Once upon a time, if you joined Facebook and wanted to select a gender option, the only options you could choose from were “male” and “female.” Several months ago, all of that changed when Facebook added 56 “custom” gender options. With that change, Facebook issued the following announcement:
When you come to Facebook to connect with the people, causes, and organizations you care about, we want you to feel comfortable being your true, authentic self. An important part of this is the expression of gender, especially when it extends beyond the definitions of just “male” or female.” So today, we’re proud to offer a new custom gender option to help you better express your own identity on Facebook.
You could almost hear the collective “YAY!” from various queer and ally communities. With that change, Facebook became Cool. Hip. Progressive. The LGBTQ community had found a powerful ally in the corporate social media world. Or so we thought.
Now Facebook’s “real name” policy is rearing its ugly head. If you go to the page titled, “What names are allowed on Facebook?”, you’ll see this:
Facebook is a community where people use their real identities. We require everyone to provide their real names, so you always know who you’re connecting with. This helps keep our community safe.
The page goes on to describe what’s not allowed, including nicknames that bear no resemblance to your real name, titles, word or phrases in place of a middle name, characters from multiple languages, or anything deemed offensive or suggestive. This policy has been in place for quite some time, but it hasn’t been strictly enforced. That is, until a few days ago, when individuals using pseudonyms, stage names, or other names that don’t match their legal names began receiving messages saying, “Your account has been temporarily suspended because it looks like you’re not using your real name.” To add insult to injury, the Huffington Post reported that Facebook’s “real name” policy is disproportionately affecting the LGBT community, particularly drag queens, stage performers, and transgender people. After a meeting with Facebook officials organized by Sister Roma of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Facebook announced that they would reinstate profiles that had been suspended and give them a 2-week grace period: either they comply with the policy, or their profiles will be removed.
In one fell swoop, cool-hip-progressive Facebook became Public Enemy #1. When Facebook expanded its gender options, it offered a welcoming, validating space for queer people – a space where you could be your “true, authentic self.” (Remember those words?) Now, there’s considerable debate about whether to jump ship entirely. A community boycott of Facebook called My Name is Me is asking people to deactivate their Facebook accounts and switch to Google+, a social media platform that allows pseudonyms and preferred names to be used.
So I did a little “research.” I went through all of my Facebook friends, and I counted how many of them use a pseudonym. And I came up with twenty-two. I have several friends who are Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. A handful of friends are transgender and in transition, choosing to use a name that fits their gender identity rather than their legal name. Some transgender friends maintain two accounts – one that uses their chosen name (for friends and supporters), the other that uses their legal name (for people who don’t know about their transgender status). I know a couple of people who are drag queens and who maintain pages using that name. Some friends use a pseudonym because they’re lesbian, gay, or bisexual and aren’t out to their families. Obviously, you can see how the LGBTQ community is impacted by this policy.
But not all of my friends (including the 22 with pseudonyms) are LGBTQ. I have at least one friend who uses a pseudonym because she escaped a violent relationship and doesn’t want her ex to find her. Another friend is a therapist and uses a pseudonym so clients won’t “friend” her. I know people in 12-step recovery programs who don’t use their legal names because they want to stay anonymous, in keeping with the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. And several friends use pseudonyms so they can keep their “friends” list small and generally stay under the radar.
I expanded my “research” to include a bit of statistical calculation. I have 465 Facebook friends. Twenty-two people out of 465 equals 4.7%. If all twenty-two of those people decided to quit Facebook and delete their accounts, that would be a tiny drop in the Facebook bucket. But if all of my Facebook friends jumped on board and deleted their accounts, that might get their attention. If all of my Facebook friends got all of their Facebook friends to delete their accounts (and so on), I think Facebook would seriously consider changing its policy.
I don’t think that’s going to happen. Maybe this analogy will explain my thinking. After my Introductory Psychology students take a multiple-choice exam, I do what’s called an item analysis. If there’s a test question that all (or most) students got wrong, I throw the question out and credit them with the points. My students love this – they can’t wait to hear how many “free points” they’re going to get. However, what they haven’t figured out is this: If all of them hatched a plot and collectively agreed to answer every single question incorrectly, then all of them would earn 100% on the exam. Simple as that.
Actually, I don’t think it’s that my students haven’t figured this out. I think many of them have – but they’re too scared to put it into action. If I answer each question wrong, and at least one student answers at least one question correctly, then I get a zero on the exam. That’s a risk that most students aren’t willing to take, because taking the risk involves trusting every single student completely. It’s the same thing with the Facebook issue: If I delete my account, and none of my friends delete their accounts, then I’m disconnected from my friends – and Facebook is still alive and thriving, oppressive policies still in place. And frankly, it’s one of the reasons why radical social change is so hard to achieve. People know that change will happen if a critical mass jumps in with both feet – but if you end up being the only one who takes the plunge, change doesn’t happen, and you fall SPLAT on the ground.
So if you’re on Facebook, what will you do? Will you jump in with both feet and delete your account entirely? Will you just dip your toe in by temporarily deactivating your account and seeing what happens? Or will you do nothing?