Caitlyn Jenner and the Facebook Real Name Policy


Protesters in Menlo Park yesterday. (Photo by Gareth Gooch).

Yesterday, Caitlyn Jenner introduced herself to an eager public via a magazine cover, a Twitter account, and a Facebook page. The Twitter account gained a million followers faster than the previous record-holder, Barack Obama, and the Facebook page garnered hundreds of thousands of likes in its first day. Coming a week after the news that IMG had signed Hari Nef (onetime host of Ed Fornieles's NY NY HP HP for Rhizome), the news heralded a new level of public visibility and acceptance for transgender people.

The irony of Caitlyn Jenner's Facebook popularity is that the social media site has such an unsupportive official stance toward name changes in general. The policy not only forbids creating profiles under stage names or personas or alter egos, it forbids profiles under any name that can't be backed up by a legal document, such as identification or a piece of mail. (The rules are different for Pages, such as Jenner's). Facebook is like the right-wing uncle who deliberately misgenders you, on principle. 

Also yesterday, to mark the start of internet safety month, a group of protestors gathered outside Facebook HQ in Menlo Park, California, to protest this real name policy. Many of those protesting were drag queens; meanwhile, indigenous leaders sent letters of support. Facebook requires users to register under their "authentic" name. If a user is "flagged" for using an assumed name, Facebook will force them to prove their identity, or face account suspension. Some progress in this fight was made after a meeting with a group of drag performers last fall, and Facebook published a blog post yesterday defending the revised policy. The post argued that the real name rule helps improve accountability on the site, which would be true if there was much accountability for online bullying in general. It also argued that the burden of proof of one's identity has been lowered, since one can now offer "a piece of mail, a magazine subscription, or a library card" as proof of their name, although in the US receiving mail under an assumed name is also illegal. So the fight goes on.

Images of yesterday's #MyNameIs protest were a reminder of Facebook's continued role as something like a public international utility. There have been many reports in the press of protestors targeting tech companies for their environmental impact, labor standards, and effects on San Francisco, but it's much harder to think of examples of sign-wielding protestors targeting a software company's terms of service. What's particularly remarkable is that even though the company's rules are actively hostile to sex workers and drag queens and many other communities, the activists aren't hoping to leave the social network or find alternatives, but to lobby for a rule change. Far from wanting to harm Facebook and reduce its power, the activists wanted to make it a more accepting environment, which could even increase its already vast reach. 

Despite the lack of response from Facebook, there was one ray of hope at the end of the day. When the protest was over, the activists returned to San Francisco on a bus sponsored by Ello.