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Why using your real name is (generally) better than anonymity

September 13, 2010

Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

Raise your hand if back in the day you used some cool-sounding screen name to identify yourself online a la Hackers. Yeah, I did, too. I’ll bet almost everyone did. I don’t really know why that was standard operating procedure except to say that for myself, I was a teenager and just wanted to sound cool.

These days, with a few exceptions, you’re much better off using your real name. The internet has suctioned itself onto the face of our lives to the point that it’s almost impossible to avoid. It’s the easiest and most efficient communication tool (e.g. Ah, shoot—I don’t have a business card on me. You know what? Just Google my name.) Despite that, a lot of people still use anonymous IDs to interact online. Here are a few reasons they (you?) should knock that off:

Your online ID is your meal ticket

You can be a person who doesn’t use the internet and that’s fine. But if that’s you, you’re not reading this blog post and it’s not meant for you anyway. The rest of you are here either to take or contribute something.

I’ve written before about how potential employers will—they will—Google you. There are three things you don’t want when this happens:

  1. You don’t want them to find five-year-old photos of you as a college freshman on Edward 40-Hands Night;
  2. You don’t want them to find someone else’s name and information;
  3. You don’t want them to find nothing.

I’ll spare you the paranoia about someone else stealing your identity via Facebook and WordPress. Owning your name online (literally [your URL] and figuratively [SEO]) is akin to always having your cover letter and résumé handy.

You’re not an a-hole

If you’re a mature adult, you’re not spamming message boards with drive-by comments or trying to start flame wars. I’m sure there’s some noble-ish argument to be made for 21st Century anarchism and the First Amendment, but even anarchists have day jobs. If you have to, use your real name some of the time and develop an alter-ego for when you need to wreak havoc.

You’re accountable to your real name—not so much with your fake ID

Easiest way to explain this: You’re reading two versions of the same news story. Version 1 uses “anonymous sources” to convey its information. Version 2 names names and lists their credentials. I won’t ask which you believe more—Version 2 has more credibility.

This isn’t to say that anonymous sources don’t have their place in journalism or that anonymous usernames don’t have their place online (more on that in a sec). I’m just saying that in the course of a Twitter conversation, for example, I’m unlikely to even reply to some goofbag whose avatar is Hong Kong Phooey and who doesn’t list any biographical or website information, versus someone who says This is who I am and this is where you can find me.

Like I said, though, there are exceptions.

Exception No. 1: You have an extremely common name

Guess what, John Smith, freshman journalism student at Upper-Central Kentucky State University/Hazzard County Campus? You probably aren’t ever going to rank anywhere near the first page of search results for “John Smith.” So if you come up with a unique name for your blog and use that as a username instead, that’s probably the smarter way to go.

Just be transparent about who you are, like this guy.

Exception No. 2: Your personal safety is at stake


Exception No. 3: You’re not at all trying to do anything with your name

Hey, I get it. It’s not like it’s insanely crucial that you be exactly who you are for your ongoing Star Trek Online quest. Or for your LOST fan-fiction posts. (I swear I have no alternate ID with regard to either of these things, but so wish I did.)

Like I said earlier, having an alter-ego is OK. But once you’re done slaying dragons or whatever-the-hell, it’s time to mouthwash the Cheeto dust away and put on a fresh shirt so you can interact with real people. Hell, half the fun with online role-playing games (some of which spill out of the confines of a single platform or site) is creating something/someone other than yourself and acting out that existence. Have fun with that. Just don’t make it everything you are.

What do you think?

Is being Paul Balcerak (or whomever) that valuable, or is whatever I say just as valuable and reliable if I say it as CWU_grad21567? Leave a comment.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. September 14, 2010 9:46 am

    Thanks, Paul, for following up on the Twitter conversation you and I and @MenWithPens had during Gnomedex.

    I’ve always spent a lot of time in worlds where pseudonyms and multiple identities are important and am not convinced that a “one true name” model is better for a lot of people. Whistleblowers, domestic violence survivors, transgendered people, anarchists and other activists whose day jobs are at companies who would fire them for their political beliefs, and many others all need pseudonymity — and it’s also valuable to authors, artists, DJs, women working in industries where there are significant pay or status differences, etc. etc. And your examples of “Hong Kong Phooey” and CWU_grad21567 overlook the possibilities for much more carefully crafted personas.


  2. September 15, 2010 4:20 am

    My advice would be to make anonymity a case-by-case decision. Most likely, it will turn out that some cases benefit from a real name, that some bring potential dangers when a real name is used, that some may allow putting a welcome distance to a group or otherwise partitioning ones life (similarly, in real life, there may be someone we love in the office, but do not want to invite home to sunday dinner), or similar.

  3. September 15, 2010 7:46 pm

    @jon- “DJs” is actually a really good point and one I had not considered: What if your pseudonym is more important than your real name? Way more people recognize Michael J. Fox than…whatever his real name is. And arguably, the Michael J. Fox’s of the world have gotten to a point where their pseudonyms are who they are, more than their original names.

    Is what I just described more or less what you were referring to when you mentioned “the possibilities for much more carefully crafted personas”?

    @Michael- I agree that there are cases when anonymity is useful or necessary (hence my “exceptions” headings). I completely agree with you and jon both with regard to domestic violence victims, political dissidents, etc. I’m speaking more to the Joe Twitter users out there who are on the fence about using their real names because they’re not sure if it’s normal or safe. I think for those people, the benefits of using your real name far outweigh the drawbacks.

  4. September 19, 2010 3:43 pm

    Sure — or FEMINIST HULK, Rose Selavy, the pseudoymous guy behind BPGlobalPR, MiniMSFT, Marilyn Monroe, unmaskd …

    On Twitter or MySpace, I usually advise people who aren’t sure about whether they want to use their name to start with a pseudonymous account or just list their first name. You can always change the name of the account later or create another one. On Facebook it’s trickier. Their term of use prohibit pseudonymous accounts and there’s no way to be anonymous. However even there I know plenty of people who use just their first name or some other pseudonym.

    Rereading this one of the things I notice is that you phrased it as a contrast between real names and anonymity. Pseudonymous identity is a valuable alternative. So I look at it pretty much like Michael does, on a case-by-case basis.

  5. September 23, 2010 6:44 am

    @jon @Michael- In the cases where a pseudonym is necessary (I’m thinking in terms of alternate ID here, not the “joke” accounts like BPGlobalPR, etc.) do you think it’s valuable to maintain a consistent pseudonym across various platforms? For example, your name is John Smith but you’re @FoodJournalist on Twitter, Food Journalist in comment threads, etc.

  6. September 25, 2010 2:52 am

    That would depend very much on the circumstances. For instance, if someone is trying to build an online image (even if detached from his real-life identity) this would obviously be the case. Similarly, if someone frequents several forums with partially the same visitors, it may be wise to use the same name. At the same time, the more accounts go by the same name, the greater the risk that the identity is inadvertently leaked. Further, mistakes made using one account may reflect poorly on the others, which can be avoided by using different names. (Consider throwing an online fit after receiving a hostile comment on a day when everything has gone wrong.)

    This too would be a case by case decision. Notably, it would be quite possible to have different identities in different subject areas (e.g. as FoodJournalist, AmateurPhotographer, and FatherOfThree).

  7. September 26, 2010 12:57 pm

    @Michael- I get the first part of what you said and I agree that under certain conditions, nothing short of 100 percent anonymity will do. I also agree with your last point—different IDs for different subject areas.

    However, I disagree with your “throwing an online fit” point, at least in the sense that it’s a “con” to maintaining a single online identity. This is why I brought up my point about accountability: An identity that you’ve built up and maintained has value (to you) and it’s a check against letting something like an “online fit” happen (we all have bad days, but we don’t need to publish them).

    Take Michael Arrington for example. He’s been known to dabble in the ethical gray area and yet, that’s part of who he is and the identity he’s cultivated. Having that reputation means I sometimes take his posts with a grain of salt, but because he’s a real guy and because his online identity is something that he stands to lose, I take him more seriously than some guy on a tech news message board who leaves no trail back to, say, a website, Twitter account, etc.

  8. September 28, 2010 4:03 am

    Well, the “online fit” issue will vary from person to person, including questions like integrity, self-control, general temperament, and similar. Notably, it is possible that someone is more susceptible to anger in certain areas (I, e.g., have a much shorter temper when discussing with gender-feminists than when discussing online identities—notwithstanding that I have never had a fit so far), and it could make sense to separate those areas, say one identity for political discussions and one for photography discussions. Here I agree that you have the right ideal (and your point about a single identity being a good incentive to think twice before posting is very good), but whether this is an ideal that everyone can live up to is another matter.

    Of course, online fits are just one example: Sweden just had elections, a new party with controversial opinions gained representation with almost 6 % of the vote, and the reactions have included a facebook campaign that anyone who voted for that party was no longer welcome as a “facebook friend”, a cafe with signs that explicitly forbade such voters from entering, and similar. Worse: Politically motivated violence directed at party members has repeatedly taken place during the last year. (Several of my recent blog entries deal with the Swedish election and contain more information.) In such situations, it could be wise for the active supporter to use a second identity, to not be (unfairly) discredited or attacked in his other roles. (In principle, I do believe that we should stand to our political opinions, but pragmatically some caution can be required. Remember, this is in Sweden—allegedly one of the most democratic and developed countries in the world.) Yet other examples can likely be found with a little brain-storming.

    As an aside, I have heard some people voice the opposite opinion of yours: It would be better to increase anonymity to the maximum so that e.g. each comment was made under the same name—in effect, everyone would be “some guy” and it would not even be clear which “some guy” wrote what comment. The idea is that if the reader cannot connect different comments, look into the past of the commenter, etc., then he is more prone to actually look at the pure arguments and judge a comment exclusively on its inherent merits (or lack thereof). This is not an idea that I subscribe to myself, but I do find it to be an interesting angle.

  9. September 28, 2010 8:19 am

    @Michael- That’s insanely interesting, especially since I find myself skimming through particularly long comment threads to the names I’m more familiar with. It may also be a way to improve people’s spelling and grammar. Identity aside, nothing drives me nuts more than a comment reply in ALL CAPS WITH BAD GRAMMAR TO!!! But that’s an entirely different post ;)

  10. Warlock Bloodaxe permalink
    September 29, 2010 11:11 pm

    I think I see what you’re getting at, but I want to know what your definition of “anonymous” is. Is it just a mechanism to avoid accountability, not going by the name with which you were born, or something else? You list a lot of exceptions and good reasons to stay anonymous, so I guess I’d like to know what it is that’s still, at the end of the day, worse off than your real name.

    Accountability is a big factor in the discussion, but I don’t see why a first and last name is automatically better. Especially online – where you’ll only encounter a small fraction of the people you read each day in real life – a name is just a symbol to which you assign meaning. Trust boils down to demonstrated performance over time, and if Mugen_8475 has a track record of insightful/thought provoking commentary, why shouldn’t I listen to him/her over media blogger Joe Fitzpatrick? Some of the arguments I hear (not necessarily from you) sound an awful lot like old media trying to explain why they’re better than blogs, except “I use my real name, that’s just some coward hiding behind a pseudonym!” instead of “We’re the news company, he’s just some guy in a basement!” Anonymity tends to keep people accountable, and it would be a shame to throw that away and repeat the cycle of what’s happened to journalism over the past 40 years.

    (By the way: Michael J. Fox was born Michael Andrew Fox, but put the J in as an homage to Michael J. Pollard. “Michael Fox” was already registered with the SAG, and he needed something different.)

  11. October 5, 2010 9:39 pm

    @Warlock- You’ve put very elegantly what I (thought I) tried to describe in my post: “Trust boils down to demonstrated performance over time….”

    My post was/is largely targeted toward journalists and people to participate in the general news conversation, which I think is self evident because of the focus of my blog, but I do admit that in this post, I may have cast a wider net than usual.

    When I’m imagining this ideal scenario, I’m pushing for true social media that isn’t just confined to the internet. Arguably, online communities that are tied to news sites are much more useful if people are able to take what they learn from the news and use that to take action in real life (e.g. voting, volunteering, etc.).

    I respect the exceptions that I and other commenters in this thread have carved out, but they do have one problem: they’re not portable to the real world. If you’re trying to remain anonymous in the sense we’re talking about, you’re confined to the internet and, exceptions aside, I don’t think that’s ideal. (We could get into communicating via encoded JPEG images and sly usernames, but that’s an entirely different tangent.)

    Old Media does tend to get up on its high horse with this argument—I, for one, think a Tweet can be just as valuable as a letter to the editor and refer back to what you said about trust built up over time—but I’ll concede that there’s something inherently trustworthy about a person using his or her real name. I think maybe it’s a token of trust to one’s audience, kind of like how cops in movies always openly disarm themselves before heading into a hostage negotiation (bad analogy?). Think about it like this: If you were looking over résumés and you saw Joe Smith, Jane Carter, ostrich_guy413, Phil Johnson…, which one would you skip over the fastest? OK, yeah, we’d all look at this apparent ostrich lover, but not to hire him.

  12. October 5, 2010 11:22 pm

    Great discussion … my belated reply to the question about whether to prefer a single pseudonymous online identity is the same as Michael’s: it depends on the circumstances and goals. For example I know a lot of people who are don’t want their political activism linked back to their jobs or families, but at the same time want to share pictures of their kids on Facebook (or wherever) with their relatives, and want to do networking on LinkedIn. There isn’t any good way to do that with a single persona.

    And it seems to me that different personas are indeed portable to the real world. A lot of people do that to some extent: our work persona is rarely identical to our family persona, and many people have professional names that are somewhat different than the names that their closest friends call them. Going farther and trying to keep them completely separate is a more work, but not all that hard to do.

    > “Trust boils down to demonstrated performance over time….”

    Yes and no. We often have to make very short-term decisions about trust without the benefit of demonstrated performance over time and a lot of different factors go into it. This has been studied a lot in the computer security world and also from a pscyhological standpoint. Experienced social engineers can create profiles that a lot of people are very willing to trust.



  13. October 20, 2010 12:28 pm

    In Restructure!’s post on The ethics of comment moderation she talks about some of the abusive mail she gets, and adds this parenthetical comment …

    (Dear Journalists: This is why bloggers from marginalized groups want to use pseudonyms. If I blogged under my real name, I would probably quit blogging by now.)

    Naturally I thought of this thread :-)


  14. October 20, 2010 12:30 pm

    Then again my last comment — for some reason appearing under my name as opposed to jdp23 — also reinforces Paul’s point: the way software is constructed today, it’s a heck of a lot easier to have a single identity. Funny how that works.

  15. October 28, 2010 11:59 am

    @jonpincus- Sorry — it’s taken me forever to reply to your comment and I apologize.

    Anyway, thanks for posting that link. That post brings up something that I didn’t explicitly bring up, but that I think goes with my “for your personal safety” exception: bigotry. I’ve been called some pretty mean things in my time as a journalist (most recently “asshat”) but, being a middle-class white guy, I can’t even pretend to know what it would be like to be called an f-word, n-word, etc., and I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone using a pseudonym to avoid that kind of abuse.

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