Being real comes with associated costs. It’s always easier and more comfortable to hide ourselves behind masks, different ones for different situations, play roles that make us fit in and stop others getting close enough to see our flaws and vulnerability. I was anticipating some of these costs when I began this project, but I’ve just come up against one I was not expecting; my Facebook profile!
This is perhaps a strange post. I’ve loosely categorised it as ‘politics’, since it raises questions for me that I think affect people, although I’m not sure how exactly to address those questions. But I’m putting the story out there; perhaps just adding evidence and asking questions might be useful to someone more knowledgeable about online privacy issues than me, who might be able to frame a call for change.
So what happened?! It all began when a couple of weeks ago I decided, in the interests of being real, that it was time my Facebook profile carried my actual surname.
When I first joined Facebook a few years back, I was using it exclusively for work purposes, so instead of using my surname on my profile (which the people I was trying to network with might not have known me by), I used the name of the community I worked for – Speak – to give me a better context than my actual name would have done. Over the last few years, I have continued to be Helen (from) Speak, but have also begun to use Facebook for my own purposes. Whereas my friends know to recognise me as Helen Speak, where I use Facebook for work for other organisations, the name is now more a source of confusion than a help. So I decided to add my surname to my account, initially at least alongside Speak, for the sake of continuity.
So I now had 2 surnames on my profile, and for a week or so all seemed well. From Facebook’s perspective, a female user of undisclosed marital status had added a second genuine surname. Big deal. And then one day I went to log in, and was confronted with a page I could not pass, asking me to change my name. I tried various combinations of names, including my straight name, but the page only allowed me to save after I reverted back to Helen Speak. After that a week or so passed in which all seemed well, although I was now a little frustrated that I couldn’t find a way to make my actual surname display anywhere.
A couple of days ago I went to log in and was again unexpectedly confronted with a ‘Please change your name’ screen. I thought ‘Great, maybe it will allow me to change my name this time’, so clicked through. And this is where things became distinctly creepy!
Instead of presenting me a name change form as before, I was taken to a page requiring me to submit a copy of my identity documents to prove who I was! My account is suspended until I do, and my identity has been verified by someone unseen. Speaking to friends who still have access, I appear to have ceased to exist in Facebook-land, except that messages I’ve sent to them are still there but marked as ‘abusive or spam’. The only name I am allowed to use is the one on my official identity documents, and the documents must be provided to prove that that is indeed my official name. In my case, no big deal – the name I was attempting to add is indeed my name. But this is where the questions start to arise.
Firstly, Facebook says once identity has been established it will destroy copies of our ID documents – but who can guarantee that will happen? Who is overseeing the process?
Secondly, what if nobody knows a user by their official name? Wouldn’t that make them harder to find, rather than easier? If my name was something very common like John Smith, but everyone around me, including my colleagues and family, knew me by a more distinctive nickname, would anyone be able to find or recognise me by my real name?
Thirdly, there is more to a name than what is written on a person’s ID documents. One of the biggest lessons I learnt last year was the importance of family, and the range of ways in which true family can be defined to a person. That is perhaps for another blog once I’ve processed the lesson for myself, but one of the things that came out of it for me was that my community in SPEAK is far more to me than work, and has indeed become ‘family’ for me, in the sense of being a community I feel a tie to, a responsibility towards, and feel I can rely on for help. Therefore Speak is in that sense a genuine family name to me now, and I’m happy to identify with the rest of the ‘family’ through it.
Fourthly and perhaps most importantly, what if a person has a real reason to need to hide their true name? I know people who use pseudonyms online so that they can easily be found by people they want to be found by but not by people they don’t, for good reasons. People who work with children and who don’t want their profiles being found by their young people for a range of reasons including child protection and avoidance of online harassment. People who work in prisons, who don’t necessarily want to be tracked down online by those they work with. People who have been abused, persecuted or stalked, and who do not wish to be found by their abuser, persecutor or stalker. And there are plenty more reasons – Facebook seems to assume their users will automatically be a risk to others if they hide their official identity, neglecting to recognise the fact that their users could themselves be at risk from others by revealing it. Surely it would be possible to require a person have their official name on their account so that they could be tracked down if a problem arose, without requiring that that be the name publicly displayed on the user’s profile?
Finally, once my identity is verified, Facebook tells me I will never be allowed to change the name on my profile again. What if my marital status changes, or I need to change my official name by deed poll for some reason? I will either be stuck with a name that is not my own, which in some situations may be a real-life risk to me, or will have to rebuild my online life from scratch.
For me this is creepy, but at the present time, no more than an irony and an annoyance. For others, it could cause a serious risk. I have plenty of questions but no answers.