When I interviewed Mark S. Zuckerberg, I immediately thought that he was a charming, polite guy. When he talked, he did so with a typically Midwestern drawl. He has raised a large family and has a massively successful bankruptcy law practice in Indianapolis, and is widely regarded as an expert in his field. Searching YouTube with the query ‘Mark Zuckerberg Indiana’ brings up countless media interviews and appearances.
He also has no connection to the Facebook founder, other than his name and his Jewish heritage.
“I used to speak across the country, and people would say my name and know who I was, and now I’ve lost my entire identity”.
Since the rise of Facebook, and the thrusting of the founder into the public eye, Mark S. Zuckerberg has found him being confused for his socially awkward, sweatshirt donning namesake on a daily basis. He cringes whenever he hears the all-too-familiar phrase ‘are you that guy’?
“Whenever I call my credit card company and they ask for my name, they hang up because they think I’m playing a prank… I was taking a flight and I went through security, and I had to show them my ID and the guy looks at me and says ‘Oh my God!’, he goes ‘Are you him?’, and I’m like ‘Do you think I’d be flying Southwest Airlines if I was him?’”
Mark S. Zuckerberg has completely lost his identity. Tragically, for someone who has built a career upon honesty and integrity, he has seen his last name being turned into a pejorative that describes especially underhanded behaviour, ‘Zuckerberging’.
Mark Zuckerberg Couldn’t Get A Facebook Account
For Mark, getting a Facebook account was by no means a trivial task. On the basis of him sharing a name with the founder, he had to send off copies of his birth certificate, driver’s license and even his Indiana bar association certificate just to even open an account. The process dragged on so long and was so tedious, he even had to go as far as to threaten legal action.
He thought that he was done. He’d jumped through all the hoops, and now was the proud owner of a Facebook account.
The summer of 2011, Mark Zuckerberg found his Facebook account deactivated with no explanation. He’d been banned on Facebook.
“Usually, I’ll come into work and I’ll log onto my computer and I’ll open my Email account and it always tells me how many messages you have. And if you get a message on Facebook, it sends it to your regular email account. Usually I have four or five hundred messages from people thinking I’m the other guy. I only had a couple of messages that day and I thought ‘gee, that’s kinda odd. There’s nothing from Facebook today.’
I tried to log into my Facebook account, and it was deactivated because it said I was an imposter.”
Mark, however, had a trick up his sleeve. He happened to share an office building with a major local paper, the Indianapolis Star.
“I said to one of the reporters ‘Hey do you want to hear a funny story?’, and he wrote an article about it. And soon enough, every single news station in the city was outside my office. Then it went on all the national news websites, and then it went international. And then I was being interviewed all around the country. After three days, they reinstated my account with an apology”.
I asked Mark if he felt isolated and disconnected in those three days he was banned from Facebook.
“I think I’ve only really posted about three things the entire time I’ve been on Facebook. I only really use it to keep track of my kids.”
An All Too Familiar Tale
Fortunately for Mark, his usage of Facebook was so confined to surveiling his children that the impact of being banned on Facebook was limited. That said, his story isn’t unusual. Every year, ordinary people find that their social media presence completely excised.
The role of social networking and social media in our society is so significant that being exiled from it is sort of like when Romeo was banished to Mantua. Users who have been banned have to endure being isolated from significant events in the lives of their loved ones. They miss out on baby photos. They miss out on being invited to birthdays, christenings and bar mitzvah’s. They don’t get invited to parties, and they miss out on watching their nieces and nephews growing up.
Quite frequently, banned Facebook users don’t realize why they’ve had their accounts deactivated. Facebook is particularly infamous for not being forthright with the reasoning behind why they deactivate accounts besides vague statements about policies and terms being breached.
When researching this story, I spoke to people who had the sheer misfortune to find themselves on the wrong side of Facebook. They told me of the feelings of isolation they felt when they found their accounts deactivated. They told me of what it felt like to suddenly become undesirable in the eyes of this social networking behemoth, and find themselves losing old friends. They told me what it’s like to be helpless, and to not be able to rectify their situation.
“After the dust settled, I realised that I wasn’t comfortable with using a service where this could happen”
Dan is an Oxonian in an ‘open, V-shaped, non-monogamous relationship’, who enjoys playing board games and lives in a house called Isis (but he calls it Earth) which has its own web page.
For his day job, he writes code that manages the administration of charities and maintains the websites of the Bodlean Library at Oxford University. He is a trustee of an LGBT helpline charity, where he is also a listener.
He also has a rather unusual last name. So unusual, that only two people in the world share it; Himself and his ex-partner (although, by his own admission she is considering changing it by deed poll to “Quantum”).
That last name is a single letter. Q.
“We’d talked about changing our name for years without coming up with a name for ‘us’, because we were both quite indecisive. Eventually, I suggested that we consider a single letter surname, because that cuts down the choices to just 26. Then we went through the alphabet and did it”.
Facebook Didn’t Like My Surname
Dan sent us the image above in a smaller size, having posted it on his website claiming this is what he saw on Facebook when he was banned. The visible BR tags make the image seem less than authentic, but this is what Dan says he saw.
Around November 2011, four years after changing his surname by deed poll, he found that his Facebook account had been disabled.
“I’d never had any trouble with my unusual name on Facebook. My ex- and I both updated our Facebook profiles on the day that we wrote out our deeds poll. Hers went through faster, and I wrote an email to Facebook to ask them to hurry up and process it faster.
Then, four and a half years later, I found that I couldn’t log in any more. A check from a friend’s account showed that I was still visible as “active” on Facebook, but messages sent to me disappeared into a black hole (the sender was led to believe that I was still “there”).
The worst bit for me was that Facebook were now, without warning, “pretending” to be me. “
A Slow And Painful Process
Facebook are not particularly renowned for their transparency when it comes to enforcing perceived infractions of their terms of service. People who find themselves on the wrong side of the administrators often find themselves wondering why they’re unable to connect with their friends and family.
This is something which Dan learned of first hand.
“Facebook’s process was opaque and confusing, and it seemed as if their own staff didn’t know what their policies were or how to enforce them. And man, were they SLOW! If you’re gonna go around banning accounts, don’t do it at a faster rate than you can reactivate them if it turns out that you made a mistake!
It took several weeks to regain access to my account, navigating the maze of (different each time I tried to log in, it seems) forms. I uploaded a scan of my driving license, and then later my passport, and each time I received a useless email back from Facebook staff. Eventually, after much harassment, they re-enabled my account. I got a half-hearted apology, but I’d rather they’d have just, you know, contacted me to ask me to prove my identity FIRST, with a deadline before they deactivated my account, rather than the other way around!”
A Social Black Hole
Dan’s forced exile from Facebook caused significant personal hardship, and resulted in him being excluded from social activities and from the significant events in his friends’ life.
“To have a profile on there that I can’t USE was worse than having no profile at all! Because people assumed that I was there. I remember that – after it was all over – I discovered that I’d missed an invitation to a party because a friend had sent me a Facebook Event invitation… which I’d never received. If Facebook had simply told my friend that I wouldn’t get the message, that would have done, but their “black hole” was in full effect. It was frustrating and alarming to feel that one company on the other side of the world had such power over my social life.”
I asked Dan if his being banned on Facebook had any implications for his professional life.
“As a software developer, I’ve often needed to have a Facebook account in order to test integration features on websites I’ve made… I just made a Facebook account with no friends and not under my real name.”
Facebook Is A Walled Garden
I asked Dan if he thinks people are too dependent on Facebook.
“Some people, certainly, seem a little dependent on Facebook to socialise, but I think I’m pretty lucky in that my friends aren’t too bad for it. When I closed my account for good, I had just 103 “friends”, which I gather is quite a small number. I sometimes hear people at work wittering on about Facebook, but based on the conversations, I’m pretty sure I’m not missing anything (and they all take care to show me pictures of all of their cats doing cute things regardless).”
When speaking to Dan, you can gather that he’s lost a lot of the affection he at one point held for Facebook.
“I’ve never really liked walled-garden social media: it goes against the spirit of the web. I still miss the convenience of being able to pounce people on Facebook Chat during the workday. I’m still on virtually all of the other IM networks most of the damn time, but some folks only do IM via Facebook Chat”.
“I don’t trust Facebook Anymore”
Amber (Not her real name) is a 30-something from Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. She has spent the past five years working in social media consultancy for large international organizations and agencies, helping clients create, manage and understand their social media presence.
She is a self-professed geek, cat owner and roller derby obsessive and has spent the past 15 years or so curating friendships and relationships through the Internet. Many of these friendships are especially far-flung ones, with people living as far afield as North America, South-East Asia and Europe.
Amber joined Facebook in 2007 when the site was still very much in its infancy. Upon becoming a member, she found that it was a nice, centralized repository for all of her friendships where everyone was easily reachable.
She also spent a significant amount of time playing Facebook games where she accumulated points and high scores.
“As an early adopter not a lot of my friends were on Facebook to start with. It was really easy to connect with folks you didn’t know and meet you people. I developed a couple of really good friends out of that. I also used to play a lot of games, the dating sort of ones like ‘OWNED’ and also things like Fluff friends and a lot of things that came before the Farmville era. Some of these games I built up a 2 year history on – things like Owned I had millions of ‘dollars’ (not real money, virtual Owned currency). I’d had spent small amounts in credits on some other apps, nothing major, I wanted to support the app developers and also to have more fun. Over time I did add more RL (real life) friends and came to rely on it as a way to communicate with them.”
In late 2009, Amber tried to log on to her Facebook account. Upon doing so, she discovered that it had been suspended and she was unable to access her account. To this day, she still doesn’t know why.
“Facebook weren’t forthcoming with that information – other than to feed me a stock answer about ‘gaming the system’ they would not enter into correspondence with me about this or provide a reason to my specific case and nor would they reinstate the account. I was locked out of the account with no prior warning or information to rectify the situation.”
With her account disabled and with no way of restoring it, she found herself disconnected from her friends and family.
Getting banned from facebook almost cost me my job
The decision to deactivate her Facebook account had serious implications for her professional life too. As someone who has built a career in social media, having her Facebook account arbitrarily and summarily deleted was nothing short of catastrophic. I asked Amber about the impact being banned from Facebook had on her professional career.
“It had a massive impact. I was contracting at the time with a massive global company who I had set up their first pilot page on Facebook. Nobody else could access that page. It had to be abandoned. That risked both my reputation and that of the organization. In addition to that I was admin of many other pages from my previous job (the business unfortunately closed down) – as most of those already had alternate admins and I was in the process of handing them over fully, they disappeared for a while but apparently Facebook had the good sense to reinstate them.”
I just created a new account.
When talking to Amber, you get a palpable understanding of the impact of being excluded from the world’s biggest social networking site.
The decision of Facebook to deactivate Amber’s account didn’t stop her from rejoining Facebook. Shortly after discovering that her account had been deactivated, she simply opened a new account. Trying to reason with Facebook’s staff was fruitless, and she had reached the end of her patience.
“I just created a new account. It’s fairly easy, really. Many people can have the same name and one person can use alternative IP addresses, so the only unique identifier that Facebook is able to use is your email address (and then, of course, your vanity URL/username). Email addresses aren’t hard to come by, so I used an alternative one for a new account.”
One thing that is immediately apparent when talking to her is the depth of her distrust for Facebook. Despite reactivating an account under a pseudonym, she no longer obsessively plays Facebook games like she used to and she no longer purchases virtual currency.
“Facebook lost its lustre at that point. The reason I’ve never played games again is because I’d built up so much virtual cache that I was totally disheartened… It wasn’t worth it. It just wasn’t worth it. I had in-game and real life friends so many levels beyond me that I’d never catch up and be able to play with them any more”.
“In total, I’ve been on Facebook about 5.5 years – about 3.5 in my current incarnation. So, this Timeline style they released last year isn’t a true reflection of my entire Facebook existence. I don’t add any milestones because I can’t be bothered if it can just be deleted on their whim. I don’t add anything that I might want to save for posterity unless it’s safely saved elsewhere.”
I asked Amber if she was ever able to access her original account. “I never did”, she said. I then asked her if she feels upset about what happened, and how she feels about Facebook in the years since, she had this to say.
“If you’re not paying for something, you are the product. You pay for your phone and the service, but you don’t pay for Facebook. I lost a lot of longtime old friends. There were some folks I had been in touch with online for ten years, but our old forums sort of died out with the advent of Facebook, so we migrated to being friends there. When I lost the old account, I lost friends. I wish I could find them again, but I’ve found that impossible with no other existing connection to them. I think of them often.”
An Error In The System
In some respects, you can understand why Facebook often makes such massive errors. It has a user base of over five hundred million and only five thousand employees. It’s the single largest social networking site in the world. Its biggest rival, Twitter, has only a quarter of a billion users.
As a result, you can almost understand why they make mistakes. It must be hard policing a community of half a billion. You can almost forgive their tendency to shoot first and ask questions later.
With that said, though, there is some serious room for improvement when it comes to how Facebook handles suspected perceived breaches of their terms of service.
When speaking to Mark and Dan, I noticed that Facebook were prepared to suspend their account despite having personally spoken to representatives of Facebook and provided them with information pertaining to their true identity.
As a result of having gone to such efforts, they really should never have been in the position of having their Facebook account deleted.
It’s also completely unacceptable that Dan and Amber have yet to get their Facebook accounts reactivated, and Mark was only able to get his account reinstated after speaking to the media. Indeed, Mark was only able to speak to the media as a result of his story being particularly unusual on the basis of sharing his first and last names with one of the world’s youngest billionaires.
One also questions the effectiveness of Facebook’s ability to block suspected fraudulent users. In spite of having their accounts deleted, both Dan and Amber were able to open new ones with minimal fuss.
Mark and Dan were told that their accounts were suspended for suspected false identities. In the case of Mark, it was as a result of sharing a name with the founder of Facebook, and in the case of Dan, his account was suspended on the basis of having a last name that is shared with only one other person.
However, Amber still has no idea why her account was removed. If Facebook is prepared to enforce its terms of service, it should be prepared to inform people with no ambiguity of their suspected offence.
Dire Consequences For An Administrative Error
The one thing that stuck out for me when speaking to Amber was how catastrophic being removed from Facebook could be.
Her suspension almost derailed a social media campaign for a large, multinational company. It resulted in her losing some of her oldest friends. It resulted in a loss of trust in an institution which almost all of us use to handle our social interactions.
If an administrative error on a website can result in someone losing old friends and potentially losing their professional reputation, we should be questioning the role that Facebook has in our lives, and if we’re too dependent on it.
We reached out to Facebook and asked them to comment on this story. When asked how they identify breaches of their terms of service, they said
“People report content or accounts to Facebook via the reporting links you can find on every page of Facebook. After you submit a report, Facebook will investigate the issue and determine whether or not the content should be removed based on Facebook’s policies”.
They also said that their policies for dealing with people who breach their TOS depend on the particular rule broken.
“If a content violates our policies then we will remove it. For example if a photo breaks our nudity guidelines we would remove it and let the person who posted it know. If someone is using Facebook under a false identity then we remove the profile.”