What’s in a ‘nym?

facebookWhile not the first and certainly not the only one, Facebook has become a giant in the era of social networking. In only ten years since its founding, the website now boasts 7.87 billion in revenue for the last year, and 1.28 billion monthly active users.

Facebook has not been without controversy. From its creation – dramatized in the film The Social Network – to today, the site has had its critics and contention. In recent years the site has courted controversy over privacy issues and recent revelations over deliberate manipulation of user’s feeds to elicit emotional reactions.

In Berlin in 2011, Douglas Rushkoff said, “We are not the customers of Facebook, we are the product. Facebook is selling us to advertisers.” With that in mind, everything you write on Facebook, every photo you post, every “like” you click is data for Facebook’s advertisers. If there is one thing they need, therefore, it is clear and accurate data.

Every so often, Facebook has sought to purge its site of false accounts with claims of clearing out “’bots” and cyberbullies. Yet while they do such, they end up also culling their site from real people who follow their rules – but opt to use a name different from that on their birth certificate, drivers’ license, or other “official” identification.

In the last month, Facebook has been even more draconian in enforcing this policy towards “real” names than in the past. Its most recent campaign has ended up netting a number of transgender individuals and drag queens, as well as others who may use a pseudonym for gaming, for personal safety, or any number of other reasons.

SisterRomaOne particular case has hit the media more than others. First is that of Sister Roma (left), a well-known member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in San Francisco. She was locked out of her account until she provided her “legal name, like the one that appears on your driver’s license or credit card.” She did give in and provided her legal name, because the connections she had their outweighed the need to protect her name. Even then, postings she has put up that are critical of the policy have been pulled from Facebook, declared to be abusive or “spam.”

Sister Roma’s experience is not an outlier, with many others being forced from the site as Facebook claims they are keeping their community somehow “safe” by doing this.

Over this last year there have been plenty of painful arguments between the drag and transgender communities, but I think we have ample room to agree here. We should all feel welcome to present ourselves as we choose to, and not be forced into an identity that is not ours.

There are a number of reasons to opt for a pseudonym. You may need to separate yourself from a birth name to avoid stalkers and others who may seek to do you harm. You might have such to protect your “regular” identity from employers or others, using a pseudonym to be in contact with the transgender or larger queer community. You may also use it as a form of exploration, opting for a name different from the gender you were assigned at birth in order to consider your gender identity.

While I have been using the name above for longer than Facebook existed, I recall how important it was to be able to start to claim that name in virtual spaces before I was ready and willing to do the same in my day-to-day life. The ability to adopt this identity was pivotal in allowing me to understand my own space as a transgender woman, and helped me prepare for facing the world at large.

Mine is not a “stage name,” but as much a part of my identity as any one else’s preferred name. It may not have always been there, but it is what adorns my driver’s license and plenty of other official paperwork.

sophie_maskReally, so what if it was a “stage name?”

If I go to Facebook looking for the official, verified page for Whoppi Goldberg, I need only type facebook.com/whoppigoldberg. No one seems to be demanding her page be closed down because it does not read Caryn Johnson. Former wrestling superstar Hulk Hogan is not forced to be Terry Jean Bollette. No one is telling Portia De Rossi to present her birth certificate, which declares her to be Amanda Lee Rogers. Each of these celebrities, and many more, has no issue with their preferred name on Facebook.

Sister Roma and others may not be the same sort of household names as Whoppi Goldberg, or Hulk Hogan, even though she is much more likely to be mentioned in my household. Nevertheless, her name is as seemingly valid as any of these celebrities.

Some have accused Facebook of being homophobic or transphobic by targeting Sister Roma and others. Many have also postulated that a third party has targeted queer and transgender people, turning Facebook’s policies against the LGBT community. I don’t know if this is true, or if Facebook was just doing a random sweep of names. I have heard about people both in and outside the trans and drag communities being targeted, so this could simply be Facebook being Facebook, and nothing specifically aiming at our community.

Whether intentional or not, however, we are being hurt by this. Much like Google+ – which recently dropped its “wallet name” policy – I join with others in calling for Facebook to change. I may only be a data point to them, but perhaps if enough of their data points speak out, their real customers will take notice – and perhaps change may happen.

By Gwen Smith

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