By way of introduction: I’m Avery Dame. Grad student in American Studies at University of Kansas, studies trans people and online networks. Though I primarily work with trans male vloggers on YouTube, I also think a lot about issues of privacy in general. Spotify’s reaction to the opposition to their move making membership contingent on having a Facebook account jumpstarted my thoughts around the problems of spreading “real name culture”. Thus, this post.
The first time I heard about Facebook, it was as part of a now-paradigmatic question: “Are you on Facebook?” (Ironically, it was one of the first (and only) times I would interact with this roommate.)
I wasn’t, at the time. But as a new college freshman, I quickly learned having Facebook would be an essential part of my social capital portfolio. I joined accordingly.
By itself, this story is unremarkable. But placed in the context of my own history as a trans person, it takes on a different valence. If I’d joined Facebook at 14, 15, or even 16, I would have a long history of being perceived as a certain kind of person on Facebook. I might have been friended by my parents, to whom I can’t or don’t want to come out to even though I now present as a different identity socially. Or I might have had to build two Facebook accounts: one for the at-birth gendered me, and one for my current identity. All of these are practices I’ve seen people in my social circles engage in to mitigate social risk.
This necessity arises from one of Facebook’s central tenets: the personal as commodity. The breadth to which your “social” identity on Facebook bleeds into every other activity can become unmanageable, in spite of one’s best efforts. Some sites now require commenters to use their Facebook account to comment on posts, or require you link that site with your Facebook account before accessing their services. As Nancy Baym pointed out in a recent blog post, Introducing Facebook Nation, Facebook has become to be categorized as a “nation,” with one’s Facebook account serving as the “passport” for interactivity on other sites.
But when Facebook is the extension of a specific social self, it forces the user to constantly reinforce and reproduce Facebook’s (I think) problematic and pernicious “real name culture.” Even if one tries to delineate clear border between certain elements of their social life, Facebook undermines them. An interesting example of this in practice comes from a recent episode of Slate’s podcast Manners for the Digital Age, where someone wonders if they should tell a Facebook friend that their crossdressing-related posts/pictures are public and appearing in unrelated people’s feeds. The hosts’ advice aside, the situation represents the problematic of personal information as currency/commodity: what happens when you no longer retain control?
For trans users, this conundrum mainly arises from a desire to remain stealth. Part of remaining stealth requires constant maintenance of one’s privacy, and issues of confidentiality crop up repeatedly in both anecdotal and academic texts on social support. While this description makes this practice sound like a constant fear, “stealth” practices can be as simple as not mentioning certain events in childhood. No matter the amount of energy expended in remaining stealth, it remains true that stealth’s greatest enemy is the uncontrollable: other actors. Others have the ability to break stealth with ease, and a stealth trans person can do little to stop the words once they’re out.
And on Facebook, the status message slip is the conversational slip, writ large. For trans people who have “grown up” online, this means the open availability of their past history can threaten the present integrity of their gender identity. Photos must be untagged, one’s wall constantly monitored and curated. Once the Facebook identity is forced beyond its semi-walled garden, all-new questions are raised. If one has two Facebook accounts for safety, which one represents the “fake” passport meant to fool authorities? What comments are not made, actions not taken, for fear of being outed by Google search?
And most importantly, what makes one a “legible” or “illegible” citizen of Facebook nation? Or will “illegible” citizens simply be suspended—rendered inaudible and invisible?