Online conference paper: In Zuckerberg we trust

In May 2017, Curtin University held an online conference discussing Social Networks and Community. My paper, in Zuckerberg we trust, was published as a part of the conference and discussed Facebook’s real-name policy and the implications on imposing single user identity on the internet.

You can download a pdf of my paper here: InZuckerbergWeTrust.

Or read it online below.

Thank you.

In Zuckerberg we trust: How Facebook is working to shape identity


Each time we interact with social media we are performing our identity. Prior to the rise of popularity in social media platforms, identity was celebrated as free and fluid because identity had no restrictions. With an online population larger than any country on the planet, Facebook’s agenda for a transparent internet via their real-name policy cannot be ignored as a significant influencer to how identity is performed and constrained online.

This paper seeks to examine ways that Facebook attempts to influence online identity through their single identity user policy (also known as the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities (Facebook, 2015)) and highlights the flawed ideology on which the policy is based. Facebook works to influence identity online through numerous ways and this paper touches on Zuckerberg’s intention for radical transparency, the influences of the Facebook newsfeed, and the power of social filtering via performance interaction and the algorithm. The paper also examines how identity is performed online and the implications of Facebook’s real-name policy on these performances. Identity is not singular or fixed, identity shifts and changes constantly.

Setting context: putting the social into social media

Early adopters of the internet enjoyed an environment where “online sociality” (van Dijck, 2013, p.1) involved expressions of identity explored without restriction.
The idea that people could socially interact without exposing their identity was highly celebrated (Pariser, 2011, p. 110). Individuals indulged in a “distributed empowerment” (Lovink, 2011, p. 39) and expressed their identity through a vast “range of avatars and handles” (Leaver & Highfield, 2016, p. 3). There was no expectation for the individual to represent themselves under a single and fixed identity so they were free to express themselves in any way they wished. After 2006 social media platforms learnt to commodify sociality on the internet and expectations on users changed (van Dijck, 2013, p. 1). Social interactions shifted from a collaborative, free, and fluid exchange of ideas, to social interactions conducted within the constraints of social media platforms (van Dijck, 2013, p. 4). One of the reasons for this change was due to pushes from government and corporations for a “real-name web” where users were expected to represent themselves online via their “real-name” (Leaver & Highfield, 2016, p. 3) as an attempt to ensure accountability of the Internet’s population. This idea of a real name web is reflected in Facebook’s real-name policy today.

As the popularity of social media platforms rise, the ability to express identity without constraint dissipates. With 1.86 billion monthly active users (Statista, 2017), Facebook’s online population is larger than any offline country on the planet (Internet World Stats, 2017) and is by far the most popular social networking site world wide. In both culture and architecture, Facebook’s user policy requires a single-identity account from its users (Raynes-Goldie, 2012, p. 145-146) stating they must use their real name as would be depicted on a government-issued identification card (Ming-Shian, 2016, p. 1372). This user policy ensures that user interactions are explicitly linked to a real-world persona with the intention to encourage users to authentically represent their “Real Self” online (Lovink, 2011, p. 40). The user may be presented with choices to make whilst on the platform but these choices are expected to be made under one identity.

Fixed identities for a transparent internet

Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, emphatically believes that “you have one identity” (Kirkpatrick, 2010, p. 199). Which is odd considering the concept that identity is singular, external and fixed has been debunked since the Enlightenment period (Gilbert & Forney, 2013, p. 25). Regardless, Zuckerberg’s singular identity is linked to the Facebook culture that consistent behaviour will help create a “healthier society” (Kirkpatrick, 2010, p. 200). Zuckerberg’s Facebook operates under an agenda of “radical transparency” (Kirkpatrick, 2010, p. 200) meaning single identity profiles on Facebook that are linked to other platforms across the internet will encourage more people to act authentically online; as Pariser (2011, p. 110) points out “you have one identity, it’s your Facebook identity, and it colours your experience everywhere you go”.

For Facebook, socialisation is “not a frivolous activity, but a serious, instrumental endeavour” (Reynes-Golding, 2012, p. 146). This is because Facebook’s single identity belief system is centred on an ambition to make the whole world more transparent, connected and authentic (Reynes-Golding, 2012, p. 145). Leaver and Highfield (2016, p. 3) refer to Facebook as an “identity arbiter” noting the ways that Facebook capitalises on the single-identity account. Facebook is ingenious in its ability to monetise the content that its users create and this means the conglomerate will only further extend its reach and influence on the internet. As the worlds most powerful tool “for managing and expressing who we are”, any agenda that Zuckerberg’s Facebook pushes will inadvertently influence the nature of activity online.

The power of Facebook’s newsfeed

When a user creates a profile on Facebook (2017), they agree to Facebook’s Terms and Policies. These policies afford Facebook complete access to, and manipulation of, all user data. In 2014, Facebook published a study revealing an experiment conducted on almost 700,000 Facebook users (Booth, 2014). Experiment participants had no knowledge that they were being experimented on (Kramer, Guillroy, & Hancock, 2014, para 3). The experiment was investigating “emotional contagions” via text based interactions and was conducted by using the Facebook algorithm to manipulate participant news feeds so only one type of emotion was visible (Kramer et al., 2014, p. 8790). The findings of the experiment reveal emotional contagions can transfer emotional states onto a user who will then transfer their emotional state to other users for several days (Kramer et al., 2014, p. 8788).

Post-structuralist theorist Michel Foucault examines links between power and influence in his 1975 work on the Panopticon (Foucault, 2003, 467). For Foucault, power controls behaviour through placing the individual into a fixed space where their every move is supervised by an omnipresent entity that characterises the individual, determining what belongs to them and what happens to them (Foucault, 2003, 467). Applying Facebook’s experiment to Foucault’s theory; Facebook is the omnipresent power placing the user into a fixed single identity space, making decisions for the individual (such as user policies, Community Standards etc) and using the Facebook algorithm to control the emotional influences that the user receives. Thus Facebook’s ability to manipulate the news feeds of its users indicates an opportunity to enact an invisible power over the user. If Facebook’s experiment reveals the ways that Facebook can influence the emotional state of its user, what does this say about Facebook’s ability to influence user identity? Hodkinson (2015, p. 274) draws on theories from Erving Goffman’s “social performativity” when he notes that activities on social media are a “performance of identity”. Thus when an individual enacts an emotional response to a manipulated newsfeed, they are influenced by their news feed and performing their identity on social media.

Social filtering on Facebook

Facebook’s algorithm is based on a concept of social filtering. Social filtering is “the selective engagement with people, communication and other information as a result of the recommendations of others” (Willson, 2013, p. 218) and has always been a part of human social interaction. Social filtering works on strong ties and weak ties. Pearson (2009) explains that strong ties involve “high levels of emotional engagement” and weak ties are a link to “more distant friends and associates”. Social filtering assumes that the user can make decisions around with whom they will interact.

For Pearson (2009), online audiences are “disembodied” yet become re-embodied when users make choices around the signs that will represent them, hence the user may use language to shape the architecture of their online identity. Much like the various representations of language with which they engage on Facebook. Strong and weak ties can interchange and fluctuate depending on the type of engagement that the user chooses to make. Identity can also be “simultaneous performer and audience of other performances” (Pearson, 2009) and users make choices as each performance takes place. Facebook users can be simultaneous content creators and content consumers. Individuals make decisions about their identity based on the information they receive from the various interactions around them and the strength of tie they have with other identity performers. The issue with social filtering via Facebook’s algorithm is that the user has very little knowledge around how the algorithm stereotypes, ranks and organises the information they send and receive (Willson, 2013, p. 227). The individual cannot authentically perform their identity within a fabricated social context. They don’t know the framework of their interactions because the algorithm makes decisions for them so they can never really make truly informed decisions on their strong and weak ties.

Facebook Live video ranks higher in the algorithm (Swant, 2016) and will therefore receive preference on a user’s newsfeed regardless of user habits. Recently, an individual utilised the Facebook Live technology to promote the murder of an innocent victim (Conger, 2017). In this instance, Facebook unwittingly provided a platform to promote a crime online using technology that the company has designed to push content higher in news feeds. Events such as assaults and murders via Facebook Live provide an opportunity for perpetrators to link their real world identity to such events. But the Facebook Live platform also provides an invisible audience as comfort for those that need emotional support in instances such as suicide. Fuchs refers to theories from Daniel Trottier and David Lyon to explain this type of identity construction; namely that identity is collaboratively constructed through interactions such as audience comments, likes, tagging and shares and this is how “users contribute to the identity construction of others” (Fuchs, 2015, p. 398). With that in mind, Facebook’s algorithm controls the content that is cycled through a user’s timeline. If Facebook is to be a platform of transparency, how will the macabre aspects of human nature be expressed as authentic representations of identity when audiences are exposed to disturbing imagery without consent or control? What takes preference to be preserved, online authenticity, or censorship of disturbing imagery?

Performing identity on Facebook

For those that do not have the privilege of full disclosure without judgement, Facebook’s single identity user policy creates a road block for free and fluid identity practices. Kirkpatrick notes a quote from Reid Hoffman pointing out the naivety of Zuckerberg’s single identity philosophy as being something of a “college student view” noting that as one gets older they begin to see the different contexts within which identity must operate (Kirkpatrick, 2010, p. 202). Van der Nagel and Frith also examines context from the perspective that pseudonymity gives the individual a freedom of online participation without fear of “context collapse” (van der Nagel & Frith, 2015). Van der Nagel and Frith (2015) quote dana boyd in pointing out that policies that push for real name profiles are “an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people”. Real name policies provide no protection for sexual harassment of women or exposure of private details online (van der Nagel & Frith, 2015). They do not protect marginalised communities from attack based on sexual preference (Kirkpatrick, 2010, p. 200), religion or race or any other aspect that the individual may not wish to be exposed on a public forum. Context collapse occurs when the individual must construct their identity “in front of their entire social network” not the typically “segmented network” that operates offline (van der Angel & Frith, 2015). On Facebook, the individual is expected to perform their identity in front of their entire social network, potentially exposing aspects of their life that they would prefer to remain within segmented networks. For these users, a real name profile imposes more restrictions than freedom.

So, while some users are confronted with context collapse where they are forced to construct their identity in front of their entire social network (van der Nagel & Frith, 2015), others are searching for the reflexive identity performance that Facebook provides (Hodkinson, 2015, p. 284). The Facebook timeline can act as a kind of reflexive identity register; a searchable archive of activity alongside a running peer commentary (Hodkinson, 2015, p. 284). This peer commentary informs boyd’s (2007, p. 21) “impression management” that the individual needs to determine and asses their identity performance through various types of social cues. Boyd’s (2007, p. 8) social media examinations reveal a new kind of public space, one she calls a “networked public”. This networked public is different to the real world because it involves “searchability, exact copyability, and invisible audiences” (body, 2007, p. 2). These aspects of social media make it unrealistic to expect online identity to reflect offline identity because they exist in completely different contexts. In these “mediated environments” the individual has no physical body to give or receive physical cues, their profile is their body, and thus the skills used to “interpret situations and manage impressions” (body, 2007, p. 12) online are not the same as those offline. Individuals that use Facebook as a reflexive archive rely on social cues from their audience to shape their identity performance. They are also aware of the copyability and invisible audience present in this reflexive performance. They can never truly represent a real-world identity because their real world identity does not exist within the same parameters of the online world. If they stub their toe on a curb in the real world, the only people who will witness the incident are those physically present. If they trip on a curb and someone posts a video of this to their Facebook profile, this video will be continuously looped as a permanent part of their digital identity.


Facebook believes that it can influence human behaviour by enforcing real name profiles, creating authentic human interactions online to make the world a better place. The problem with this is identity is not singular and fixed, identity is a continuous reshaping of a collaboration of information received through audience and context. This occurs online and offline in different ways.

Ultimately, this policy can never succeed because not only is identity in a state of constant flux and movement, but online interactions and offline interactions do not exist within the same sets of rules and boundaries.

Facebook’s influence over the internet, identity performance and social interactions cannot be ignored, so users should critically examine how their identity might be influenced by this massive social media utility. At the end of the day, users really only have three choices; accept Facebook’s radical transparency agenda and create a real-name Facebook profile, don’t create a Facebook profile and limit their social capabilities on the internet, or, create a profile under a fake name and risk the deletion of their account without warning from Facebook.


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