Facebook's dual-minded approach to identity shows the risk of trying to be all things to all people
Facebook is working on an application that allows anonymous communication. The specifics are unclear -- some have thought that the app will emulate Secret and Whisper, a claim which Facebook product manager Josh Miller denied in a series of tweets -- but the general idea isn't. The company that has always based its success on forcing people to be themselves, or to at least present themselves on the service in a genuine manner, is going to experiment with anonymity.
It would be easy to bloviate about what this might mean for Facebook. Is it just copying another social trend, like it did with Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat? Should it be taken as a sign that indicates just how desperate Facebook is to not become the next Myspace? Or is it just another experiment destined for the digital graveyard occupied by Camera, Poke, and Facebook email?
But those subjects aren't as interesting as the relationship between the revelation that Facebook is working on an anonymous communications application and its unwillingness to allow LGBT people to use their preferred names because they don't appear on their birth certificates. How can a company justify those two perspectives on identity at the same time, especially when it's effectively asserting itself as the judge of how "real" someone's name, and their identity, are?
There's no question that Facebook shouldn't be allowed to decide who people really are -- and that's exactly what it's doing by trying to dictate which name they use, as I wrote in September:
The backlash against this policy shows just how foolish a “real name” requirement for joining a social network really is. Besides its supposed commitment to discourage bullying and its need to give advertisers as much data as possible, Facebook has no reason to require that its users go by the name on their driver’s license instead of the one with which they’ve identified for years.
Perhaps the company could implement a policy that requires a real identity instead of a real name. Why should Facebook care if Michelle used to be called Michael, so long as Michelle is now answering to that name and using it in her daily life? When was Facebook granted the right to decide when someone’s middle name is a few characters too long for its platform? It's strange that Facebook would pick this fight -- one which it eventually backed down from and apologized for -- while a division of its company was working to create an application with the express intent of providing consumers with a Facebook service that doesn't require their real name. That's a bizarre way to handle something as sensitive as someone's "real" identity.
Perhaps it's a symptom of Facebook's attempts to be everything to everyone. It needs to create rules that allow people to express themselves, but it also needs to make sure its users aren't offending too many other people (or advertisers) and forcing them to abandon the service. It wants to "own" every single social interaction its users have, whether that requires it to make an ephemeral messaging app, a photo service, or an app that's totally about more than anonymity.
That desire to be everything creates odd situations where it's hard to tell what Facebook really cares about. Does it give a shit about anonymity, or is it just following another trend? Does it really want people to use ephemeral messaging services, or is it just trying to make sure it stays involved with all of their interactions? Does Facebook actually care about anything it's doing?
Facebook will eventually have to declare its beliefs. It can't make everyone happy all the time; instead, it's just going to make a few people mad some of the time, and that's enough to make them consider alternative social networks, at least for a moment. Ideals don't mean much in tech, but these are fundamental decisions that a company must answer lest it runs the risk of seeming like an amorphous blob that fills whatever container it thinks it needs to so it can live.