by Paul Budnitz
Several years ago Facebook mistook me for a pregnant African American woman living in New York City.
I had loaned my laptop for an afternoon to a friend who was expecting her first baby. For months afterwards advertisements for diapers, panty hose, and hair products appeared in my Facebook newsfeed, and then followed me as ads as I surfed around the Internet. I even received a sample of Essence Magazine in the mail.
At first it was just funny — and then I had an “Aha!” moment, one of those familiar flashes of complete understanding, when the scales finally fell from my eyes and I realized the full implication of social networks and mass data collection on our lives.
By now most people have heard about Facebook’s Real Name policy and the controversy surrounding it. Facebook has begun aggressively closing the accounts of people who refuse to use real names, and lots of people are angry. Performing artists, celebrities, artists, victims of domestic violence, and anyone who has decided to use an alias by choice or safety have found their accounts frozen or closed. But some of the most vocal criticisms have come from the LGBTQ community.
Fact is, there are still many places where it isn’t safe for LGBTQ social network users to reveal their real identity. The Huffington Post recently published a list of 29 states where you can still be fired for being gay. The Washington Post lists ten countries that impose the death penalty for homosexuality. Teenagers that are still uncertain about their sexual identity may feel compelled to hide behind an alias while they sort things out.
Sister Indica Sativa, a leader of the drag charity organization Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, recently noted that many members of her group have lived exclusively with their drag names for decades. Forcing people to reveal their real names puts survivors of domestic violence at risk, and it denies Native Americans their cultural heritage.
Given all the flack Facebook is getting about all this, it’s worth asking: why have a real name policy at all?
Facebook claims that it’s all about authenticity . Their official line is that a real name policy makes their network a safer place.
But this doesn’t jibe with reality. I co-founded Ello, the ad-free social network, and I can tell you that safety has nothing to do with using real names. Ello does not require real names or any personal information when you create an account (just an email address and password), yet Ello experiences far less of the negativity, spam, trolls, stalking and other issues that plague other networks. In a recent poll, this was one of the top reasons why people continue to use Ello.
In a world where easy access to data has become ubiquitous, personal safety is about choosing what information you want to post on the Internet, rather than being forced to show everything, leaving yourself open to personal attack, identity theft, and other types of data misuse.
So let’s get real:
Facebook’s Real Name Policy is really about data collection and advertising . The more Facebook knows about you, and the more they can link the data the collect to your real name and you alone, the more money they make when they sell you to advertisers and data aggregators.
And they know a lot.
On your profile page you’re asked to enter your age, sex, marital status, interests, high school and college names, hometown, interests, and a hell of a lot of other stuff that you probably wouldn’t tell a stanger who walked up to you on the street and asked.
And then there’s information that can be gleaned through your activity: who you follow, which friends you talk to most often. When you leave Facebook you’re tracked as you surf around the web, especially when you use your login on other sites and apps — which tells them what sites you visit, how much time you spend at your computer, and what you buy. Location information on your phone can transmit where you spend your time.
Analysts can easily figure out your marital status and political opinions using data like this. Forbes wrote recently that it’s even possible for them to figure out when you’re pregnant, and the New York Post reported that Facebook can predict when you’re going to break up with your partner.
MIT reported last year that Facebook has developed software that can identify similar faces 97.25% of the time, which is about as good as a human being can do when presented with the same two photographs. And Time recently demonstrated that Facebook’s new Scrapbook app was created so the company can track and assembling data on your children before they reach adulthood — and before they can legally have a Facebook page of their own. Upload photos of your newborn, and you’re unwittingly helping Facebook build a data profile on them from birth.
All this data about all of us is collected, stored, collated, and sold to the highest bidder. Today’s buyer may be a company that wants to advertise a product that you may or may not be interested in, or a political party that is looking for like-minded voters. Someday it may be a government that wants to know more about its citizens, or a border control agent that’s charged with keeping certain types of people out of their country.
What’s most disconcerting of all is that you don’t own any of your data, and have no control over it. Consider this: even though there are hundreds or millions of bytes stored about you, you have zero right to access this information. Your data belongs to Facebook, not you. It’s a company asset.
Reality is, if people were aware about all the stuff that’s stored about them, they’d freak out.
When they get something wrong, there can be serious implications. My comic experience having Facebook mistake me for a friend that’s nothing like me aside, data mismatches have serious consequences. There are myriad stories about Facebook’s compliance department getting users mixed up and freezing accounts. Thousands of regular people worldwide are forced to carry special numbers with them when they board airplanes or cross international borders, because their identities are regularly mixed up with suspected terrorists by border agents .
Here’s the hard truth.
Facebook’s real mission isn’t to make you happy. It isn’t to connect you with old friends, or to facilitate interesting conversations. You (the humble Facebook user) are not the customer.
Facebook’s entire business model is geared towards data collection, data sales, and advertising. Period. The people who buy that data are the real customers, and that’s to whom Facebook’s business is oriented. You’re the product that’s bought and sold.
From this perspective, Facebook is not really a social network at all: it’s an advertising platform and data aggregator masquerading as one.
And it’s brilliantly effective: Facebook collects enormous amounts of data about its users, and sells them for profit to advertisers and data aggregators, a practice that is opaque because their terms of service are long, hard to read, and change regularly.
And because Facebook has historically been a virtual monopoly, the company acts with impudence. Don’t like any of the stuff I’m telling you? Facebook isn’t worried: even though many, many people dislike their network, without a viable alternative people have nowhere to go, and they stick around, even as the experience of using the network continues to degrade thanks to ads, boosted posts, and features that are really more about data collection and ad revenue than user enjoyment.
Many civil liberties experts, members of the US Congress, and European government have labeled Facebook the greatest threat to civil liberty today.
To put a finer point on it:
Facebook recently announced its plans for Internet.org, which is being marketed as an altruistic plan to extend internet service to some of the world’s poorest — but which would actually only provide access to certain sites, including Facebook and sites curated by Facebook (read: sites that pay Facebook to be on the network). The Electronic Frontier Foundation has said Internet.org has the potential to create a virtual “ghetto” among the world’s poorest. Well-known Indian investor Mahesh Murthy recently criticized Facebook’s plans as “economic racism — exploiting the poor in underdeveloped parts of the world to become your customers under the guise of some apparent charitable purpose.”
These practices, while manipulative, aren’t really malicious. Facebook, like all publicly traded companies, exists for one reason: to make money for its investors, and it will do that by any means necessary. Quite frankly, if Facebook did anything else, its investors would sue its board for negligence.
Seen from that perspective, Facebook’s Real Name Policy is only about making the company more money. By deleting the accounts of a few already marginalized members of society, Facebook sends a strong message to everyone else: use your real name or we’ll kick you off. It’s a cynical tactic of intimidation that Facebook hopes will make its user base more valuable.
And yes — before you ask — Ello is completely different.
Ello is a Public Benefit Corporation, a special kind of for-profit company based in the USA with a legally binding mission that its directors need to take into account before making a profit. Ello’s mission requires that the company never sell ads or user data to third parties, and that we never sell our company to anyone that would ever do any of those things. This is legally built into Ello’s charter.
On Ello, you’re never required to enter a real name. And you can opt out of tracking completely.
Ello’s business model works because it aligns us with our users. By offering optional products, features and services, Ello is supported by its community. We don’t sell people as products, we sell stuff, and the Ello social network is completely free. Businesses, artists, and non-profits don’t have to pay for their users to see their posts. Unlike Facebook, Ello’s timelines are displayed in simple chronological order. Everyone who follows you can see all of your posts in their entirety — at no cost, without interruption or manipulation.
Legally reinforced policies like these are one of the many reasons that Ello’s community continues to grow so fast. Another is that we’ve built a positive social network filled with lively discussion, beautiful content, and interesting people — many of whom first came because of what Ello isn’t, but who stayed because of what Ello is becoming.
Just like Facebook, other networks (e.g. Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, and just about everyone else) have started selling ads, boosted and sponsored posts, and user data. One journalist recently noted that Ello is (arguably) the only real social network left, since we do none of these things and never will.
It was the LGBTQ community that jumpstarted Ello last Fall, when the furor over Facebook’s Real Name Policy first erupted. So many people tried to join our fledgling network at once that our servers nearly shut down!
Since then millions of people have joined and we’ve built lots of new features. Ello started out fairly bare bones, but it’s developing into a rich, positive, fully featured network filled with amazing content and discussions. features. Ello’s iPhone app will launch in a few weeks. By the end of summer we’ll reach core feature parity with most of the other big networks.
And of course Ello is the only network that will never sell ads or user data. We sincerely hope more companies will follow our lead.
Next Monday thousands are descending on Facebook’s offices in Menlo Park to demand that Facebook revoke their Real Name Policy, or withdraw from San Francisco’s Pride Day Parade. Other protests are planned for the Parade Day itself. Typically, Facebook’s response has so far been manipulative and cynical.
One of the hardest things to believe nowadays, when we’ve become so used to corporate manipulation and half-truths, may be that there still exist a few outposts where people really believe in what they’re doing. That’s us, at Ello. We created our network at first just because we wanted an alternative for ourselves. Since then we’ve found that connecting in a safe, positive, ad-free environment where we choose what we want to reveal about ourselves simply makes our lives better. It can make your life better, too.
But in any case:
If you agree with any of this, begin by paying attention to what you post online, when and where you use your real name. You’re not a product.
And let your voice be heard.
Because if there’s one thing we can all be certain of, it’s that Facebook is listening.
Image above: “Hello my name is” Dunny by Huck Gee, 2010. Dunny toy created for Kidrobot by Paul Budnitz & Tristan Eaton.