Facebook’s Real Name Policy and the Futile Search for Safe Authenticity

I am proud to count a few drag queens and burlesque dancers among my Facebook friends. They are where I first heard the news: Facebook was cracking down on performers who have profiles under their stage names instead of their birth names. Hundreds of people have found themselves locked out of their accounts and unable to tell their friends what has happened. Many don’t even know who their friends are, since performers often know each other by performance names only. The official word from Facebook was that this policy has always been in place, and that it’s there to ensure a safe and authentic community. And that’s a great idea. Or at least it would be if the names on birth certificates were universally safe and authentic.

Celine DionOutside of the drag queens and burlesque dancers, I have a lot of other friends on Facebook who don’t use the name that’s printed on their driver’s license. Some have been using a fake name for years. So this week I asked several of them why they do it.

Some are dancers and musicians who have dived head-first into their stage personas. Their stage names are the names they go by in real life these days, with only family members and their oldest friends still calling them by their birth names. The stage name is not a lie, it’s not a fake. It’s the person they grew up to become. It’s who they are. They just don’t feel the need to have it legally changed.

Others have been the targets of abuse and stalking. Having a fake name is a way to put a layer of security between them and the men/women who would do them harm.

I have one friend who works as a teacher. “I’m sure this sounds really harsh,” she told me, “because most parents are wonderful, and their motives are generally good even when their actions seem questionable.” She’s seen stories of teachers who lost their jobs because of parents digging up things from Facebook that they found problematic. “There are always going to be parents who don’t trust their kids’ teachers enough to let them be who they are.”

One guy I know does it so he can joke around with his friends without worrying that every potential employer might one day read his comments. “I compartmentalize my life basically,” he said. He told me he doesn’t want to be accountable to strangers when joking around with his friends. He’s a funny guy, and any comedian will tell you that you have to know your audience.

As I read the responses from my own friends, as well as the articles online, I realized that safety and authenticity are the reasons almost everyone uses a fake name. If singing on stage means more to you than anything in the world, then the name you give to your singing voice is your authentic self. If allowing personal information to be openly associated with your birth name puts you at risk for threats and violence, then hiding your name is being safe. And if managers and parents aren’t willing to let employees decide how to behave outside of the job, then a fake name may be the only way you’re able to be authentic with friends while remaining safe at work.

Red Cup of WaterAuthenticity doesn’t have a single face. People are multi-faceted, and such complexity can be dangerously misinterpreted. I was one of the earliest adopters of Facebook, a fact that will come back to haunt me one day. I was a college freshman, and back then the things posted on Facebook could only be seen by a select few. This made for a relatively safe and authentic community. It didn’t matter if a friend posted a photo of me holding a red solo cup at a party, because the only people who saw the photo were also at the party. And they all knew I hated alcohol, and that the cup was full of water. My authentic self attended a party, but the photo shows someone else. If I decide that my boss or my mother or my church shouldn’t see that photo, it’s not because I’m hiding myself from them. It’s because I’m trying to tell the truth. I am trying to ensure that my authentic self is the one that gets seen, not the lie that the photo tells.

While creating a community that is both safe and authentic is a laudable goal, it is ultimately impossible for a behemoth like Facebook. It is too vast and too interconnected. No one can stay both authentic and safe when they don’t know who might be looking.

I am not the condensed version of myself I post online. None of us are. And some of us have led lives that are so interesting and painful and complex and dangerous that even our names can lead people astray. They can tell a false story or lead us into danger. None of us knew back in those early years that one day our Facebook profiles would be used to define who we are, just like these performers didn’t know they’d eventually have to out themselves in order to keep in touch with their friends. If any of us had known, we wouldn’t have posted those photos and we wouldn’t have made those jokes. When pulled from their original setting, such things don’t reflect the people we really are. Such things, when attached to a name but not a time or place, are no longer safe or authentic. That’s the terrifying truth of Facebook: had we known that this was what it was going to become, we never would have joined.

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If you’d like to share your support for the campaign to end Facebook’s Real Name policy, use the hashtag #MyNameIs.