Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Outed by Facebook

Oh my god, this. A story about how two sets of parents found out their children were gay due to the vagaries of Facebook's labyrinthine privacy settings.

My stomach dropped like a stone when I saw the title. I read the actual piece with a sense of horrible churning sickness. Horror, sadness, empathy, guilt. Social networking can be a real boon for those of us with, um, secret identities. It can help us come out, stay in, find community, find acceptance, find love. It can also be a real risky business. I've written before about how I use Facebook to support my trans presence. I find it an invaluable resource: I can come out to acquaintances in an informal but no-nonsense way; I can friend people who I've met as Oliver but haven't explicitly informed that I identify as male and require male pronouns; I can link people to things that are relevant to me; I can join the LGBT society. I also have the option to unfriend people without unfriending them: old school friends, for example, who I've no wish to offend by defriending but who I probably will never see again, I simply haven't added to my new profile.

And, most importantly, my new profile is entirely invisible to my family. There are members of my family who are aware that I go by Oliver, and who are on Facebook, but who still aren't friends with my new profile because I need to keep the two profiles entirely separate. Due to my unusual surname, Oliver has an entirely different surname on social media, on the offchance that my dad stumbles across someone with his surname and gets curious. Oliver also has a pretty anonymous profile picture, which has caused confusion when I add someone who doesn't yet know me as Ollie, but which further protects me from being unwittingly discovered by family or family friends.

This is by no means a perfect solution. I hate being 'divorced' from my family like this. It feels much more like lying to them than simply living as a different person does, bizarrely. And there are all sorts of practical problems: old friends contacting me and not getting replies (because I spend enough time on one profile on Facebook, let alone trying to maintain two); missing important updates from people I've lost contact with; losing my 'Facebook history' (I first joined in 2006); occasionally posting from the wrong profile on old photos or events, which I still have access to through "mutual friends". And poor C is walking on eggshells on Facebook, as hir family don't know me as Ollie, and are friends with my old account. So zie essentially can't mention me on Facebook without either outing me to hir family, or making me feel pretty weird by referring to me by my 'old' name.

Regardless, I couldn't do without it. I can't stress enough how important it has been for me; how liberating and exciting and real. Screw those guys who sneer at social networking as if it's somehow a pathetically inferior substitute for 'real life' - Facebook has given the real me a real chance to live.* And the fact that I can hide from my family within Facebook? Crucial.

So what do I do with this?
Facebook routinely shuts down duplicate accounts, which means that holding a separate account for family and close friends would not be an option. The site says that its commitment to real names, and single accounts makes it safer for users.
I feel like a fraud. I feel like my doppelg√§nger presence on Facebook, which has been so exciting and so freeing, is cheating. But I can get away with it, because the names are not the same, so it's not a duplicate profile - not what Facebook calls a duplicate profile, anyway. The names and registered email addresses are totally separate: we just happen to look rather similar and have quite a few mutual friends. That's an option for gay or bi people too, of course, but it's not one with any redeeming features. For me, the name is kind of the point: for gay/bi people, I can imagine it would feel deeply deceptive. For a start, how would their friends from real life know who they were on Facebook? Even if it were practical, I know from experience that it's just not a good idea. It's only worthwhile for me because I get fairly major pay-off which wouldn't be the case for gay/bi people trying to split their lives down the middle.

Would it be nice if we could all live happily out and proud, and nobody had to worry about hiding their profiles from their parents? Yes, it would be amazing. But it would also be pretty unlikely right now. On the other hand, I don't think it's much to ask that our privacy settings be inviable: no other user's activity should be able to override one's own privacy settings. And what do Facebook have to say about this?
“Our hearts go out to these young people,” says Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes. “Their unfortunate experience reminds us that we must continue our work to empower and educate users about our robust privacy controls.”
Well, that's nice, but it's not enough. "Empower and educate" does nothing to suggest that privacy settings will be changed to allow users to have total control over them, which doesn't seem much to ask even for users who don't genuinely need to keep some parts of their life separate from other parts. And for those of us who do? This news is absolutely chilling. My heart, too, goes out to Taylor McCormick and Bobbi Duncan. Unlike Facebook, I don't have the power to ensure that this doesn't happen again, but I hope that those who do will take notice of this devastating situation, and perhaps even do something about it. Facebook has been an incredible tool for me, as I imagine it has been for other queer people. But we need to be able to control it. If we can't, it's just too risky.

*The comments on the article, incidentally, reveal a fair amount of this sneering. Some people have nothing to add except a haughty contempt for social network users and a predictable nostalgia for the good old days and "old fashioned interaction with the real world." And one participant surely wins the prize for irrelevant comment of the day: "to be honest as I'm not queer but I am gay I wouldn't even join a group called 'Queer Chorus'." Way to miss the point, dude.

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