Jul 2, 2015 ยท 15 minutes

A lesson for young wunderkinds with visions of unicorns in their heads pitching their ideas up and down Sand Hill Road: Be careful what you wish for.

Mark Zuckerberg always knew what he wanted Facebook to be. Although he certainly couldn’t have imagined more than one billion people using it, he clearly and repeatedly said he wanted it to be a utility for as many people as possible.

That vision shaped the company’s entire growth strategy: In an age when MySpace got a $900 million ad deal based on their gargantuan page views, Facebook stubbornly didn’t care about traffic. It wanted to streamline the social networking experience and make it integral enough to your life that you visited several times a day.

At the time some argued the strategy was antithetical to making money: An advertiser— say Citibank— would only get to advertise to the same people over and over again? Where’s the value in that?

Boy, were the critics proven wrong.

Facebook’s product has morphed tremendously since it was a “college app” with ambitions of becoming much more than a college app. But at its heart Facebook is the same thing today it was promised to be back when I first met Zuckerberg a decade ago: A place where people can connect under their real identities and share some of the most personal aspects of their lives. Their photos. Their relationship status. Their thoughts. I remember early on his team marveling that so many people trusted Facebook with their cell phone numbers. That was back when we still called them “cell phones.”

Only one thing has been impossible to predict even by the optimists like Accel’s Jim Breyer who invested at a then-ungodly $100 million valuation: How insanely massive Facebook would become.

Facebook has become a utility— perhaps the largest utility on the planet, with nearly 1.5 billion people using it. Does any power company, water company, or ISP even come close? Some 80 percent of Facebook’s users are outside the US and Canada. That’s so far from the early adopters at Harvard the mind boggles that the original positioning is even remotely still relevant.

Yes, be careful what you wish for: When you aim to become a utility for connecting everyone in the world, you have to work for everyone in the world. Even when it threatens the single most important organizing principle that has arguably given you much of that success. In Facebook’s case: An insistence that people sign up under their “real” names.

The use of “real” names may well decrease bullying for some Facebook users. I get far less abuse on Facebook than in any other corner of the Web, and others tell me the same thing. But for some Facebook users, the exact same policy that is supposed to protect them from bullying feels like its own form of abuse.

I should note that my use of “real” so far in this story is a nod to the Facebook of the early days. The company no longer uses that term— intentionally. Today it talks about your “authentic” self and has made decently substantial policy changes to reflect the change in adjective. More on that in a moment.

But the dilemma is this: Facebook can’t simply abandon its real names/authentic self policy, at least not without immediately becoming as much of a cesspool as Twitter or YouTube comments. But neither -- if it truly wants to be a utility for the entire planet -- can it ignore the very real concerns of those who, for one reason or another, choose to identify other than by their birth name.

It has taken Facebook too long to realize this. And Mark Zuckerberg’s statement on this issue two days ago didn’t go far enough in addressing it.

At the same time, that slowness in reacting to the issue has created a firestorm which distracts from the substantial changes Facebook has made to its policies recently. This problem can be seen clearest when it comes to the company’s relationship with, and treatment of, LGBT users. From transgender users to drag queens, the LGBT community has criticized Facebook’s insistence on “real” names, arguing that it discriminates against anyone who has a legitimate personal or professional reason to be known as something different.

It’s not as simple as, these critics don’t “get” Facebook: One of the most damning indictments recently came from a former Facebook employee, whose identity was questioned even though her name on the site is the same one she had on her Facebook badge. She doesn’t think Facebook has a nefarious agenda, but she argues that Facebook is simply trying to make reality conform to its core organizing principle -- and it’s not working.

Facebook tries to show it cares about LGBT issues through its actions. It encourages users to Rainbow-screen their logo pics, it has a gargantuan display of employees at PRIDE, and it makes substantial policy changes with LGBT users in mind. I understand Facebook has privately been speaking to LGBT users and addressing their concerns directly, more so now than ever before.

But one thing absolutely boggles my mind: Why hadn’t Mark Zuckerberg stood on a podium more than a year ago and made a simple statement: “We hear you, and we care, and here is what we are doing...”

Here’s what he said yesterday, in response to a question from a user:

This is an important question. Real names are an important part of how our community works for a couple of reasons.

First, it helps keep people safe. We know that people are much less likely to try to act abusively towards other members of our community when they're using their real names. There are plenty of cases -- for example, a woman leaving an abusive relationship and trying to avoid her violent ex-husband -- where preventing the ex-husband from creating profiles with fake names and harassing her is important. As long as he's using his real name, she can easily block him.

Second, real names help make the service easier to use. People use Facebook to look up friends and people they meet all the time. This is easy because you can just type their name into search and find them. This becomes much harder if people don't use their real names.

That said, there is some confusion about what our policy actually is. 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.

Note: First off, note he deviated from script, using the word “real” and not “authenticated.”

It’s also notable that this was part of an open Q&A with Facebook users. That no doubt takes guts but it’s troubling that Zuckerberg’s most public and widely quoted statement on the issue of real names had to be prompted by a question from a user. That isn’t good -- particularly for a company that has a history of “sorry/ not sorry” handwringing over some of its more controversial policies. Facebook spent years apologizing for privacy overruns before getting serious about privacy controls. The company was caught in a shit storm when it was found to be messing around with users’ News Feeds in an experiment to try to alter their moods. At what point will it realize the value of getting ahead of a story?

Zuckerberg’s comments this week were also both muddled and insufficient. At one point, he said authentic names were extremely important, but in the same breath he said they were making this definition more malleable. Which is it?

An email statement from drag queen Lil Miss Hot Mess contained a number of comments from critics of Facebook's real name policy:

Cultural consultant and Native American activist Samuel White Swan Perkins spoke to the contradiction, saying,  "Ultimately, today's statement is so confusing and convoluted that one wonders if this is some sort of strategy Facebook’s legal team is employing, while trying to best determine a future course of action. From today's’ statement it is difficult to discern what is really going on."

Other responses were far more incendiary, seeing it as a slippery slope:

From Peter Gallotta, co-president of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club:  "There is no doubt in our mind that this policy directly discriminates against and impacts members of the LGBT and drag community, as well as survivors of violence, undocumented immigrants, teachers, doctors, and others who are transitioning identities or are in need of privacy for a myriad of social, professional, or personal reasons. If Facebook is willing to throw some communities of users under the bus like this, it begs the questions: Who will be next? And what will the reason be? And should we stand for it?"

The critics make compelling points. The trouble for Facebook -- and the debate generally -- is that they are mixed with criticism that Facebook still demands “legal proof” of one’s name via a government-issued, photo ID or mail from a utility company. That simply isn’t true, according to Facebook’s Monika Bickert, head of content policy. Facebook has actually worked over the last year to expand the types of “ID” that are sufficient.

"With all of our policies, we talk to groups out in the communities and we have tried to expand the list of options based on the types of ID teens would have,” she said. “They do have a bus card, a library card, school ID cards, school report cards, birth certificates. It doesn’t need to be a utility bill."

As a Facebook status message might say: It’s complicated. And frankly, I needed Facebook to walk me through the policy twice before I understood it. But, again, Facebook could have avoided so much of this confusion with a clear, unequivocal public statement, right from the top.

That said, here’s what I don’t think Facebook gets enough credit for: The shift from “real” to “authentic” is pretty dramatic given Facebook’s heft and how core that “real” identity thing was to absolutely everything that is Facebook. I spent a long time on the phone last night with Bickert parsing through the details.

Facebook has made substantial shifts, since it promised it would a year ago, as detailed in this post:

  • Facebook no longer suspends an account when it asks someone to verify their account. The company offers a grace period of seven days.
  • Facebook has expanded the options and documents that people can use to verify their authentic name. As noted above, people can now verify their name without having to show a legal document in that name. A piece of mail, a magazine subscription, or a library card that include a user’s authentic name are all appropriate. The full list is here. It is incredibly confusing and took me two conversations to understand. It offers three options. Option one is the normal old government ID. Option two is a long list of things like a year book photo scan or magazine with your name on it. But here is the rub: One of those two things has to have either a photo or a date of birth. (Not both as some have reported.) Alternatively, there is option three: Showing the items from option two without a photo or DOB, but also showing an ID that does not have the name you want to use on Facebook but still confirms you are the same person. Facebook says it will not do anything with that name or attach it to your account in any way. Facebook has consistently expanded the list over the last year to try to address complaints, but in the process has created a somewhat confusing system.
  • The company has changed language throughout the site from “real” to “authentic,” and has changed the wording even in emails from a more accusatory “Are you using your real name?” language to a gentler “Please help us confirm this is really you.”

For some, this doesn’t go far enough. LGBT users have a point when they ask why they have to show anything that proves who they are, while someone like me never gets asked to.

“It's sexual, gender, religious, ethnic, and other minorities who are already marginalized,” says drag queen Lil Miss Hot Mess. “And many of us feel like it's just another invasion of privacy to have to hand over these documents to a company that doesn't have the best track record on privacy to begin with.”

Lil Miss Hot Mess also notes that a lot of the documents they ask from people may not list their preferred name. As noted above, Facebook has said that’s OK: The company is happy to accept a form of ID-- like a Birth Certificate-- that may not have a preferred name, just to verify one’s identity without the user necessarily having to use that name on the site. Part of the problem is that the many communities who find this rule to be unfair have slightly different things they want. Lil Miss Hot Mess explained the problem over email:

“One of the tricky things is that in some ways we're talking about two overlapping issues: identity and privacy. For some people who use a chosen name rather than their legal name on a daily basis -- for example transgender people or Native Americans -- they *might* have some of those forms of ID, but they might not, because their library card, bus pass, or utility bill [might] still be under their legal name because it's just easier.  

And they probably aren't as concerned about whether their library or utility account is under their legal name because it's not a place where they're interacting with people socially.  For people like me and other performers or artists, we might be known by different names in different contexts -- thousands of people in San Francisco know me as Lil Miss Hot Mess, but my mother doesn't, and neither is any more "real" or "authentic" than the other.”

So if Facebook hasn’t gone far enough yet, what would she like to see? She would like Facebook to remove the option for users to “report” fake names altogether, stop asking for any kind of “ID” and instead use the data on their account that Facebook currently mines for sophisticated ad products to prove you are not a malicious person, and create an appeals process with actual live human beings.

I don’t envy Facebook’s position. The company is asking people to prove “authenticity” via one simple policy that 1.5 billion people in the world can all reasonably comply with. Facebook has given up on “real”— or the easy test for “real” which is “legal.” That was no small thing for Facebook, given it was the cornerstone of the entire business. But it has to find a way to make “authentic” work, or it’s just the rest of the Web.

It reminds me of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. There is only so far he can bend before he breaks. And he bends pretty far.

Facebook has said they are trying to grant as many interviews as possible to get the message across: That they are not perfect and continuing to get better. In some senses, I think Facebook is paying for sins of the past like riding roughshod over privacy. They aren’t a brand many people trust when it comes to the most private, scary, emotional, and personal parts of their lives.

But here’s the thing: As someone who covers these companies as businesses, I think they’ve done better in this crisis than Google or Twitter would have. Google had its own “careful what you wish for" situation in organizing the world’s information with the “right to be forgotten” rules. It became so powerful that its algorithms could — arguably unfairly— damage lives. Twitter too had its “careful what you wish for” situation. The company that former CEO Dick Costolo described as the “free speech wing of the free speech party” was, as such, a place where anyone could be or say almost anything, but there is insanely more bullying than on Facebook. And if Twitter wants to stick to those ideals, that’s a hard problem to solve.

Facebook can do more — undoubtedly— and should. It has been many years since I regularly spoke to Mark Zuckerberg, but my advice a year ago would have been, “Make a statement. Don’t allow a subordinate to do it. Do it yourself. Have the conversations yourself. Show you care.”

The biggest reason that Zuckerberg was able to make core hires — like former PayPal president David Marcus — or hot acquisitions like Instagram is because he handled the negotiations personally and directly. He romanced them. He convinced them he cared. He convinced them Facebook was their natural home. Now he needs to do the same for the LGBT community before this mess gets any worse.