It's late afternoon, and you're clicking around on Facebook. Then you stumble upon a person who appears to be Facebook friends with many of your mutual friends. This person is active on Facebook, posting links, videos, images and status updates. Still, something just seems off. A bit more digging reveals that this user isn't a real person. But Facebook hasn't noticed. Sound familiar?
"Facebook has always been based on a real name culture," a Facebook spokesperson says to me via email. "We fundamentally believe this leads to greater accountability and a safer and more trusted environment for people who use the service." But what if you need to maintain a fake profile for personal, professional, security or creative reasons?
Fake Facebook Profile #1: When Full Disclosure Isn't An Option
Chicago-based performance artist Daaimah Mubashshir maintains two Facebook profiles: one for her current self, which includes her theater work, and another for her "old" self. She is currently working on a show called "The Untangling at the Junction," which delves directly into issues about being black and queer in an Islamic environment, and it's something she prefers not to share with people from her past. (Full disclosure: Daaimah and I worked together about a year ago on a sketch comedy show "Aqua and Baum is Broke as Hell.")
"My old/asexual profile is full of extended family, religious people from my childhood and work colleagues who are unfamiliar with my theater work," she says. "I came to the decision that now, while I am in the development mode for these projects, it is not the time to be responding to comments or fielding questions about sensitive topics."
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will never live down his statement about how, if he were to recreate Facebook today, user information would be public by default. Sure, he backpedaled on that later and adjusted Facebook's privacy settings, but that statement pretty much sums up his understanding of sensitive, personal information that people post.
"Facebook and Google are not at all interested in recreating identity," says Mubashshir. "I think that these are businesses profiting from data gathering, so the identity piece is just a selling point to keep its users interested. Sure they could approach things differently but why would they when we give them what they want for free now?"
Fake Facebook Profile #2: The Importance of a Pen Name
Chicago-based writer Jerry Brennan has two Facebook profiles - oh wait, three, actually. When he first joined Facebook, Jerry was just himself. "It didn't occur to me to have another for awhile," he says. That was, until he published a book and started blogging under his pen name, Alfonso Mangione. But that was years before he set up his own Facebook profile.
"Indeed, in the course of getting my book reviewed, writing reviews for other peoples' books, blogging, and generally trying to keep an active online presence, I ended up knowing several people only through my pen name," says Brennan. And so Alfonso's Facebook profile was born. He is a "real" person, he has published a book, and he regularly communicates with his friends.
"Alfonso Mangione also ended up becoming a different persona, someone who would do and say things I wouldn't do or say--hopefully entertaining, and something to live up my friends' Facebook feeds, but he can be an ass at times."
Brennan also sees the importance of developing an online following. "We [writers] need to get an audience before we can get an audience." His third fake Facebook profile is Muamar Gadhafi, but that didn't end up as Brennan intended.
"I read about the Bronx Zoo's Cobra's rapid ascension in number of followers, and the various dead bin Ladens, and figured I'd have a go at it myself...except Gadhafi didn't really take off like either of them, so I really wouldn't mind if they killed him off." (Full disclosure: I am reading Jerry's latest manuscript, "Resistance," a World War II mystery of sorts.)
Fake Facebook Profile #3: Just For Laughs...
Baumshaquita Siegel is a 20-something Jewigga wannabe famous rap star from the northern suburbs of Chicago. She spends her days frying chicken at Harold's Chicken Shack, and her evenings either being a Lupe Fiasco wannabe or hanging out with her granny at their shared apartment in the orthodox Jewish West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago.
As believable as this sounds, however, Baumshaquita (Baum for short) is not a real person. She is a sketch comedy character that I created and sometimes refer to as my "alter ego."
I thought about creating a Twitter account for Baumshaquita (@shitbaumsayz), but she said more than just "shit." Plus, all of Baum's "friends" were on Facebook. Because of Facebook's easy comment threads, she had a few very memorable conversations. One time she not-so-subtly hit on the person that I (Alicia) was dating. Another time she lamented the homelessness problem near her place of work. Baum is a general disrupter and Internet loudmouth, frequently calling out to all her "wiggas" who also chill on Facebook.
Baum is also a stereotype, simultaneously poking fun at herself and the idea of "wiggers," which urbandictionary.com defines as "a male Caucasian, usually born and raised in the suburbs that displays a strong desire to emulate African-American Hip Hop culture and style through 'bling' fashion and generally accepted 'thug life' guiding principles." Baum stayed on Facebook long after the show ended, making new friends and annoying old ones. She knows a lot of folks that I (Alicia) don't.
Fake Facebook Profile #4: The Anonymous Security Professional
Fellow ReadWriteWeb Writer David Strom spoke with his friend who works as a security professional. Because of the sensitive nature of this person's job, they maintain a number of Facebook profiles. This person was happy to answer questions anonymously.
"As a security professional, I needed to experience Facebook usage, controls, and risks first-hand," this person writes. "However, I do prefer to keep my personal and business life separate. Moreover, if my Facebook account were to be targeted by those who might get a kick out of hacking a security professional, I didn't want to expose my personal contacts to social engineering." This person's Facebook friends are entirely personal, and limited to people with whom they want to stay in close contact.
Interestingly, this same person maintains a real Twitter handle for business, and Facebook and Twitter personas exclusively for a charity. "In that case, uniform messaging is important, perhaps even essential. I just use both to extend marketing reach, other charities tend to follow us on Twitter, while individuals tend to 'like' us on Facebook."
Fake Facebook Profiles #5: An 8-Year-Old Facebook Game Player
"My teenage daughter used to use a fake profile to help her garner more points in games," says ReadWriteWeb's Community Manager Robyn Tippins. "When she tired of it, my then 8-year-old son took it over to play Facebook games."
I'm not going to reveal that fake Facebook profile's name. Surprisingly, Facebook has never noticed it.
"Ironically," says Robyn, "Facebook has twice shut down the 14-year-old's real account mistakenly. So the one who complies with the terms of service has twice been shut down and reinstated."
Meanwhile, the other profile still lives - and Robyn's son is now 9-years-old.
How To Play By Facebook's Rules
Angela Motola-Donofrio, owner of Free Spirit Yacht Cruises Inc., says she, too, has multiple Facebook accounts. But of all the people I spoke to, Angela is the only person who handles multiple accounts in the Facebook way.
Angela opened her personal Facebook account in December 2007, but didn't do anything with it until the summer of 2008.
"I noticed people were posting pictures of their Free Spirit Yacht Cruises events on their pages and that got me interested in Facebook," she says. "Once I started posting pictures and sharing with family and friends, I found it was easier than email and more fun. I do have Free Spirit clients as friends because I didn't have a business or group page in the beginning, and a lot of our clients come back year after year and they are like friends."
Angela did open a group page and a business page, but is now trying to get rid of the group page and focus only on the business page. "We like to share photos, blog posts, events, fun facts, videos on our business page," she writes. "It's not as interactive as we would like but still feel it's a great resource for potential and existing clients."
She also does not see Facebook as a reflection of who she is, which is more in line with who adults are using Facebook. "I have been using it more as a communication tool sharing experiences, photos...I believe in authenticity," Angela says. "You should be able to have different handles, but people should know who you are."
Facebook, Data and You
When I started writing this article, I was hoping Facebook would consider talking with me about the multi-faceted idea of identity in online communities. A Facebook spokesperson would have none of that, however.
"We require personal Profiles (Timelines) to be owned and run by a real-life person," a Facebook spokesperson told me. "It's against our terms of service to create more than one personal Profile. Instead, we encourage people to create a Page in order to establish a second presence on Facebook. Pages allow an organization, business, celebrity, band, pet or other entity to maintain a presence on Facebook."
Jerry Brennan works as a data manager by day, and he understands Facebook's "data mindset."
"If you have a table behind the scenes called 'Users,' you want each record in the table to represent one person, and you don't want any person to have more than one record, otherwise your database is not an accurate depiction of reality, and all sorts of craziness can ensue. It's the same reason we so jealously guard our social security numbers."
Facebook will also stick to its real-world name policy because it makes money off of ads which rely on real eyes from real, living people. If Facebook is populated by fake handles, pen names, sketch comedy characters, kids playing games, and security workers just trying to stay anonymous, well, Facebook's ad numbers will not be as accurate.
Will anyone actually abide by Facebook's rules? That is up to its users.