According to Instagram, her name is “Lil Miss Hot Mess.” It also is her Twitter handle, her YouTube tag and her stage moniker. It also is the reason why Facebook kicked her off its platform for a short time.
The San Francisco-based drag queen and friends protested Facebook’s decision, going to traditional media and online news sites to explain how their “names” were under investigation by the popular social network. As a result, there were meetings, Facebook posts by both the company and the protestors and lots of discussion across the blogosphere.
The question of how people should be identified on social media has become a hot topic in multiple communities, including transgender and Native American groups. Both of which felt under fire when Facebook started questioning the names people posted on the site and whether they were “real.”
These questions – which are still under debate between Facebook and these crusaders – bring up an important issue when it comes to online identities and social media names. Should someone have to use the moniker that is listed on their Social Security card when they go online? Should alternative names be permissible on sites that seek to provide “safety” for their users, such as Facebook says in its usage policies? Where are the lines between someone’s virtual self and the name that shows up in the address line of her utility bill?
It brings up concerns not only for people who use stage names, but also for people whose very identities are in flux or may be changing for a variety of reasons. Perhaps their name might be one thing on their driver’s license, but their identity – their very sense of self-worth and connection with the rest of the world – may be something very different. Should social media sites, which are about creating community and communicating with the world around you, accommodate these sensibilities?
The story starts years ago when Facebook established its name policy. According to the site: “Facebook is a community where people use their authentic identities. We require people to provide the name they use in real life; that way, you always know who you're connecting with. This helps keep our community safe.” There is no further information on what “safe” means. Facebook is publicly traded, and it has to answer to investors. As such, it makes sense for the company to establish set policies. On its end, Facebook believes that it must seek out truthfulness in its membership, whose numbers help determine its advertising rates and the like. These are issues that investors would want to discuss, and these have been already disclosed in Facebook’s public filings.
But the naming debate heated up to the point of national discussion about seven months ago with Sister Roma, Lil Miss Hot Mess and other self-identified drag queens. They found themselves facing deactivation on Facebook because of the names on their profiles. While Facebook allows some naming leeway on their pages, the site requires individuals to use their “authentic identities” on their profile pages. The issue became more complicated when a number of Native Americans stepped forward publicly to say that they too had found themselves shut out of Facebook when their names triggered an alert via the site’s naming policy.
As for Lil Miss Hot Mess, she wrote that she truly felt the loss of Facebook as a place to share her thoughts and dreams.
“As much as I roll my eyes at our collective obsession with Facebook, watching my online identity vanish hit me hard. It’s true: You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. To have years of photos, conversations and other traces of a life lived digitally suddenly disappear felt like an erasure of my very existence,” Lil Miss Hot Mess told Salon for a September 2014 essay. “If Facebook really wants to provide a safe place for authentic social interactions, it needs to revise its policies and procedures to let all users define realness — starting with our names — for ourselves.”
When pressed by these groups and other sources, Facebook offered up some context within a statement on its website, known as a “note” on Facebook, from Chris Cox, the company’s chief product officer. In his statement, Cox writes that the company hopes to avoid bullying, trolling and intolerance on its platform via its naming policy. Cox did not offer any real-life examples of this issue in that 2014 update; it would have been helpful from a user’s standpoint to read an anecdote as to how Facebook “protected” people because of their decisions.
According to Cox, Facebook believes in its overall policy for two reasons: “First, it's part of what made Facebook special in the first place, by differentiating the service from the rest of the internet where pseudonymity, anonymity, or often random names were the social norm,” Cox wrote. “Second, it's the primary mechanism we have to protect millions of people every day, all around the world, from real harm. The stories of mass impersonation, trolling, domestic abuse, and higher rates of bullying and intolerance are oftentimes the result of people hiding behind fake names, and it's both terrifying and sad. Our ability to successfully protect against them with this policy has borne out the reality that this policy, on balance, and when applied carefully, is a very powerful force for good.”
While Facebook did open discussions with Lil Miss Hot Mess and others, those meetings apparently have not ended the consumers’ concerns. Within the past few months, activists including the drag-queen community and others have petitioned against Facebook to create event sign-ups or be used at community events. They have taken to other websites to raise their continued concerns, noting that early agreements to review and resolve their issues have either not been implemented or seem to be ignored by Facebook entirely. The issue – as noted by hashtags such as #MyNameIs and #NoPrideForFacebook – seems to be one that will continue over the long term.
As an individual who uses Facebook personally and professionally, I’d have to side with the activists who want some further review of the naming policies at the company. There are good reasons why people’s names are a constant and evolving part of themselves. Would Facebook call Caitlyn Jenner into question if she were to update her personal profile to reflect her gender transition? Would it require some kind of evidence such as a magazine subscription or a driver’s license?
Having some leeway between what is current and what is happening in the months and years to come seems not only important but necessary. Social media is not a job application. It is not a passport application. For all intents and purposes, it is a place where people talk about their grandchildren, post kitten videos and reunite with high school acquaintances.
Because it has become part of our collective everyday life, one could argue that Facebook has an obligation of sorts to work with its users. It needs to have more than a single meeting or coffee date with its community. There needs to be more than a poll posted on the top of its site – but it hasn’t even done that in terms of its naming policy. Sure, it can pin a note to the top of its site to ask you to make donations for international emergencies, but it seems shy to share what is happening behind the curtain internally. It does feel like Facebook prefers to operate quietly rather than publicly in terms of these policies.
Whether Facebook redeems itself in the protestors’ minds is left to be seen. What remains for certain is that social media, despite their seemingly ubiquitous part of our modern-day lives, remain a relatively new form of communication that still needs to be studied and refined. We as a people use names for a variety of reasons – and we change them regularly both through simple means as nicknames or more dramatic ones such as in the transgender community. If Facebook seeks to be the meeting place for its users, it needs to serve their needs and allow them to share their identities in very real ways.