July 29, 2008

Facebook Still Banning Aliases to Avoid Becoming Fakebook

That Facebook has an itchy trigger finger when banning users or applications for assumed wrongs is not new or a mystery. People have been kicked off the site for adding friends too quickly, for using fake names, or trying to export data from the walled garden social network. And Facebook's adherence to this policy, especially when it comes to pseudonyms, puts them at odds with just about every other popular Web service out there. Just last night, a former colleague of mine, and now a Web friend, found himself on the outside looking in.

Vicky Chaudry (or Chau), whom I worked with at my current company from 2002 to 2005, is now the founder and CEO of StartupNewz, a Digg-like service focused on startup and technology news. To better highlight his immersion into Web 2.0 and social networking, Vicky took to calling himself Vic Podcaster, a name which has served him well, on LinkedIn, where he has more than 500 connections, on Twitter, where he is followed by more than 1,150, and on FriendFeed, where he follows almost 1,300. His pseudonym also didn't seem to stop his ability to get into the recent TechCrunch August Capital party (see pictures on Flickr) or the F8 afterparty for Facebook developers last week.

But eight months after opening a Facebook account under his name, Vic Podcaster, Vicky tried to log in to the service last night, to find his account had been disabled, "because the name it was registered under was a fake". Amusingly, this screen is surrounded by a note that "Everyone can join", and doesn't offer any kind of helpful link to challenge the ruling.

In the FriendFeed discussion that ensued after Vicky told everyone he had been banned, the once-banned Robert Scoble said, "Facebook sucks for just this reason.", while Jesse Stay suggested "One thing Facebook does still need to do, but I argue this is a minor thing, is make sure a human is reviewing disabled accounts before they get disabled."

Vicky's clearly not the only person using an alias on Facebook today. My high school acquaintance Bill Parnell is going by the name of Biznill Parnorell. There's even a user who friended me by the name of Daily Contempt. Surely that's not their given name?

I've been giving a lot of thought of late to the migration away from nicknames and more toward real names, especially as people are taking ownership of their blog posts, microupdates and comments across the Web. In most cases, users of apps like Facebook and FriendFeed are using their own given names, first and last, unless the user name is already taken. Facebook clearly didn't like Vic's changing his name to "Vic Podcaster", although LinkedIn, Twitter, FriendFeed and GMail had no problems with it. But what constitutes fake? If Robert Scoble changed his login to Robert Scobleizer, would he be banned again? And while Michael Arrington uses his real name on Facebook, its the TechCrunch brand he's aligned with on Twitter. What if he went by Michael TechCrunch on Facebook? Grounds for banning?

Vic Podcaster Still Lives On LinkedIn

Aliases aren't the only reason you can get banned from Facebook, of course. Scoble was banned for using an early version of Plaxo software, and many have been banned for spam-like behavior. Alex Hammer, who I've written about before, e-mailed me three weeks ago, saying, "I'm working to get reinstated back into Facebook because I added too many friends too quickly." In their defense, he adds, he was warned.

So who's right here? Is Facebook wrong to stop people from using aliases, or are the other sites that have more permissive rules the ones who are making the mistake? Should Facebook have waited eight full months before banning Vicky? Couldn't they tell by his activity on the site that he's a real person with real connections? It seems to me at the very least, a human should have reached out to him and offered a way to change his last name to get it within guidelines.