Pseudonymity and the Internet

· geek · blogging ·

Over the past few months there has been a resurgence of arguments about anonymity and pseudonymity1 on the internet, sparked off by Google Plus’ faintly ridiculous policy of requiring ‘Real Names’, where their idea of a Real Name is somewhat narrow and excludes many names real people have on their birth certificates. As someone who has participated and interacted online under a pseudonym for nearly 9 years, I obviously have a keen interest in this debate.

A lot of very intelligent people have written eloquently on this topic, and a whole site called My Name is Me has sprung up, featuring testimonies from people who — for many different reasons — wish to use a pseudonym online. For example, danah boyd wrote about the importance of pseudonyms for women, young people, victims of violence and abuse and LGBT people, among others. Kee Hinkley wrote a long and very interesting piece covering many issues raised by the policy and the general debate. I’m not going to attempt to rehash the whole argument about why Google is misguided, since so many other people have done it so well, but I wanted to write a bit about my own use of a pseudonym.

I’ve written before about why I chose not to use my real name in a post on Anonymity. The thing is, that was back in 2004: over time if you use your pseudonym liberally and consistently, it becomes as real and substantial as your ‘real’ identity. It has a life intermeshed tightly with your own life. As Kee put it:

I have a pseudonym I use on the Internet. It has a blog, a paid Flickr account, a YouTube account, over 1000 Twitter followers, over 40,000 tweets (that's about 1000 pages of writing). It has its own domain name, and three years worth of 50,000 Google references associated with it (twice as many as I have under this name). Why does that account, with it's obvious pseudonym, have less accountability than some guy named "John Smith" who lists no location, links to no other info, and shows no connections to any other people on the Internet? My persona lives and dies on reputation alone.

I’m in a similar position on a smaller scale. I’ve been posting online as bsag for nearly 9 years (next month), I tweet, post photographs, comment on other people’s articles, have developed open source software and so on, all under that name. In contrast, the material linked to my real name is very minimal and exclusively linked to my work (which is a very small part of me and my interests and enthusiasms). If you met me in real life (a few people who read this blog have), I think (and hope) that I would be pretty much the same as the person you know from my writing. I’m slightly shy in person so I tend to come across as a bit more confident in written form, but otherwise what you see here is what you get. I didn’t adopt a different persona along with my pseudonym — this is me. I try to treat people with civility and respect in person, and I do the same online.

In fact, I’m a little bit more me online. I like the act of communicating through writing, and I express myself better like this than I do talking in person because of my slight shyness. I’m also interested in lots of different things, many of which (particularly the geekier interests) are not actually shared with my friends in real life. If I start enthusing about computers or hifi or even music to many of my friends, I can see their eyes start to glaze over, so I stop, not wanting to bore them to death. I’m sure that most of you who read this blog aren’t interested in all the things that interest me or vice versa, but I can write about that here because I’m not imposing these things on you. You can choose to read or not, and I take no offence at all if you decide a particular article (or indeed my whole blog) is not for you. On the other hand, if you do find something interesting, we can both enjoy sharing and discussing it.

I’ve come to think of bsag as a semi-secret nickname, and have even caught myself using it in my own head to refer to myself2. So why is that not every bit as valid as my real name?

  1. The ’nymwars’ ↩︎

  2. Is that odd? Probably a bit. I have to be careful not to use it out loud. ↩︎