Facebook has made a big point over the years of having real identities for its users, but it looks like that requirement is soon going to disappear, and users will be able to use made-up names for more anonymity. Call it the Snapchat effect.
According to a profile of Mark Zuckerberg published today in BusinessWeek — to mark Facebook’s 10th anniversary — the social network plans to let users log in anonymously in a set of new apps it is planning to release (for more on that app strategy, check out Josh’s insightful look here). Paper, a new Facebook reading app out today, does require Facebook login, but that looks like it may now become the exception rather than the rule.
Zuckerberg once described the idea of having two identities as showing a “lack of integrity,” but he now says that real identity can be a millstone. “I don’t know if the balance has swung too far, but I definitely think we’re at the point where we don’t need to keep on only doing real identity things,” he told BusinessWeek. “If you’re always under the pressure of real identity, I think that is somewhat of a burden.”
There has been a lot of internal debate at the company about the use of real identities, which some might argue was a throwback to another time. The requirement for real names came about in the first place because at the time Facebook was founded, most social networks and forums were based around made-up names, and a lot of that was overrun with spammy or outrageous user-generated content. Facebook took to real names for a number of reasons. It could help bridge the virtual experience with the real world; that could in turn drawn in more users (it worked!); and more accountability for you posted would follow.
Zuckerberg, however, seems to think that times have changed where ideas like these are concerned.
“It’s definitely, I think, a little bit more balanced now 10 years later,” Zuckerberg notes. “I think that’s good.”
But to say that the decision to drop real identity was born in a blue Facebook bubble may not be quite right, either.
Real identity may have helped persuade more people to join Facebook — and through Facebook’s social sign-in its real-identity-based profiles have become a way of identifying yourself in hundreds of other apps and websites and tying them together in a unified social experience. Yet some have also turned away from Facebook for the same reason. You may not want to post funny pictures of yourself drunk at a party if they may one day be easily found by someone who you didn’t intend to see them. (Yes, there are privacy settings, but they’re a lot more fiddly than the act of taking and posting a photo or comment are.)
Many have pointed out that part of the allure of Snapchat for younger users has been the ephemerality of the content — it disappears after it’s sent. But it’s also notable that you can use whatever name you like on there, too. Identity, too, can disappear as fast as that risqué message you just sent.
Something Zuckerberg also doesn’t mention in his reasons for embracing anonymity is the fact that the social network has been under pressure in some places specifically for its real-name requirement. In Germany, the regulator has said that Facebook’s real-name policy “erodes online freedoms.”
It’s not exactly Facebook’s first foray into letting people use different names on the network. When Facebook first launched verified accounts in 2012, it gave verified people the option of using nicknames in all of their interactions (although even then the registered names were still their real names).
There is also the example of Facebook Messenger, which you can opt to use without any Facebook account at all on Android, although you still have to give over another piece of your data — your phone number.
Giving people the option to leave their real identities behind when using future apps is a very interesting turn of events. It points to Facebook wanting to change with the times, and with consumer (and perhaps regulatory) sentiment. But it also shows that it’s figured out more sophisticated ways of tracking and monetizing your time on its properties regardless. Even if you’re Ingy123 instead of Ingrid.