Categorized | happenings, social marketing

Has Facebook deported you to Fakebook?

Face it, folks. Facebook is becoming the Google of social networking. Like VHS or Microsoft Windows, it may not deserve its uncanny elevation into the Standard of Standards, Holy of Holies in the industry, but facts, ma’am, are facts. Still, it’s not like Facebook is earning the distinction through treating its members very well. In yet another ham-handed attempt at quality improvement, Facebook is deleting accounts of people with “fake” names. Or, at least, what it thinks are fake names.

Yes, it’s very nice to get the 300 George Lucas’s off the table, but a couple of those George’s are actually real George Lucas’s who have the good, or bad, fortune to share a name with the great bearded one.

So dozens of people — some of whom have piled up hundreds of friends and mountains of messages — are logging in this week to find their accounts are gone. Some of these Facebookers have been kicked off simply for having a “weird” name, like Susan Istanbul (that’s her real name, not a fake).

Since my name is “Hooker,” I know I’m a dead man walking on Facebook. I’m just waiting for this axe to fall because, well, I’ve been there, done that, gotten the t-shirt.

And I have a few sage words of good business advice for Facebook, the Star & Tribune, and everyone else out there trying to master how to interface with real, live human beings using a computer program.

But, first, a fun and frolicsome trip to virtual China.

Let me tell you what it’s like having a last name like “Hooker” and trying to do business in the People’s Republic of China. A place where, unlike Amsterdam, they don’t think highly of my people.

I have many old friends in the PRC, speak the language as poorly as humanly possible, and have been involved in dozens of PRC outsourcing projects for over a decade. Believe it or not, because of the Great Firewall surrounding and suffocating all things Internet in China, I can’t send any email into China if I use my real name, Richard Hooker.

I suspect the “Richard” part doesn’t really bug the Chinese.

The PRC won’t let me use my email account (because the user name is “richardhooker”), won’t let me use my signature line (because it says “Richard Hooker’), and, in fact, won’t let me use my last name anywhere in the email. Anywhere.

If I do, the Great Firewall simply vaporizes my email. I don’t get a bounce notice. The email doesn’t ricochet back into my inbox. It simply never arrives. Disappeared. Dumped in the ocean like a Pinochet protester.

Fortunately, I have never traveled to the PRC. I’m afraid my passport would vaporize.

Yeah, I know, that’s how dictators and communists think, right? Well, seven weeks ago, I signed up for an account with the Minneapolis Star & Tribune. First name, last name, user name, password, email. Simple enough. Look closely. At least three of those inputs had the word “hooker” in it, so when I hit the submit button, the Star & Tribune in its considerably less than infinite wisdom, returned an error message:

“One or more entries contains a filthy word.”

Yep, that’s right. The Star & Tribune called my last name “filthy.”

Not a high point in the annals of customer service.

Okay, I’m used to cashiers and waiters and whatever making the occasional comment. I laugh, they laugh. Often I just reply, “Yeah, I’m easy but I’m not cheap.” Laughs all the way around. Comes with the territory.

But, until I met the Minneapolis Star & Tribune, no-one ever had the unrusted rudeness to say my last name was “filthy.”

Even when I complained to a real-live human being, he shrugged his virtual shoulders and said there was nothing he could do. And then he suggested . . .

That I use a different name.

Okay, that’s now two customer service at-bats for And they’re so off the mark, they might as well be chopping wood. I could be holding the ball over the plate and they’d be a ballpark away from actually getting a hit.

So why can’t I use my real name on Because there was absolutely no way that the computer would allow a user with the name “Hooker.” No time. No how. No way. That’s how the system works. Got a filthy name? Out of luck.

Okay, I could have really gone for broke here. Since my first name is “Richard,” I could have signed up as “Dick Hooker.” Listen, in the world of filthy names, I got the E ticket, man! If only my parents had been clever enough to give me a middle name like “Peter” and I would’ve have won the name lottery!

Now, this is a serious blog and, believe it or not, this is a serious business issue. Really. Serious. Stop giggling.

When is a person’s name “wrong” for an online service, media outlet, or store? If Facebook deletes even one account because the name looks “fake” (or similar to another name — people with the name, “Susan Boyle,” are being removed, too), isn’t the benefit of removing fake Facebookers been completely overrun by being, well, nasty, boorish, and suspicious to even just one person?

I can understand why the Star & Tribune doesn’t want people using nasty language on their site. There are some last names, I will grant you, like F**k or S**t, that you never encounter in real life (I haven’t), so there’s a 100% chance you’re getting it right if you delete them. But there are also people with real, live, actual, god-given names like Hooker, Crapper, Crappy, Hashcooky, Krap, Cocker (remember Joe Cocker? How about John Lee Hooker?) Is “filthy” the right language to call names like this? And when you find out the name is legit, do you really want your computer programs to be the god squad in charge of your site?

There’s mistreating a customer and there’s mistreating a customer. A direct hit on someone’s name, like Facebook deleting “Susan Istanbul,” ranks pretty high on the scale. Should a computer really be in charge of making that decision?

Let’s put it this way (there’s a reason I started this discussion with the PRC): does Facebook and the Star & Tribune really want to model their online business practices after the Chinese Communists and their Great email-vaporizing Firewall? Shouldn’t the PRC be learning from us, not the other way around, when it comes to communication?

Here’s the takeaway if you’re mulling an online business:

The mistake Facebook and are making is that they put some parameters into their system, push a button, and saunter off to lunch. However, when you’re dealing with sensitive issues, such as whether or not you’re going to bust a customer in the chops based on their name, then it behooves you to put the issue in front of a real, live, thinking, feeling, breathing human being who takes responsibility for the decision. One with judgment, discretion, and something computers will never have — empathy. The algorithms function only to identify “fakes” and “filthies,” and call the issue to some person’s attention. That’s the first step, never the last. Simply put, a human being must always own a customer service decision. Always.

Your customers deserve nothing less.

I’ll call it the first rule of online business:

Computers don’t care about customers. All the programming, engineering, fuzzy logic, and artificial intelligence in the world can never make a computer care about a customer. Only people care about customers.

All too often, businesses like Facebook and the Star & Tribune hide behind their computer programs. It was the computer, not Facebook, that deleted your account or rejected your name. But, the fault really lies with the managers who decided to let the program run the show.

And the fancy marketing name for this? The one they teach you in those high-falutin’ MBA programs?


*Okay, today I received an apology (that’s good) from the president of for the unfortunate word choice (which he testily qualified: “I know what they were trying to say, and you do, too” — why can’t people just say “sorry” and be done with it? That, of course, is the subject of my second book on customer service which is about 2/3 done: The Five Words Every Business Should Know). But he really misses the point of what I’m saying here. The word choice (“filthy”) is poor, but there’s a much larger issue about abdicating customer service decisions to computers. Oh, well, if people had a lick of customer service common sense, I wouldn’t have publishers bidding up the advance on my second book.

**I must admit, I think “Susan Istanbul” is one of the coolest names I’ve ever come across.

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3 Responses to “Has Facebook deported you to Fakebook?”

  1. Kat says:

    Amen. I’m surprised you’ve survived this long.

    What amazes me is that they don’t even give people WARNING. Just zap! You’re gone!

    I hope some of this bad press gets them *thinking* some day.

  2. Jeff says:

    China firewall is lame, use water to put out the fire of the wall but how do you get over the wall? – use to bypass it. You can bypass China Great Firewall and access youtube, facebook, blogger and all other sites which are blocked.

  3. You have a great blog here and it is Nice to read some well written posts that have some relevancy…keep up the good work 😉


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