The Facebook Disease: Real Identity, Radical Transparency, and Randi Zuckerberg

by on Aug.03, 2011, under general

Via Eva Galperin for EFF:

Speaking last week on a panel discussion about social media hosted by Marie Claire magazine, [Facebook Marketing Director Randi] Zuckerberg said,

“I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away. People behave a lot better when they have their real names down. … I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.”

Let me note at the outset that Randi Zuckerberg was not completely wrong. People do tend to behave better when they have their real names – or, more specifically, their “real life” – attached to the things they say or do on the Internet.

That’s because shaming works. I don’t think that’s a controversial statement. And Facebook has gotten a lot of mileage out of shaming. They don’t call it shaming, of course. They have some fancy name for it – RealSocial or something, I forget – but Chris Kelly, the former Facebook Privacy Officer, used to talk about it all the time. Here’s him describing the policy in high-minded terms in The Facebook Effect:

We’ve been able to build what we think is a safer, more trusted version of the Internet by holding people to the consequences of their actions and requiring them to use their real identity.

So, premise: tying people’s online identities to their “real” identities will, through shaming and social norms, make them behave better, or, more precisely, more like they do “in real life.”

I don’t think anyone disputes that.

The problem is in the conclusion: that, because this premise is true, “anonymity on the Internet needs to go away.”

Eva, the author of the EFF post, already hit most of the usual (but worth reiterating!) points why the conclusion is total bullshit: because “activists living under authoritarian regimes, whistleblowers, victims of violence, abuse, and harassment, and anyone with an unpopular or dissenting point of view that can legitimately expect to be imprisoned, beat-up, or harassed for speaking out” benefit from anonymity and pseudonymity (which the Facebook policy also prohibits). It goes without saying that anyone with an elementary education – and I mean literally an elementary education, we’re talking Federalist Papers here – should be able to appreciate the importance of hiding your name in order to speak your mind. And it goes without saying that we should all be glad that Randi Zuckerberg is not part of the IETF.

But I’d like to make one other connection here.

This fetishization of onymity (yes, that is the antonym of anonymity!) is not an isolated blemish on the face of Facebook. It is but one of several symptoms of a deeply rooted disease: Facebook’s love of radical transparency.

Read danah boyd on Facebook and radical transparency before you read any more of me, but the practical upshot is that Zuckerberg – Mark this time – has said repeatedly that, basically, the world would be better off if everybody was open about everything all of the time, and that anything short of that was a “lack of integrity”.

Now, anyone who has read their boyd, Warner, Goffman, Meyrowitz, or even Jarvis (or even me) will realize how almost unbelievably dumb – or shall we say “conceptually incoherent” – this statement is. No one actually lives like that. That’s not how social norms work. That’s not how privacy works. And Zuckerberg, of course, does not himself live a radically transparent lifestyle either, or else you’d be able to see a whole lot more on his Facebook profile.

But I want to underline the fact that the Zuckerbergs are not merely wrong in their pathological obsession with radical transparency and “real identity.” They are wrong in a way which actively hurts people. Again, not to crib too heavily from boyd here, but there are reasons why things like pseudonyms and privacy settings matter. They don’t really matter to people like the Zuckerbergs – people who have money, education, protection, and prestige. They matter to the subaltern.

Think about it for literally one second. What it means to be “radically transparent”, and how it affects one’s lived experience, depends entirely on one’s position in society. More concretely: being “radically transparent” about, say, sexuality, means very different things to a straight male student and a closeted gay student in a homophobic, conservative high school context. That’s a very simplistic example, but a very powerful one. And dismissing those concerns is more than merely incorrect. It harms those who are the most vulnerable.

If you ever wondered why Facebook is one of the most hated companies in America, you can stop now. The answer is evident. It’s captained by fools – or brigands. And when (not if) the karmic collapse comes – when something finally arrives to take Facebook’s place – there will be no love lost for it.

Nor will it deserve any.

e: a Facebook employee who I know and trust sent me some thoughtful comments via email. Without quoting them in full, they boil down to: despite whatever crazy things the Zuckerbergs might say to reporters, we engineers actually spend a lot of time trying to work within the existing privacy infrastructure, and to make it better as we can.

And I believe that’s true. Facebook has actually has pretty powerful privacy settings for a long time, even if they are hidden and poorly publicized. But I don’t think (most) of the rank and file engineers at Facebook are into radical transparency. I think they are basically smart people working on a really tough and complex piece of software, and they’re trying to keep it working and keep making it better, and don’t have enough time to make grand announcements about anonymity or really set policy going forward.

I just think the fish is rotting from the head.

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