As the year draws to an end I am starting to think about what my next challenge could be. Something new I can take up, perhaps. Or something old I can give up. The giving up alcohol has gone excellently – 355 days with no alcohol (so far). The giving up sugar less well; I am very much back on the sugar train but I am not eating anywhere near the level of sugar as before, and am making significantly better choices about my diet. Apart from today where I had two slices of cake. Or Friday when I pretty much ate Cadbury’s Roses all day. But it’s Christmas and everyone knows things like this don’t matter at Christmas, right?
When a large number of my friends suddenly started disappearing from Facebook, and people whose names I didn’t recognise started popping up, all victims of Facebook’s sudden and strict enforcement of their ‘real name’ policy, I got annoyed. Many of my friends don’t use their ‘real’/’given’/’birth’ name on Facebook. Some because they are social workers and don’t want to be found by families they work with. Some because they are teachers and don’t want to be found by the children they teach. A few have different names because they have obsessive and/or violent ex partners or family members from whom they are hiding. Many just have ordinary jobs and no particular need to hide but want to keep their personal and professional life entirely separate, because, you know, that’s a perfectly normal thing that lots of people like to do.
I suspect though that the main reason for most of my friends having a different name is because they’ve all been on the internet since the early days of the world wide web. Handles were chosen on IRC and usenet. The same handles transferred over to LiveJournal and MySpace. The names stuck. We’d all already been using the internet as our social glue for years before Facebook came along and made being friends on the internet a mass mainstream thing. My friends being mainly a big bunch of geeky goths, the internet gave us a way to make friends and social connections like never before. The vast majority of the friendships I have now were forged via the net – perhaps we met in person but the relationship largely developed and deepened online. LiveJournal was, for me, at times, quite literally a lifeline between me and the world – when I was stricken with agoraphobia and unable to leave the house it was a connection to friends – real friends – and a connection to feeling like I could live a normal life. Developing friendships in this way meant that in my friendship group a person’s internet name was in fact their real name. I have friends I have known for 20 years that I couldn’t tell you their surname. Some I couldn’t even tell you their first name.
So one by one all members of my little alternative corner (all people vanishing appear to be linked by at some point being part of the London goth scene) disappear from the internet and reappear as strangers. Angry strangers, being forced to use a name that they don’t identify with – a name they might only ever use on their passport or bank account. A name that none of their friends know them by. But Facebook has decided that the name that everyone knows them by isn’t good enough. It’s not a ‘real’ name.
Facebook’s policy states
“The name you use should be your authentic identity; as your friends call you in real life and as our acceptable identification forms would show.”
And here lies the key problem. For many of my friends, what their friends call them in real life is not the name on these “acceptable identification forms”. Not because they have a “lack of integrity”, as believed by the creator of Facebook, but simply because that’s how things are; for people in alternative cultures, for those of us who formed our friendships in the early days of the net, for people who just like to have professional and personal separate.
I was upset and frustrated at seeing my friends have their identities taken away from them by a social network – but the deeper anger came from what I consider to be the transparent and abhorrent reason behind it: commerce. There’s no secret that Facebook is not the product. WE are the product. That’s why Facebook is free for us to use. We are a delicious data seam, rich for mining and selling to the highest bidder. Our tasty data, however, is flawed when they can’t sell real and identifiable people. We’re worth more when the buyer can be absolutely sure that they are going to be able to use the data to sell other stuff back to us, or track our every move. With everyone called Ian Spartacus, FairyFairy QuiteContrary and Cucumber Skimblepatch the data is worth less and therefore less profitable.
It made me so angry that people’s identies are being restricted in the name of profit that I thought perhaps for 2015, I will give up Facebook.
And as soon as I had the thought, I started to panic. Alcohol? Fine, I’ve gone 355 days without it and actually am not sure I want to drink it again anyway. Sugar? It’s tasty sure but I know if I just go for a few weeks without it I will stop wanting it so much. And there’s lots of other tasty stuff I can eat instead. But Facebook? Give up Facebook? Social suicide. I have one close friend who has no Facebook – she’s never had one – and I have to actually remember to invite her to things. I don’t always. My mum is on Facebook, and she lives 938423980328 miles away, it’s our primary means of communication. She told me in strict terms that under no circumstances am I allowed to give up Facebook. She even did the “I am your Mother and I am telling you…” thing. I’ll never get invited to anything ever again. I’ll never know what’s going on. No one will come to anything I ever organise because they will all forget it’s happening. I’ll never see any nice pictures of me. Or, more likely, people will put up awful photos of me and I’ll never see them to say GOD TAKE THAT DOWN JESUS I LOOK LIKE A MANATEE TRYING TO CLIMB A TREE. I am more likely to chat to friends on Facebook than on the phone or by email. If I am feeling wobbly, I can just go “meep” and I’ll get cat pictures. If my other friends are feeling wobbly I can send them videos of dogs falling over.
I am sure it’s not just me that feels this way. Studies suggest that social media is potentially more addictive than booze or cigarettes, and Facebook is the social network that we’re all on. I was at the pub earlier today surrounded by friends and every single person around the table (including me) at some point got their phone out and checked Facebook. After my alarm goes off in the morning the first thing I do is check Facebook. The last thing I do when I go to bed is check Facebook. I have alt+tabbed at least 6 times to check Facebook while writing this blog.
Of course, there are alternatives. Ello tried, but with a vague future business model. There was a brief moment when it looked like it might have a future – I can’t speak for everyone but the largest part of my acquaintance went there to get their own username – you know, the one they’ve all been known as forever by all of their friends. Google Plus occasionally has a spike, but it still has a bit of an interface problem and hasn’t yet hit the critical mass of social circles to draw people away from Facebook.
You may think I am going a bit far with my conspiracy business at this point – but I don’t think the current aggressive ‘real’ name enforcement is a coincidence, or a tightening up of an accidentally overlooked policy. I think Facebook knows full well we’re addicted. And I think it knows how we are addicted, and how to keep us addicted. It knows full well that we loathe them and what they stand for, but that we need the service they provide in exchange for our crunchy delicious data sauce. I suspect that Facebook has spent years tweaking and twerking their systems to be just as addictive as possible. They’ve certainly not seen a problem in using us as guinea pigs without explicit consent. Facebook has us all hooked. Hooked lined and sinkered. We have Internet Stockholm Syndrome. We couldn’t leave even if we want to because they don’t just have us, they have all our friends hostage too.