Constructing and enforcing "authentic" identity online: Facebook, real names, and non-normative identities

Oliver L. Haimson, Anna Lauren Hoffmann


Despite the participatory and democratic promises of Web 2.0, many marginalized individuals with fluid or non-normative identities continue to struggle to represent themselves online. Facebook users, in particular, are told to use “authentic identities,” an idea reinforced throughout the site’s documentation, “real name” and other policies, and in public statements by company representatives. Facebook’s conception of authenticity and real names, however, has created problems for certain users, as demonstrated by the systematic deactivation of many accounts belonging to transgender and gender variant users, drag queens, Native Americans, abuse survivors, and others. In view of the struggles of marginalized users, Facebook policy appears paradoxical: the site simultaneously demands authenticity yet proscribes certain people from authentic self-presentation. In this work, we examine Facebook’s construction of “authenticity” and show how it excludes multifaceted, fluid, or non-normative identities. Using content analysis and close reading, we analyze site documentation and data from The Zuckerberg Files (an online archive of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s public remarks) to understand the platform’s mechanisms for enforcing authenticity. We find that Facebook positions itself as a type of administrative identity registrar, raising vital questions regarding the ethics and consequences of identity enforcement online today.

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