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Why the debate over ‘real names’ matters — for drag queens on Facebook and everyone else

Drag queens Lil Ms. Hot Mess, left, and Sister Roma, right, listen to comments about their battle with Facebook during a news conference at City Hall on Sept. 17 in San Francisco. (Eric Risberg/AP)
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Since its inglorious start in Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm room 10 years ago, Facebook has had one fundamental, incontrovertible policy on names: You must use your “real” one, no matter what.

That’s always put the world’s largest social network at odds with other major sites, like Twitter and Myspace, that let you go under any name or nonsense you want. And last month, after a crackdown that locked dozens of drag queens out of the site, it also put Facebook at odds with the LGBT community, who claimed the real-name policy jeopardized their safety and their rights.

In response, and after lots of bad press, Facebook did an unusual about-face: It would no longer require legal names, necessarily — but it would require “authentic” names, a.k.a. the name you go by in day-to-day life.

It’s a matter of principle, Facebook’s Chief Product Officer Chris Cox said. Facebook doesn’t want to be like the icky anonymous Web. Facebook wants to be “a force for good.” And names, it turns out, are on the frontline of that battle between Internet good and evil — one of the last stopgaps keeping Internet dialog from sliding backwards into a 4chan-style pit.

Why does the real-names debate matter? Because it’s an issue of identity and inclusion, of course. But it’s also about way more than that. Facebook’s decision to police real names, even after other networks have given up the effort, is an attempt to civilize — and thus, colonize — the social Web.

What’s in a name?

When you choose a username online, you essentially have one of two choices. One: Use your real name and forever bolt your digital persona to your real-life identity, with all the obligations and benefits and dangers that entails. Two: Use a fake name, or no name at all, and divorce your online activity from your real-life self.

Whenever we talk about real names online, we’re really talking about personal identity. More than that, we’re talking about personal responsibility: Should you be held accountable for what you say and do online … or not? And who is holding you “accountable,” quote-unquote, for the collective breadcrumbs you drop online — your IRL friends? The government? The advertisers who pay dearly for every dribble of information about your “real,” money-spending self?

The case for real-names

It seems like a question with an easy answer, but there are compelling arguments on each side. Cox, of Facebook, argued that holding users accountable for their online actions cuts down on abuse: “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,” he notes. And that’s true.

Studies suggest that anonymous users are meaner and more argumentative than named users; history suggests that many of the Internet’s grimmest transgressions — from peddling child porn to cyberbullying classmates — are carried out under cover of a fake user name. Think of all the bad Internet news you’ve read in the past year: the brutal death and rape threats tweeted to British politicians, the cruel bullying of Robin Williams’s bereaved daughter, the hacking of dozens of celebrity nudes. In every case, the perpetrator acted under an alias or handle or other obfuscation that hid him or her from ultimate responsibility.

To quote Huffington Post managing editor Jimmy Soni, who banned anonymous comments on that site a year ago, “we are capable of doing far worse things to one another when we do not have to own up to the things we do.” But that’s not all, of course: We’re also capable of doing more dangerous and more transgressive things, too.

The case for pseudonyms

Pacific Standard supplies some convincing examples: A transitioning transgender activist, who hasn’t come out to all of his real-life acquaintances — but wants to discuss the process online; an Egyptian blogger who uses a pseudonym to protect himself from repercussions; a porn star who doesn’t want creepy fans to glimpse too much of her daily life. In fact, you can probably think of any number of performers and activists and whistleblowers who need to maintain some kind of gap between their real and online identities — not only for their personal comfort but for their safety, their personal expression and their quality of life.

This is, of course, why civil libertarians advocate fiercely for Internet anonymity: It’s the primary guarantee that Internet users will be allowed to express themselves freely, safe from the prying eyes of governments, corporations or unfriendly neighbors. In a reversal of its own short-lived, controversial policy on real-names, Google echoed that logic: “We hope that today’s change is a step toward making Google+ the welcoming and inclusive place we want it to be,” a company blog post read.

Unfortunately, no name policy can ever protect everyone. That’s the thorny Catch-22 at the core of the whole debate. Pseudonyms will shield some vulnerable users, like the members of the LGBT community who lobbied Facebook for a change. But pseudonyms will also inevitably shield trolls, bullies and other Internet villains, from the violent misogynists who threatened Anita Sarkeesian to the nasty teenagers that have pushed several young girls to suicide via

There’s quite a lot of drama bound up in a name, it turns out. More, perhaps, than even Facebook can deal with.