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Facebook is rethinking one of the platform's oldest and most closely held features: requiring users to use their real names. As part of its push into gaming — which this week includes a big push into cloud gaming — Facebook's allowing users to use "Player Names" and themed avatars rather than their real name and photo.
Users will be able to use their Player Names when they're in one of the new embeddable, shareable games rolling out on the platform. They'll also be able to use them in any game that enables Facebook Login for Gaming, which Facebook launched in September as a way to save progress and settings in a game across platforms. (It's Facebook's version of Apple's Game Center or Google Play Games.) Facebook wants to turn Facebook accounts into gamertags like the ones people go by on Xbox or PlayStation.
This is, for now, less a full-scale identity change for the platform and more a recognition of the fact that gamertags are a crucial part of gaming culture. (Good luck convincing Ninja to play as Tyler Blevins.) But it's nonetheless a big change for the company and an important statement about how the company sees online identity now.
One of Facebook's grandest ambitions is to become the identity layer for the internet. Facebook has spent years pushing hard to be users' one true account, the one that knows all their interests and friends and history and can log them in everywhere. That, of course, allows Facebook to follow people wherever they go, collecting data and serving them ultra-personalized ads. If people don't trust Facebook in their most sensitive, private moments, Facebook misses out. Facebook wants it all.
To do that, Facebook needed to learn that everybody has multiple identities on the internet. Who they are when they play games is often different from who they are on LinkedIn, on Tinder and on Facebook. Facebook can only underpin all those things if it acknowledges where people are the same, where they're different, and how they want to identify themselves.
Five years ago, Mark Zuckerberg made a much less nuanced case for identity. He said in a town hall Q&A that real names were crucial for keeping users safe. "We know that people are much less likely to try to act abusively towards other members of our community when they're using their real names," he said. It also makes Facebook simpler to use, he said, since users could search for someone by name and find them.
The first part of Zuckerberg's argument has long been debated. Using real names (and having a policy reason to take down fake ones) did make certain kinds of harassment easier to police, but it also made it easier for harassers to find their targets in the first place.
The question of even what qualifies as someone's "real" name has been tricky for Facebook to answer, too. "If your friends all call you by a nickname and you want to use that name on Facebook," Zuckerberg said, "you should be able to do that. In this way, we should be able to support everyone using their own real names, including everyone in the transgender community." But Facebook would require government ID to verify their identity, or shut accounts down for using nicknames. A group called the Nameless Coalition wrote in an open letter at the time that "Facebook's current process can put users who use a name other than their legal name for safety or privacy purposes in real danger."
The second part of Zuckerberg's thinking — that real names make people easier to find — is simply no longer the case. With 2.7 billion users, Facebook has long since required more than just a name to find someone. (A quick unscientific search of HowManyofMe revealed that I, for instance, am one of 1,994 David Pierces in the U.S. alone. Good luck finding me on Facebook.) Most other social platforms already rely on some combination of phone numbers and unique usernames. Even Facebook-owned properties like Instagram and Oculus have embraced alternate usernames, and in Instagram's case it's easy for people to have lots of different accounts. Recently, though, Facebook has pushed to reconnect everything under users' Facebook accounts. That's how Player Names will work, too: many names under one identity.
Facebook's not going all-in on anonymity, though. It's trying to thread a needle between that multiple-identity idea and the same kind of safety assurance its real name policy always promised. "My Player Name on Facebook is MadMac," said Jason Rubin, Facebook's VP of Play. "Mac was a dog of our family that passed away a couple weeks ago. So MadMac is completely glued to Jason Rubin. If I misbehave, Facebook always knows that MadMac is Jason Rubin, and anything that we can do to Jason Rubin can be done to MadMac. There is no anonymity, 100% not." If you meet someone in a game and want to be friends in real life, Rubin said, it's easy to expand that friendship to the rest of the Facebook universe. And if you break the rules in a game, Facebook still knows how to find you.
Allowing users to dole out pieces of their Facebook identity could be an important change, particularly for those looking to Facebook for more sensitive topics. Rubin mentioned the need for "tight pseudonymity" for someone wanting to join an AA group, for instance. The platform's "health support" groups have been important to many users during the pandemic, too, and people join groups for practically every aspect of life in 2020. Rubin made clear that the company is investigating a number of other places the new identity policy might be useful, and that gaming was just a relatively lower-stakes place to start. "There are some great places on Facebook to allow pseudonymity, for human health and for other things," Rubin said. "We just have to get it right."
David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.
Seth Schiesel ( @SethSchiesel) is a contributing editor for Protocol focused on the business of video games and adjacent industries. He is a former editorial writer for The Boston Globe, entrepreneur and business reporter, technology writer and video game critic for The New York Times.