Facebook’s Real Name policy, a saner approach?

I apologize for writing two Facebook posts within one week but at some level, they are larger issues that the usual product issues I like writing about. It’s not just that Facebook is the social network everyone is on, from teens, though they deny it to grandparents, but it’s also at the forefront of every other mobile trend. It merits this attention (not just mine) and scrutiny because of its size, its pervasiveness, and its influence.   

The Real Names policy continues to intrigue me. Are “real names” the key to a safe community? Or maybe, on Facebook, it’s the reciprocity in creating a new connection (as opposed to unilateral “following” on Twitter and other social networks) and users end up connecting with people they know. Anonymous communities sure haven’t had much success with safety and controlling harassment, but for a minority, a vulnerable minority, the Real Name policy and the way it’s enforced can mean trouble.

I read Violet Blue’s post on her recent Facebook experiences, and this is not the first time she has written about the problems of the Real Names policy. I also followed the discussion started by Robert Scoble on Facebook. In the post and discussion several troubling examples of how the policy was hurting vulnerable people. In his response to Ms Blue’s post he said that perhaps Facebook can offer users a two-tiered verification. As I understood his suggestion, Facebook would add that blue verified icon next to names that are identical to names on a government issued ID. I’m not a great fan of this solution. Verified icons work to ensure users that the Justin Bieber account they are following really belongs to the Justin Bieber (or his staff) and not a fan. Mr Scoble’s approach gives more privilege to the already privileged (those able to use their real name without fear) and reminds me a bit of Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

I think that there is a middle ground, but it’s one that will require more resources from Facebook. There is wisdom behind the Real Name policy. After all, there is less spam and harassment on Facebook than the anonymous platforms. But while the Real Names policy may work for the majority of users, it shouldn’t actively hurt the more vulnerable minority.

  1. We need to stop treating Facebook as optional. One common argument in the Real Names policy discussions is that Facebook is free and if a user doesn’t like the rules, they shouldn’t use the network. This is a disingenuous at best. There are services that require a Facebook ID to use and there are many groups, such as classes, religious groups, volunteer-run organizations, nonprofits, and casual social groups that use Facebook as their main form of communication with students and members because “everyone has it.” For many, Facebook is essential in maintaining contact with family and friends, especially for some of its most vulnerable members. Saying again and again that Facebook is a free service, don’t use it if you don’t want to adhere to its rules, will not help this population. Now, if the goal is to meet the needs of the majority and to ignore this minority completely, then yes, it’s OK to continue with this dichotomy. But if the goal is to connect everyone, this cannot continue.  
  2. How do users end up needing to verify their name? The verification
    Reporting an account on Facebook

    Reporting an account on Facebook

    process usually starts with a “member of the community” reporting an account to Facebook. In some cases, those who reported the name are the person’s harassers and other hate groups. Drag queens and Native Americans claim they are specifically targeted. Yet those reporting have no obligations after reporting the “suspicious” names. Should reporting a name and thus subjecting a user to the onerous verification process be without consequence? Perhaps the reporters should first verify themselves before reporting others? Should it be a little more difficult to report a name? Should there be a limit on how many a user can report? Should it first subject the reporter to verification?

  3. The Real Names policy is one thing but the enforcement of the Real Name policy is another issue altogether. From many of these stories three things become evident: A. the user has very little leeway in what he/she can do once reported, the contact at Facebook seems very inflexible. B. there is almost no attempt on Facebook’s behalf to understand the individual’s personal and cultural situation, C. it is almost never resolved to the user’s benefit if he/she doesn’t “know” someone at Facebook who can help them. The takeaway is that when there is a personal connection of some sort, Facebook will make the effort to listen and accommodate. Now, that’s hard to scale, I know, but again, it goes back to Facebook’s goal. If they want to connect everyone, perhaps a better process and more humanity is needed, maybe in the form of the initial contact, maybe throughout the process. But listening to each case, understanding each situation and making exceptions may be the way to go.
  4. The display name. OK, so a user has gotten this far: been reported and verified with an ID. The next step is what user name is displayed on their profile. This might be more important than the previous two steps because it is this exposure that gets these users in trouble, be it doxxing, physical harm, online abuse, jail time or just a lack of desire for their “official” name to be public. It seems that once verified, Facebook sometimes decides to use the name on the government issued ID as opposed to the user’s previous pseudonym that they picked out, either because it was dangerous for them to use their government name or just not the name they were known by in their community or in a public role. Why must the verification and the display name be identical? Let each user use whatever display name they wish, even after verification. Facebook knows that user is a real person at that point and furthermore, that that person needs Facebook so much they are willing to be verified. That meets all of Facebook’s declared policy goals and marketing goals: a real, loyal person is using this account with a name his/her friends and family know them by. Why is it so difficult to leave them that name?

Understanding names is hard. Understanding what name we use when is also not simple. Not everyone who uses a pseudonym shows a lack of integrity, as per Zuckerberg. Sometimes it’s a nickname they’ve been known by all their lives. Sometimes, for immigrants, it’s a way to acclimatize in their new home and sometimes it’s a matter of job security or worse, of hiding from harassers and abusers death. Once verified as real, why does the display name matter so much to Facebook?

It could be that Facebook is already doing some of these, yet the process is (understandably) opaque.

Names are complicated. It will take time and effort by humans (not algorithms) to accommodate all these nuances and to meet different communities’ needs. In the end, it still boils down to how important it is for Facebook to include these communities. To be continued.


One thought on “Facebook’s Real Name policy, a saner approach?

  1. Pingback: Facebook Real Names: trying but not quite there yet | What it all boils down to

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