that you to take control over this profile. Accurate information is worth more than inaccurate information. But this again reflects their businesses judgment, not a right of the individual. What would these LGBT members’ names be to Acxiom? Is their sense of identity even a factor? I doubt it.

To be fair, Facebook and Acxiom aren’t very comparable. Facebook, and by extension all social networks, are representations of us. They are avatars for us to interact in an online environment. Acxiom is a representation about us. It is simply data, compiled for analysis. Acxiom and Facebook are different forms of identity. I doubt people feel a sense of identity with their Acxiom profiles, since most don’t even know they exist. They are a source of utility, not identity. Furthermore, we choose to create our Facebook profiles. Our choice of social network is arguably a source of identity in itself. And then there is the simple matter of visibility; identity is as much about who is looking as what is said. Facebook is designed to be seen by those whose opinions we care about. Whereas most people care substantially less about how they are perceived by corporations: Acxiom’s target customer.

And as a final point, consider the nature of these profiles. Facebook is a selective medium; we only post what we want others to see. This facilitates self-expression, but also facilitates falsity. Whereas Acxiom sees everything without a filter. Every purchase is a data point, and nothing is left out. Facebook may highlight the beautiful organic kale salad I made for lunch today, but Acxiom knows about the gas station lunch I had every other day this week. It makes me wonder which identity is a truer reflection, and if everyone were aware of my whole reality, it might encourage me to live more like the world I present on Facebook.

This post is getting pretty long, so I’ll probably cut it off there. I initially wanted to delve into the culture of anonymity that the internet has bred, but I’ll have to leave that discussion for another post. Until next time.

-Scott

One thought on “Facebook, LGBT, and Internet Identity

  1. Pingback: OkCupid and the Art of Control | The CACR Supplement

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