Facebook and the LGBTQ problem

The last week has seen some tremendous steps taken for the advancement of LGBTQ rights, a fact that was rightly celebrated by many. One of the main and most visible way people chose to celebrate was through a Facebook image filter, which overlaid your profile picture with a rainbow flag in support of LGBT rights. This was tremendously popular way of showing support for the LGBT community, as well as celebrating Pride week, and the Supreme Court decision.

Leaving aside the fact that Facebook are most likely recording your use of this feature, this case raises some issues with regards to Facebook’s general policies towards the LGBT community, and, importantly, highlights the importance of site design and modality upon how we perform identity, and how we act and interact.

Facebook and the LGBTQ community

Facebook haven’t always had a great relationship with the LGBTQ community, and historically, they have engaged in problematic treatment and marginalisation of the LGBTQ community. One of the most problematic issues has been Facebook’s use of a ‘real name’ policy.

In essence, Facebook discourages users from setting up accounts under ‘false or adopted names’. Instead, users must use their real given names when interacting on and with Facebook.

Partly, Facebook’s founder Mark Zukerberg suggests, this is in place to encourage users to show their true selves and to present one unified identity. In his 2011 book The Facebook Effect, David Kirkpatrick quotes Zukerberg as saying

“The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly…Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

In essence, Zukerberg and Facebook ask their users to present their ‘true’ identity. However, Facebook’s definition of ‘true identity’ is clearly at odds with many potential users. Facebook chooses to define ‘true identity’ as being linked your given birth name, and as such does not provide the tools for many people to show what they consider to be their true identity or to use any adopted names that they might identify as.

The decision to not allow ‘fake’ names on Facebook, and to define authenticity of their users’ identities via the names they choose to go by, has been particularly problematic to trans users, gender-queer user, and to drag queens, as well as to members of the LGBTQ community who fear risk of harassment or violence because of their sexuality. Beyond the LGBTQ community, this design choice has affected Native Americans by forcing them to use names that they may not identify as, and has been particularly problematic for survivors of domestic abuse and violence.

Facebook have refused to budge on this policy, a decision that has led many members of the LGBTQ community to seek alternate Social Networks, such as the increasingly popular Ello.com, which allows users more potential freedom in self-expression. It has also led to many members of the LGBTQ to not only boycott the site, but to protest Facebook’s sponsorship of the San Francisco Pride parade. Indeed, one Facebook Employee, Zip Cat, a trans person who herself has been blocked from Facebook for using an alias wrote in a recent blog post that:

It’s an insult that Facebook is sponsoring Pride in SF, marching and flying the rainbow flag and helping everyone change their profile picture, when they cannot fix this simple thing. Facebook needs to do better than this.

However, in the last few days, Zukerberg has spoken out about this controversial design feature in an attempt to clarify the company’s position. Speaking to Buzzfeed, Zukerberg said:

Real name does not mean your legal name. Your real name is whatever you go by and what your friends call you. If your friends all call you by a nickname and you want to use that name on Facebook, you should be able to do that. In this way, we should be able to support everyone using their own real names, including everyone in the transgender community. We are working on better and more ways for people to show us what their real name is so we can both keep this policy which protects so many people in our community while also serving the transgender community.

Zukerberg’s answer is still problematic, and does little to allay the concerns raised by the LGBTQ community. Facebook seems to be talking the talk but not substantively providing any real effective support for the LGBTQ community. On the one hand, Facebook has celebrated the LGBTQ community through rainbow image filters and sponsorship of Pride parades, yet Facebook’s policies still constrain the community modally.

All the web’s a stage

In order to understand the importance of design features upon our actions and interactions online, we need to briefly consider the work of Ervine Goffman.

Ervine Goffman was a sociologist who, in 1959, wrote his seminal work ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’. In it, Goffman posits that identity is a performance. Rather than focusing upon a core ‘true’ self, Goffman suggests that identity is pluralistic and malleable. In essence, we change the way we ‘perform’ identity based upon the situation we find ourselves in. Our mannerisms, word choice, pacing, and even accent can change based on the given situation. As such, the identity we present to our doctor may be vastly different from the identity presented to our friends in the bar at the end of a long week. As we come into contact with different people, we attempt to guide their impressions by altering our mannerism, our appearance, and other aspects of our identity performance.

Extending and continuing this metaphor of the performative nature of identity can help us better understand the importance of website design and the modal choices made and affordances available to us on the Social Networking Sites that we use. As well as considering how our identity performances can shift from one audience to the next, we can also begin to consider how the staging and the props available to us will affect the manners in which we perform identity. An actor may perform a monologue differently on a large open stage than they would on a round stage, a small compact stage, or an outdoor stage. Similarly, they may perform it differently based upon the props they have available to use.

Indeed the same can be said of website design. Not only are we shaping and altering our performances based upon the audience available to us, but we are also changing our performances based upon the props and staging available to us; the specific site features and the apps and sites themselves. certain features and aspects of site design can result in different performances, and indeed, some aspect of site design can completely change the type of performance, for example by restricting its length (Twitter) or restricting the mode in which it is presented (instagram and snapchat)

There has been a growing focus upon this in the field of Digital Sociology. My own paper, currently in print for the Journal of Sociological Studies of Children and Youth highlights this point by focusing upon differing identity performances on Twitter and Facebook, and similar research has noted the effect of site design upon identity performances on sites such as Linkedin (Van Dijck 2013), and Myspace (Young 2009).

This field of research begins to suggest and show that our actions and interactions are mediated by the designs of the sites that we use, and that the manner in which we perform identity and present ourselves can be impacted by the environments in which we choose to stage these performances.

Zukerberg’s assertion of a singular core identity is problematic, particularly given that most identity researchers consider identity to be a pluralistic and malleable concept. Zukerberg’s denial of the impact of his site upon identity is also worrying. Zukerberg suggests that identity is and should be consistent, that it will be the same from one locale to the next, and from one audience to the next. This denies and diffuses the importance of site design upon identity. Rather than acknowledging the impact and role of his site in shaping the manner in which users can act and interact, Zukerberg places the onus of identity upon the individual, essentially shifting the burden, focus, and responsibility of shaping identity away from Facebook and onto the individual users, and denying the impact of site design upon the manner in which we perform our identities.

Instead of acknowledging the role of the site in shaping how we can perform identity, Zukerberg shifts the focus to the individual; it is their responsibility to maintain a singular identity regardless of the features and modes available to them. However, for many users, part of the identity they wish to perform is not afforded due to the design choices made by Facebook. Indeed, a large part of site design is choosing which aspect of interaction to highlight and which to minimize. Linkedin, for example, highlights professional connections, and twitter highlights a focus upon current events, brevity, and immediacy. Facebook has chosen to minimise interactions based upon adopted names, and to make adopted names synonymous and polysemous with lying and a lack of authenticity. This shift is Discourse is worrying, and Facebook’s denial to admit their role in this shift is even more so.  Facebook has not acknowledged that this will affect and shape the ways in which users can and are performing identity, acting, and interacting.

In essence, identity is malleable and will take the shape of its container. That container can purposefully highlight and emphasise some aspects of identity and minimize others. Not only does Facebook need to address the concerns of the LGBTQ community, they also need to acknowledge and admit the effects of their site design upon our performances of identity, upon the ways we can act and interact online, and upon the way that Discourses of adopted names are shaped.


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