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Facebook's real-name policy is a bit of a mess

Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the F8 keynote in 2008
flickr user Brian Solis

It’s been almost a decade since Facebook was opened to the general public.

Many initially saw it as a ripoff of then-powerhouse social networking platform MySpace, but since then it’s grown to take the top spot as ruler of the social media kingdom.

Some will argue, for better or for worse, that Facebook is now a permanent piece of our cultural landscape.

Facebook’s “real-name” policy has evolved over its lifespan, but has caused some level of controversy since the site’s public debut in 2006. They want you to use your real name when using the site, and have been shutting out members that are suspected of using a pseudonym.

Michigan Radio’s social media producer Kimberly Springer explains that Facebook has three things in mind when enforcing this policy.

The first, she says, is authenticity. Springer tells us that research has found that users value authenticity and realness in their online interactions, and Facebook is trying to foster that environment.

The second thing Springer says is at stake is safety. Facebook sees the real-name policy as an anti-harassment measure, but she says that research disagrees as to whether or not the policy is effective in this regard.

Making it even more complicated, she says, Facebook and its users look at the safety issue from different angles. Facebook forces the use of real names as a way to discourage users who might take advantage of anonymity to harass others, whereas many users see the ability to adopt a pseudonym as a way to avoid being harassed.

The third thing Facebook is concerned about, and, Springer says, the only thing they haven’t directly stated is at stake, is money.

“They need for you to have a trackable, consistent identity across social media so that they can target ads to you,” she tells us.

Springer says that the issue first came to her attention because drag performers wanted to use their stage names, and Facebook was telling them that they had to use their real names.

“Then there are people who are transgender who might be transitioning into a different gender or new identity,” she says, “so they want to change their names on Facebook as well.”

As it stands, Facebook asks members to use their “real name,” the name their friends know them by, as opposed to their “legal name.”

Springer tells us that it’s likely an algorithm that watches users’ names and shuts down suspected accounts.

Users wrongfully flagged can submit some form of identification to prove that whatever tripped the algorithm is in fact their real name.

“It’s just this minefield of government documentation, personal issues, commerce,” Springer says. “It’s a bit of a mess.”

If being required to use a real name is a concern, Springer reminds us that there are always other ways to stay in touch, even other social networking platforms.

“This is a free service. This is their sandbox,” she says. “Ultimately, Facebook isn’t a public utility, and it’s not required in our lives.”

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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