Facebook absolution

When my mother was little, her parents made her get married to God. After that, she had to attend confession every week and tell her new husband all the horrible things she had said and thought and done. The trouble was that she could never think of anything bad enough. What could a seven-year-old do that would be of any interest to God, who was after all very busy saving souls and intervening in Cuba?

So she started to make up sins. Those plausible but scurrilous fibs favoured by little kids. She would then whisper them to the frocked man behind the grille who had a direct line to God, I hit my brother. I copied my sister’s homework. I stole a penny from my mother’s purse. I lied.

Forty years later, I am typing my sins in the confession box at the top of my Facebook profile. Nothing particularly seditious. I stained my sink with hair dye. I got into a Twitter fight. I stayed up too late reading trashy crime novels. And I lied – by omission.

My real sins, my darkest fears and most secret hopes, are bigger than missed deadlines and home-salon disasters. They are big enough that I will do anything I can to stop the algorithm finding out about them. I worry that I’m not resilient enough to continue my activist work. I worry that I will forget the sound of my father’s voice. I believe feminism is the future. I believe that there is hope.

Last year, Facebook’s research department published a controversial study on ‘emotional contagion’ and in doing so revealed the extent of its ability to track and even manipulate the mental state of its users. The difference between God and Facebook is that God forgives – at least in theory. But you cannot simply say six Hail Marys and seven Our Fathers and expect your Facebook history to disappear.

You can hide your status from your friends. You can delete your profile. But all of your dreams and dark moments are still swimming in the metadata, waiting to be resurrected as soon as they become relevant. You can be sure those sins will find you out.

And now mine are all under my name.

A few months ago, someone reported me to Facebook for using a pseudonym. I had good reasons for doing so, not that I needed them. I’m a reasonably well-known writer, and female, and a feminist, and an activist. This adds up to a lot of hassle from bigots and misogynists, ranging from everyday abuse through to rape and death threats. I simply didn’t want that toxicity to follow me into the same sandbox where I chat to my best friend about how we’re both dealing with seasonal depression.

Before I was forced to revert to my ‘real’ name on Facebook, I used the site for its stated purpose: to connect with friends and family. Facebook is where I talk to my sisters, an ocean away. Facebook is where I check in with two friends who have just had babies, although I wish they would stop using snaps of their sleeping cherubs as profile pictures. It makes late-night conversations about radical queer theory rather unsettling.

Now I can’t do that, not in the same way. I’m forced – against my will – into being a public face. I’m far from the only one. Facebook’s controversial ‘real name’ policy has put millions of people at risk of abuse, harassment and stalking. This month, a global coalition demanded that the company reconsider its policy, which has endangered users across the world, from women activists in India to drag queens in San Francisco. But Facebook insists, despite ongoing protests, that its policy ‘keeps users safe’. It also shores up Facebook’s business model of retaining, selling and manipulating social data on over a billion users worldwide, though the company is yet to acknowledge that particular perk.

I love social media. It’s where I learned to write, and where I made some of my greatest friends. It’s where I became an activist. It’s where I hunt down sources for stories, connect with readers and promote my writing. It all started on LiveJournal, where I ran a daily blog. It was full of the sorts of things that trouble neurotic nineteen-year-olds, plus a lot of excitement about Doctor Who.

I often went deep and personal. I spoke about depression, love affairs, my recovery from eating disorders. At that point I did not imagine that I would go on to become a ‘public personality’.

As soon as I decided to work as a freelance journalist, I set up a separate blog. My public writing also goes deep and personal, and I relish the immediacy and passion of the social web. But just because I give my readers a great deal doesn’t mean I want to give them everything. Young women, in particular, are expected to give and give and give until there is nothing left, to make every aspect of our lives commodifiable, beautiful and public. As a feminist, I do not wish to give in to that pressure. As a writer, I must not do so. The more you give, the more you must hang on to a private self, the thing that nourishes you when everything else falls away. This was once possible for me, even online. Facebook just made it a whole lot harder.

I love social media. I don’t love Facebook. I tolerate Facebook. I’ve been tolerating it with increasing unease since I joined in 2006, back when the site was new and exciting, available only to students at elite universities in the United States, and at one or two elite universities in Britain.

I happened to be at one of them at the time. I was a student at Oxford, and like other early Facebook users, I found the new site a great way to procrastinate from revising for my final exams. It was fun, at first, even though the omnipresent header image in the corner in the site’s early iterations had an unnerving resemblance to my creepy ex-boyfriend. In retrospect, I probably should have taken that as a warning sign.

Nobody knew, at first, how much Facebook would come to define, and then to control, the parameters of our social world. We were careless about what we put out there. We were growing up, and we had not yet internalised the message – even as young women – that our digital reputations should be curated and maintained, that they should be kept unstained unless we wanted to be punished in the future. By the time we realised what we had signed up for, it was too late. We were users. The first hit was free, but the price got steeper as the years went on. We paid with our time and energy. We paid with our data. We paid with our security.

Somewhere, somebody has a picture of me half naked, kissing the naked chest of a person I used to play music with, a person to whom I have not spoken in years. That picture was copied from Facebook by a right-wing blogger after a change in the privacy settings allowed him to do so. I was told that this had happened one evening in the middle of the first political conference I attended, as I awkwardly attempted to network with established journalists.

The picture is no longer on my profile. That night, I called my younger sister in a panic, gave her my passwords and asked her to delete ‘anything incriminating’. Reputation mattered now. There were powerful men in the media who would now splash a private evening in 2006 all over their blogs and think it a grand joke. Tearing down young girls is sport, especially when they are trying to build a career.

After that, I locked down my Facebook profile. I changed my name to something else. I was curating a public face, but I decided to keep Facebook for its stated purpose: staying connected. My profile was so saturated with memories and personal drama that I felt I could not possibly open it up to public scrutiny. And besides, it was where I talked to my partners, my close friends, my family. I was now a public figure. I had already had threats made against my family; I could not put them at risk.

Plenty of people use ‘fake’ names on Facebook. Some people are hiding from abusive partners or family members. Some people are activists or journalists who worry about being targets of harassment. Some people are drag performers or artists who have used a different name professionally for years. And some people just go by a different name to that given to them at birth, sometimes because they are transsexual or transgender, sometimes for other – just as valid – reasons.

When I was locked out of my Facebook account, I could not regain access until I had submitted documents proving my ‘real name’. Hours later my profile was reactivated under the name Laurie Penny. That was curious. You see, Laurie Penny is not my legal name. It’s the name I use professionally, but it is not the name on my passport, nor the name I begged Facebook to use instead.

I started using the name ‘Laurie’ when I was fifteen. In England, where I grew up, Laurie is a boy’s name, and I wanted a more androgynous name than ‘Laura’. It would take me another twelve years to start being open about being a genderqueer woman. I’m Laurie to my friends, to my readers and to my partners; Laura to my bank manager; Loz to my family. Which one of those is ‘real’?

I was worried that Facebook would force me to ‘come out’ as Laura, a name I no longer use except on legal documents. Most users who have been locked out of their accounts for using pseudonyms have been forced to switch to the names on their passport or identity card, incidentally giving Facebook access to copies of those documents. But the name Facebook chose for me is the name under which I have the most followers, the name under which I have built my reputation as a writer. In short, it’s my most marketable name.

Two months after I was forced to ‘come out’, verification was added to my account without my consent. The email notification was saturated with congratulations: now I could connect with audiences all over the world!

I was at a media event at the time, and Facebook happened to have a stall explaining its new verification and ‘mentions’ service. I booked an appointment with a very nice Facebook employee and told her that I’d already been verified. ‘Congratulations!’ she told me. Now I could take my engagement to the next level. I explained, as gently as I could, that that was the exact opposite of what I wanted to do. That I already had a global audience, just not on Facebook. I was trying to keep my public and private selves separate, because the pressure to make every aspect of my life part of a polished, commodifiable public story was slowly killing my soul. I needed some space away from trolls. And since when did personal branding become non-optional?


When Facebook instituted its ‘real name’ policy and started aggressively suspending the accounts of people suspected of not using their ‘birth names’, it put all of those people at risk. It outed them to families and employers. It made them less safe, even though Facebook’s line – its only line, the one it repeats every time it is challenged by advocacy groups – is that the policy ‘keeps users safe’. The logic is that anonymity protects abusers – but anonymity is also vital to free expression, especially for at-risk groups.

So why don’t vulnerable people just leave Facebook? Why don’t I? Well, it’s complicated.

To many of its users, Facebook feels more and more mandatory. Facebook’s penetration of our daily lives means that it no longer needs to give its users a good experience in order to ensure their acquiescence. We fear Facebook’s power. We resent its constant redefinition of how and with whom we may communicate. But still we use it … because we must.

I have almost a decade’s worth of memories stored on the site. Nine years of photos and birthdays and adventures and sweet interactions and intimate tragedies, all of them accrued as I grew up with the internet. Recently, Facebook’s ‘On This Day’ service presented a picture of a younger version of me, standing on a street in Athens. I’d travelled there to report on the rise of neo-fascist street gangs. Incidentally, I also had my heart broken, ate the best fries I’ve ever tasted and was insulted in Greek by a tiny homophobic nun. Accompanying the picture was a message: ‘Facebook cares about your memories’.

Given my recent interactions with the site, it’s hard not to read messages like this in the cheery voice of a cartoon gangster: Nice memories you’ve got there. It sure would be a shame if anything happened to them.

Facebook’s Messenger service, which iPhone users are now forced to download if they want to speak to their friends, has been widely criticised as insecure and full of bugs. Messenger’s customer ratings remain low, with reviews bemoaning the loss of the old service – and yet it still is one of the most popular products on the App Store. Facebook and its widgets are not optional, not anymore.

That is what gives Facebook its enormous, unprecedented power. Its 1.5 billion users aren’t there because they want to be, but because they have to be. That gives Facebook all the power of a state, without any of the checks and balances. Facebook has no duty of care towards its denizens. Facebook’s bottom line is profit. Facebook can do what it likes with its users data. That is how it makes its money, and if its new business plan puts users as risk –particularly queer and female users – well, so be it.

Experts in technology and culture call services like this ‘dual use’. They are vital for rapid free expression, but they also allow for surveillance on an unprecedented scale. They facilitate speech, but they also streamline it, removing any dangerous and challenging aspects. Sex is not part of your public story. Obscenity is not part of your public story.

The construction of an ‘ideal self’ online – that is, a marketable self – is weighed against the threat that the ‘real self’ will be exposed and punished, whether through ‘revenge pornography’, online harassment or government surveillance. Facebook knows your secrets. Facebook makes money off your secrets. It wields power over its users with one of the oldest and most fearful threats, the same warning that still drives people to church: you will be excluded.

If you don’t join in, well, you’ll be left out. You will be lonely. You will be shunned. Not on purpose, but the machine will overlook you and eventually you will miss out on work events, social gatherings, weddings, birthdays, all the stuff of life in the digital age that has been captured by the empire of blue and white.

But it comes with the price. The price is emotional, intellectual and personal freedom. The price is privacy.

People who choose privacy over participation pay a heavy cost: being denied access to the swathes of social and commercial life that Facebook has already captured. For some people, that cost is too great. People who run small businesses, for example. People who are activists, or artists, or journalists like me. People who have been on the site for so many years that leaving would mean surrendering the memories and connections and entire relationships they have outsourced.

God at least has the decency to keep secrets. Facebook has another agenda. Facebook believes that you should have no secrets, not really – that everything personal about you should be public and accessible, if not by everyone you have ever met, then at least by the company itself. We believe, now, that Facebook knows what we want to buy, who we want to fuck and when that person is going to break our hearts in a Brooklyn car park well before we do. Whether Facebook knows this for sure is only slightly less important than the fact that we believe it does.

Eventually I came to an agreement with Facebook. I set up a public profile for my public work, and was allowed to transfer the verification to that account while locking down my personal account as much as possible. I should say that the Facebook representatives to whom I spoke were very good-natured about the whole thing. They were especially keen to resolve the issue once they heard I was planning to write a piece about my experience. But I was not allowed my anonymity back.

All of this has meant hours of extra work for me, work for which I am not being paid, work that is not benefitting me in any way. And all the while, my personal information has been trickling into Facebook’s data centres as the company moves to capture more and more of our social world, as it collects its billions of data points on every human being, flattening the public sphere into one paranoid, saccharine, homogenous user experience.

And so there is a slow rendering of everything personal into a saleable asset. Every eccentricity and quirk is scrutinised for shareability. How can this passing thought best be recomposed as a status update? How shall we arrange our lives so that they photograph better? We learn the rules: bare breasts are not allowed, breastfeeding is not allowed, but groups advocating rape are allowed.

Facebook was originally set up as a sexist ‘hot or not’ site on which Harvard students could rate the attractiveness of their female classmates with utter disregard for the privacy of the young women involved. Today, the base attitude of Zuckerberg’s leviathan appears unchanged. Minorities and women – young women, in particular – are treated by Facebook as commodities. Nine years on, I understand better just what is at stake if we accept this definition of our social role. I understand how vital it is to preserve something private, not just to keep me safe, but to keep me whole – as a writer, as a professional, as a person. I will fight to hang on to as much privacy as I can. I will continue to advocate for companies to protect their users’ data, for the importance of anonymity. I will continue to insist that the private self is not sinful. That what is unknowable, unreplicable and unmarketable about each human creature is not by definition monstrous.

Today the algorithm learnt more about me. It learnt that I’m worried about my weight. I’m considering purchasing an extra set of winter socks. I’m considering also purchasing another black band T-shirt. I’m concerned about how the British Home Office treats asylum seekers. I’m concerned about the long-term health effects of nicotine gum. I’m a single white woman in my late twenties on a modest salary. It knows that I liked a video of a baby bulldog tearing up toilet paper, that I liked a picture of my baby sister trying to eat spaghetti twenty years ago, that I liked a boy who was no good for me. And I lied.


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Laurie Penny

Laurie Penny is a journalist, feminist, geek and author of five books including Unspeakable Things, Cybersexism and Meat Market.

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