By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 5, 2009
What Caitlin wanted did not seem that hard. She had signed up for Facebook after she married, as Caitlin Shaw. Now, to make it easier for old friends to find her, she wanted to add her maiden name. Her maiden name is Batman.
Facebook's name-change procedure suddenly required superhuman effort.
Because after Caitlin Batman Shaw, a mental health therapist in Arlington, submitted the brief online form, she received an automated response rejecting her. The faceless gatekeepers of Facebook had decided her name could not possibly be real. Batman Shaw appealed, and was rejected. Appealed, rejected. "The process took me three weeks" and several e-mail queries, she says, before she was finally able to use her full legal name.
She can join the Yodas, the Christmases, the Beers, the Pancakes and all of the other wannabe Facebookers whose online rejections represent the latest in a lifetime of name shame. And really, what's the point of Facebook if you can't be yourself?
"Try making a reservation at restaurants," says Tim Six. "I'd like a table for Six at 5 for three." His life reads like an extended "Who's on First?" routine, so the Springfield software developer was hardly surprised when Facebook rejected his application for an account.
The sad, sad stories of the denied.
"I've heard every Superman joke known to exist," says Becky Super. "People misspell it. People mispronounce it. People say it 'Supper.' " People say they've never met anyone else with that last name -- and how could they, when Facebook denied the existence of not only Super, a Lorton landscape designer, but her extended family?
"I think they think we're trying to run a breakfast scam or something," says Bess Pancake, who, along with her sister and father (a former Washington Post editor) spent days trying to convince customer service that she was not a waffle shop on the prowl (Relationship Status: It's sticky).
Super, Six and Pancake were all eventually awarded accounts after appealing their rejections with Facebook, but that doesn't address the real indignity.
People like them have endured decades of name-related annoyance (No, clever sir. No one else has ever suggested that it would be funny if my first name were Five. You are a genius.) Perhaps they experienced childhood ostracism or contemplated name changes. And when they accepted their own quirky identity -- to share it with the world and connect via Facebook like 175 million other people -- they were prevented from joining the virtual sandbox. Grade school all over again.
"You don't grow up with a last name like Kisser without developing a sense of humor and an appreciation for the absurd," says Keith Kisser, an Oregon librarian. Facebook, however, is "clearly not in touch with the sometimes eccentric names that people have."
Facebook, via e-mails (of course), won't say how many names are on its blocked list or how often names are rejected. It occasionally happens when it appears the chances of fraud are greater than the chances that someone is really named, say, Seymour Butts. A name like Batman gets flagged by Facebook because, writes spokeswoman Meredith Chin, the number of real Batmans is probably "fewer than the number of people who could potentially misuse the name on the site." Applications coming from official-sounding e-mail addresses (firstname.lastname@example.org) are less likely to be rejected than those from random ones.
The network is based on "real people making real connections," according to a statement from another spokeswoman, Kathleen Loughlin, and so the company has various safeguards to prevent those saboteurs of the online world -- impersonators and trolls.
There have been examples of deceit on Facebook. Last year, a university dean created an account under the name "Pedro Amigo" to spy on students, and a Moroccan engineer was arrested for impersonating Prince Moulay Rachid.
But really . . . Pancake?
Often, the rejection can be overturned with a few e-mails to customer service, sometimes resulting in a nice explanation and apology: "The name 'Yoda,' also being the name of a popular Star Wars character, is on this list of blocked names," read a helpful e-mail sent to author Hiroko Yoda after her name was finally accepted.
But sometimes the back-and-forth seems too daunting, and Facebook users resort to evasive tactics:
There are several Facebook users with the pathetic, crippled surname "Lchristmas," because "Christmas" is sometimes a blocked name. Jeff College, a student at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, craftily became "Jeff Collége" in order to join "Facebook Hates My Name," a Facebook group containing College and a guy going by "Chris Blue."
After several failed exchanges with customer service, Miranda Batman -- no relation to Caitlin -- of Indiana decided her real name wasn't worth pursuing. Facebook had requested she fax a copy of her driver's license, and she worried about security.
Instead, Miranda signed up for an account as "Miranda Stewart," using her husband's bachelor surname. (He took on Batman when they got married because, well, wouldn't you?) Facebook immediately accepted the fake name. "Which is so ironic," the nursing student says. "Because that's what they're trying to" prevent. The only way for Miranda to overcome accusations of fraud was by . . . committing fraud.
The longer that Miranda held onto the fake-name account, the more ridiculous it seemed. Her friends -- the ones she'd joined Facebook to reconnect with -- knew her as Miranda Batman, and were searching for her under that name. As Miranda Stewart, she couldn't connect with anyone. Finally, a lawyer friend agreed to intercede on her behalf, and after a few legalese e-mails, Miranda was awarded the right to use her own name.
It felt like a coup, but anyone who has spent much time on the site will wonder how it could have become such an ordeal to begin with. For all its safety walls, Facebook appears to be home to some people with very . . . interesting . . . names: Starkiller Unleashed. Dennis Ilovfakemiddlenames Lewis. Mojo Martini -- more than 30 of them.
In a tucked-away Facebook forum, dozens of users complain that they are having trouble altering their names. Many protest that Facebook won't accept their real, legal names. But then there are also complaints like this: "Recently, my friend got into my account and changed my name to Bonquiqui Shiquavius," writes one forlorn user. "I have no idea why Facebook accepted this."