Facebook, Drag Queens and some Internet History

In the beginning, there was this:

“On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

In 1993, getting on the Internet was a chore. You had to have a modem and a land line, and a contract with some sort of service provider: Compuserve, Prodigy, Delphi, AOL and GEnie were the popular choices. You could create an account on any or all of these services, use your modem to dial in to their service (long distance charges may apply), and create an identity for yourself out there in the big, vast Wild West days of the internet. It didn’t matter who you were; as long as you paid your service bill and didn’t engage in unlawful activities, you were given the freedom to name yourself and portray yourself as you pleased.

Of course, social abuse easily occurs in such an unregulated space. Just about as soon as dial-up and IRC chatrooms were invented, creepers disguising as teenage girls began to haunt those chatrooms in the hope of seducing the unwary. Usenet groups such as alt.erotica.binaries sprang up, and the technically savvy types of the day could get their hands on free porn (providing they wanted to wait a long time for the data to download). The internet was perceived as a fantastic new innovation, filled with tremendous promise – but beware of the seedy corners where danger lurks.

Dangers such as unregulated, uncensored freedom of speech.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not an advocate of allowing lawbreakers on the ‘net to get a pass under the blanket of free speech protection. I am an advocate for free expression however, and if role playing and assumed identities and anonymous fun and frolic between consenting adults is your thing, then have at it baby.

I posit that the wish for security, anonymity and the right to self-represent however one chooses to is part of the essential DNA of the Internet, and that these rights are under threat and being subverted by the biggest social network of all time, Facebook.

Facebook hates anonymity, and the reason is probably as simple as: if Facebook knows who you are and where you live, it can guarantee to its advertisers that they can reach YOU. Not your internet-dog-alias, not your drag-queen-alter-ego. You. Guaranteed. No argument. Your government-registered, backed-by-a-social-security-number sweet-ass self.

Facebook has a magical algorithm that converts that information to cash, and it really doesn’t want any of us – we, the people – to mess with that. To that end, they make each and every one of us agree to the following:

Under ‘Safety’:

You will not use Facebook to do anything unlawful, misleading, malicious, or discriminatory.

Under ‘Registration and Account Security’:

Facebook users provide their real names and information, and we need your help to keep it that way. Here are some commitments you make to us relating to registering and maintaining the security of your account:

You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission.
You will not create more than one personal account.
If we disable your account, you will not create another one without our permission.
You will not use your personal timeline primarily for your own commercial gain, and will use a Facebook Page for such purposes.
You will keep your contact information accurate and up-to-date.
If you select a username or similar identifier for your account or Page, we reserve the right to remove or reclaim it if we believe it is appropriate (such as when a trademark owner complains about a username that does not closely relate to a user's actual name).

There’s a lot of other interesting stuff there – I just pulled the conditions that pertain to the points that I am trying to make. I urge everyone to go and read the whole thing. It’s much easier to read and understand than Apple’s App Store Terms and Conditions.

The basic point is: you promised to use your real name when you signed up for Facebook.

Here’s where it gets really morally slippery and sloppy, and extremely interesting.

My next postulation is: on the internet, people will agree to anything – usually in under five seconds – in order to get what they want, regardless of what they are actually agreeing to in order to get it. Call this the “ignorance of the law” excuse.

I know that I have routinely agreed to things like Apple’s Terms and Conditions without slogging through the entire document. Usually, I am in a grand hurry to hear a piece of music play, and somehow iTunes has updated itself and the terms have changed and I find myself involved in a five-minute battle with the device just trying to get sound out of it. Apparently I missed the fine print where it says Apple has the right to put U2’s new Coldplay album on my iPad – and that’s because they make the document very long and jargony and complicated and look – all I really want is to hear is my Sly and the Family Stone cut that would make me feel good right about now SO I’M JUST GOING TO CLICK AGREE DAMMIT!

If I were to quiz you narrowly on the T’s and C’s for Twitter, Pintrest, Reddit, iTunes, Amazon, eBay, all the stuff you probably signed up for online – what do you think your score would be? I’ll freely admit that if I got above 25% correct, it would be because I guessed the right answers by leaning towards the most profitable answer for the licensor and the least favorable for the licensee, which would be me.

I think that most people enter into these contracts truly believing that they will not be enforced. Maybe it’s a little bit of “they’ll never know, it’s just little old me” mixed with some “they wouldn’t dare to shut me out – they want my business!” – with an added dash of “how can they possibly enforce any sanctions?”

With me so far? OK. Let’s talk a little about drag queens.

First of all, the “drag queen” label grabs headlines fairly easily, and provides plenty of glamorous visuals to boot. It’s easy for the media – social and otherwise – to want to make the Queens the poster-women for the Facebook Real Name Dispute. And so it has come to pass.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the transgender community either gets tarred with the Drag Queen Brush or gets completely ignored. There are many, many members of that community who have – for whatever good reason they have – chosen to hide their “government name” and adopt a name of their own choosing. Not to mention other communities, which granted may be primarily populated with performers – but performers who choose to create their one frank and true identity on Facebook under their non-government name.

Why not simply go and change your legal name, you ask? Well, some do, and some don’t, and they have their good reasons why they don’t, and the point here is that their good reasons are none of your business. It’s a basic privacy issue.

When I was a young lad, the gay community was so much more hidden and repressed and closeted than it is nowadays. Us old-timers have not lost sight of this, and though these United States have come a long way, there is still a long way to go. Gay marriage is not universally legal, and unspeakable homophobic prejudice and violence is still inflicted upon GLBT people all the time, every day, everywhere.

But back to drag queens, since they are fabulous, and the time when I was a young lad. Queens assumed non-government names in order to protect themselves, in order to keep their jobs, in order to keep their families, in order not to lose the benefits of living in society, in order to protect themselves. We have not come such a long way that this is no longer the case. So, one might argue that assuming a drag-o-nym is a fun, fancy and traditional way to enhance a drag persona, I would argue back that the need for safety still exists in this society, and the tradition is not born out of fancy, but out of necessity. Besides, it’s none of your business. See above.

Sure, many ‘drag queens’ are performers, and maybe it is appropriate for them to migrate to Facebook Fan Pages. But not all transgender people are performers, and so it does not make sense for them to be forced to have a Fan Page instead of a Plain Old Page.

I think that Facebook’s “one person, one account tied to the person’s birth name” policy is cloying and entirely driven by the marketing interests of industry. It smells of Big Brother-like totalitarianism, where the identities of the constituents of the state are tightly regulated and the populace is highly scrutinized. I think it is ultimately dangerous and highly invasive of people’s privacy.

But then, you signed away that privacy when you joined Facebook – despite their rather ludicrous “Data Use Policy”.

Oh, and should you come to any harm because your true identity somehow is revealed on Facebook, I leave you to consider this, from the Facebook Terms of Service:



I think that Facebook will eventually implode under its own weight, once the next generation realizes how square and stuffy and flawed it really is and fails to participate. But that’s a topic for a different post.