Break the Internet ®

Drag Stars, Facebook's "Fake Name" Controversy and the Rise of Ello

text by James Rickman / photography by Jose A Guzman Colon
Facebook is a tricky adversary. Consider two moments from the story of Sister Roma, the San Francisco-based drag performer and activist whose account was changed, against her will, to reflect her legal name back in September. One: when Roma, who's gone by this name on Facebook since 2007 and IRL since the '80s, saw her other name at the top of her page, she wasted no time in voicing her anger... on Facebook. Soon, hordes of people were flocking to her page with similar stories: someone reports an account and Facebook forces the user -- who could be a therapist, abuse survivor or immigrant, to cite a few examples -- either to enter the name that matches the one on his/her ID or get the boot. The posts got Facebook's attention, and a halting dialogue began.

Two: a few weeks after the initial flare-up, at a City Hall press conference, two Facebook employees turned up wearing shirts emblazoned with #MyNameIsRoma. "I was like, 'I don't even have one of those T-shirts!'" Roma says, speaking over the phone in late October. "It was fierce."

To date, Facebook has made some meaningful changes, including more sensitive language on the site (although you can still report a user for having a "fake name"). But if you're wrongfully kicked off Facebook, pretty much your only recourse is to contact Roma, who's given over much of her recent life to getting accounts reinstated -- a process outpaced by the efforts of the "fake name" trolls. Facebook maintains that its name policies keep predators and hate-mongers off the network, but even Roma, who's confident that Facebook will make deep changes eventually, can't ignore what she calls "the green elephant in the room."

Neither can Paul Budnitz, whose ad-free social network, Ello.co, launched in early August. "You know why they really do it?" he asks, taking our call at company headquarters in Burlington, Vermont. "Facebook isn't really a social network; it's an advertising platform. The customer is really the advertiser, and when your customer is the advertiser, everything you do is either to get more data or to show more ads. If Facebook knows your real name, you're really, really valuable to them."

Ello requires nothing more of each new user than an email address. As of late October, it was fielding about 40,000 membership requests per hour. But while Budnitz says that "the LGBTQ community basically helped us launch our site" (he recalls a new user writing, "Welcome the gay community! We have a history of coming into neighborhoods and making them expensive and nice!"), there's no sign of a defection big enough to scare Facebook. On both sides of the "fake name" debate, it's all about the numbers: Facebook wants its precious user data, and Roma, like most of us, wants her comments and likes.

Roma has a lot of respect for Facebook, but she also has a functional long-term memory. "Hello, remember Myspace?" she says. "Remember Friendster? Facebook is huge right now, but what will it be tomorrow? They need to come to the party and realize that some of their policies are not working." Given the history of social media empires, it's not unthinkable that a new network like Ello might someday approach the lumbering goliath, #MyNameIsRoma T-shirt straining across its chest, that is Facebook.

Meanwhile, our choice -- between privacy and convenience, between online Bushwicks and Times Squares -- is nicely contained beneath Ello's manifesto (which ends, "You are not a product"): two black buttons, marked "I agree" and "I disagree," sit at the bottom of the page. The latter takes you to Facebook.

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