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on going viral

For a week or so there, I was Mister Internet. I knocked out a graphic criticizing Facebook's real-names only policy, it went viral, got my account suspended, got me press, got memed and connected me with all sorts of people and stories.

Here's how it happened.

My wife is a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence. The Sisters are a global order of queer drag nuns who have been doing activism and philanthropy since the early days of the AIDS crisis. In September 2014 we started hearing that Sisters and drag performers we know were suddenly finding their Facebook accounts suspended. Those accounts were in persona names like Lil Miss Hot Mess, Queen Dilly Dally and Sister Flora Goodthyme, which thus violated Facebook's real-names-only policy. It later came out that this was apparently the work of one disgruntled troll, happily flagging profiles knowing they would be automatically suspended.

Facebook maintains its policy is for safety, to prevent fraud and identity theft. But clearly these folks weren't trying to fool anyone, and it smacked of targeted discrimination. With the bravado that won the day at Stonewall and the fabulousness that garners media attention, the queens pushed back, they got San Francisco politicians involved and the #MyNameIs hashtag started trending.

 

I was glad to see it addressed, but also bugged to see the issue defined as Facebook vs. the Drag Queens. Many people I know were using pseudonyms for other reasons. People who'd been threatened, assaulted, abused, stalked. People whose jobs required a firewall between their personal lives and their online presence. People including my wife, my mother-in-law and many close friends. 

That little light bulb of righteous indignation went off, and in a fit of pique I knocked out an infographic telling some of those stories and threw it on my Timeline. Then I had a cup of coffee, took a fresh look at it and (like I usually do) tweaked the design a bit. I was going to take down the original version but I was like, wow, it got six shares already. So I posted the second one and said use this instead.

 

Two hours later the two versions had been shared six hundred times. By the time I went to bed it had passed five thousand. The next day, thirteen thousand. And these were just the shares listed on my Timeline. It was popping on Twitter and all over the place and I was hearing from lots of people. I had apparently struck a highly resonant chord for many many people.

I got messages and friend requests and read threads and heard so many more stories. Transgendered people who had transitioned but had not changed their legal name. A recovering addict who did not want her old friends reaching out to her. A man whose family had died, making his name was just a painful reminder of loss. Teachers and nurses and therapists who met all kinds of people in their jobs and didn't want to have to turn down their friend requests. People who just thought it wasn’t anyone’s business. Enough good reasons to fill a billboard, in small type.

The next day I was closing on twenty thousand shares.

Then Facebook suspended my account.

For using a pseudonym.

Now the funny part is that for the first five years I was on Facebook, I had no problem using my real name. I’m a freelance designer and a narcissist, I want my name out there. But my wife works in social services and her profile had been accessed by some clients a few weeks earlier, creating an awkward and potentially hazardous situation for us both. So I switched my username to Uncle Mikey, which is what most of my friends call me anyway (though I had to spell it "Unkle" because Facebook would not accept "Uncle" as a first name).

It's also worth mentioning that my wife had already locked her account down and was using a pseudonym after being cyberstalked on Facebook a few years before. But those precautions still didn't protect her from this exposure.


So: my choice was to suck it up and put my real name back on my profile, or have all 20,000 instances of that meme disappear from everyone’s Timelines forever. Along with everything else I had on Facebook.

 

I caved. Because I could afford to. Because I didn’t have to worry about my rapist sending me a friend request. But if I didn't have that option, my statement of protest would have vanished from twenty thousand Timelines. My whole presence on what has become the grid of social media would disappear with less smoke and noise than an old-school book burning. That may be a corny way to put it, but it's true.


My profile went back up and the shares continued, but at a markedly slower rate. Whether that was the natural flow of such things or because of some more nefarious reason I can't say. The thing still gets a share every month or so, but the tide had clearly ebbed.

Still disgruntled, I emailed my story to some reporters who had written about the #MyNameIs debate, and happily Business Insider picked it up. Though the "interview" was really just quotes from my email to the reporter, I had a chance to make my case and that was vindicating.

I had positive and negative interactions with people who either agreed totally, or saw me advocating for whiners who just couldn't deal with life. The most consistent complaint was that I hadn't included a transgendered person...which is true, and a regret. The irony is that I know several transfolk but had not considered that their chosen names might not be their "real" names. My bad.

 

It also got memed. For example, a sysadmin did a this counter-point:

My infographic, borne of my anger over a "safety" policy that I felt endangers users.

Grousing to the masses via Business Insider.

So that was that. After a week of so in the virtual spotlight my life went back to what it was. Nobody showed up at the door with a giant check. No Facebook thugs started stalking me. It was vaguely disappointing, in a be-careful-what-you-wish-for way.

 

As to the issue behind it all: Facebook agreed to a meeting with a group of drag queens, transgender activists and others, then cancelled the meeting. Then they apologized and announced they would change their policy, and a planned #MyNameIs protest at San Francisco City Hall became a "victory rally"...prematurely as it turned out. Although Facebook did tweak their anonymous reporting tool and claims to have softened rules to allow alternate names IF a person can demonstrate it is a name they are known by. But I still hear from friends who log on to find their accounts suspended, and go through Byzantine processes to have them restored. 

 

Under the same rule that lets Lady Gaga have an account under that name, exceptions are made for performers. But for the nonflamboyant masses, the real-names-only rule is still in place. 


Claims about user safety aside, the fact is Facebook's business model depends on real names. That is the differentiator that let Facebook take off in ways that MySpace and Tribe did not...you can't track down high school friends with nicknames. Facebook sells user information, and the more information about you they have the more they can sell, and the easier it is to align it with other databases out there.

 

So Facebook's motivations go beyond matters of user safety. Facebook has unquestionably changed the entire model of how people interact on line, but they're still a privately-owned, largely-unregulated effective monopoly on social media whose ultimate obligation is to stockholders, not users. Facebook promises that "it's free and always will be," but there is a cost to entry that many people simply cannot afford, and that is a scary proposition when you're talking about the dominant mode of electronic communication.


Ironically, many people I know are still using pseudonyms. But the lesson learned is to use mundane names, not the sort that draw attention and get flagged. So in that sense, Facebook's policies have actually encouraged users to be deceptive lest they be kicked off the grid.

 

From a personal perspective, my two takeaways: when you post something even remotely clever, put your damn name on it (I think I hadn't because I didn't want to draw attention to my own pseudonym, which didn't end up mattering). And, take a minute before you post...much to my chagrin, the first less-tight version ended up with eighty percent of the shares.

 

 

The creator of this got slammed in another graphic. But I saw his points, and we exchanged messages and ultimately agreed that while total anonymity can encourage bad players, Facebook could easily address the safety issues by letting people use acknowledged pseudonyms, a point which I endeavored to relate in a less-shared followup comic:

Valid arguments from the IT side of the coin. But ultimately not a justification for Facebook's requirement that a real name must be publicly displayed on a profile.

The followup, shared a mere couple hundred times.