Facebook and civil society

Fri 19 Sep 2014 12:31 PM

A while ago, there was considerable controversy about Google+ insisting that people use their real names in their profiles. G+ ultimately relented.

I had not realized that Facebook has a similar policy. It turns out that Facebook recently deactivated the accounts of several LGBT activists and has only reactivated them for a brief period, insisting that the activists use their real names or have their accounts deactivated again. The EFF has details.

I have, as a conscious choice, used my real name for almost all of my on-line presence: philosopher, gamer, font designer, cartoonist, and all the rest. The one exception is pseudonymous because it was originally a collaboration, not because I want to distance myself from potentially offensive content.

Having a single identity has made sense for me, but it is a luxury. I can do it because I am in a comfortable position socially and economically. There isn't an aspect of my life which will be threatened if someone connects the dots between what I'm doing in different domains.

Not everybody can afford to be connected in daily life to the identity that they use on Facebook. They have nevertheless invested quite a lot of time and energy in the public persona that they present on Facebook. And that's one bad thing about Facebook, because it is a closed system. If Facebook decides to delete the account, then all the content that was posted and all the connection that were made are gone. With the Web (in the old-school sense of a personal home page) or even Twitter, the content is preserved in a public archive. Not so Facebook.

Facebook justifies its policy on the grounds that people using real names will be more civil. However, that's bullshit. Those of us who can comfortably use our real names can also comfortably be uncivil using them. It's hard for me to imagine saying anything that would make me the target of off-line violence, but that is precisely the lived experience of queer activists.

Real names are not necessary for civility: If someone has invested time in developing an account and an on-line identity under a pseudonym, then the cost of losing that is the same as if it were in their own name.

Real names aren't sufficient for civility, either: Plenty of jackasses are willing to say horrible things under their own names. Not to turn too quickly to farce, but Adolf Hitler would have been happy to post under his own name.

To add an epicycle: Recent events, including the University of Illinois' firing of Steven Salaita and asinine comments by Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, suggest that I could be wrong about the security of my position. Unlike Salaita, however, I am a white guy who talks about science and art rather than a person of colour talks about Palestine. The rhetoric of civility is used with discrimination to squeeze the already disenfranchised. That is precisely why it is objectionable, but also precisely what gives me a margin of safety.


from: Greg

Fri 19 Sep 2014 02:48 PM

yes yes and yes

Excellent post!