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Facebook should not care about ‘real’ names

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An unidentified 11-year-old girl looks at Facebook on her computer at her home in Palo Alto, Calif., on Monday, June 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

I have a strict policy: I will not be friends with your pet on Facebook. It’s nothing personal, Mr. Fluffykins is a very sweet dog, he’s just not much of a conversationalist.

Look, I think it’s great that you love this creature so much that you want to make it seem like he has the manual dexterity and rational intelligence to share his life of snuggles and cuteness on the Internet. But we both know he can’t. He’s a dog. If you leave him alone in the yard, he will eat grass, throw it up, and then eat that too.

So why is it then that Mr. Fluffykins’ profile is still up but so many drag queens, transgender people, artists and others are getting booted off Facebook for not using their legal names? The answer is pretty screwed up: More often than not it’s because people are reporting them. Sure you might be a heartless bastard if you snitch on someone for having a profile for their puppy, but ratting someone out for not using their “real” name might just get them killed.

Since the start of the Internet people have been using pseudonyms. There is a beautiful irony in the fact that, for so many, using a fake name or an avatar on the Web allowed them the freedom to be their true and authentic selves. Communities all over the world have been able to organize around whatever weird shit they’re into because the anonymity of the Web protected them from the societal or physical repercussions their interests might’ve earned them in the real world. So why is it that now, when Facebook has become such a powerful and ubiquitous form of communication that it should almost be treated as a public utility, that Facebook is so ardently sticking to its guns about something so important?

There are a whole lot of reasons one might use something other than their legal name on social media. Imagine fleeing an abusive relationship and needing to hide under a different name, or identifying as a gender that doesn’t match your birth certificate, or having to avoid being bullied online, or even just having a nickname you’ve been going by since childhood. There are a dozen other reasons I can think of but they all get to the same point: Why the hell does Facebook care what we call ourselves?

In a recent Q&A Mark Zuckerberg said, “There is some confusion about what our policy actually is. Real name does not mean your legal name. Your real name is whatever you go by and what your friends call you. If your friends all call you by a nickname and you want to use that name on Facebook, you should be able to do that.”

While this sounds all well and good, it just doesn’t seem to be true. The website for the #MyNameIs campaign has scores of stories from people who’ve been locked out of their accounts or kicked off the social network for not using their “real” names, and I’ve heard dozens of similar stories in my social circles. And what appears to be the most frustrating part is that after one gets kicked off or locked out, it takes months of ineffective, back and forth, bureaucratic emailing before anything gets sorted out.

Look, Facebook is an incredibly powerful tool. It’s been instrumental in helping me build the community I have and is the primary way my website gets traffic. I’m thankful for its usefulness and its amazingness as a mode of communication. But I also am disappointed in it. It almost feels like Facebook knows it’s wrong on this one but refuses to back down out of pride. And because of that, I really wish there was a dislike button.

Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com. Broke-Ass City runs Thursdays in the San Francisco Examiner.

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