What sort of trail do you leave online? Do you comment as yourself? Do you think that using only the first initial of your last name, like John S., doesn’t link to you? Do you use a profile picture? Be honest: do you have any idea how many times you’ve left your real name on the internet? We’ll give you the pros and cons of using your real name on the web below.
Online aliases, pseudonyms, pen names…Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t believe in them. Nor does he believe in privacy. He’s a proponent of online openness, urging all of us to share, comment, and post all of our thoughts under our legal, given names. “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly,” he quipped in 2009. “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” In fact, Facebook lists using a fake name as an abuse of their Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.
Does having multiple online identities really show a “lack of integrity?”
Of course, this is coming from a man who admitted that he would make all Facebook privacy settings public by default if he could start the company over again. Is it disingenuous to use aliases online, or is it merely playing it safe?
The United States Supreme Court seems to disagree with Zuckerberg, ruling in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission that the First Amendment protects our right to be anonymous:
Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical, minority views . . . Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.
Every day, we have to choose whether to be anonymous online.
Here’s a scenario you’re probably familiar with. Let’s say you read an article on CNN.com and want to post a response in the comments section. You must first register on CNN.com, which requires you to fill in a screen name, email address, and password, then confirm the email you used to register. Alternatively, you can use Facebook connect to link your Facebook profile to CNN, letting Facebook take care of the hassle of registration. You have a choice to make: use your real name, potentially linking your name to your comment forever; or use an alias.
Posting anonymously has its pros and its cons.
- Pro: It keeps a Google search for your legal name clean.
Posting online is like talking to the police: anything you say can and will be used against you. Old questions posted in IT forums, comments on political articles, objectionable tweets, those photos of you partying a bit too hard, that video your ex-boyfriend swore he’d never release: if you use your real name when posting anything, chances are a Google search will bring up results that you aren’t proud of.
- Con: It makes what you say less believable.
Using your real name lends credibility to what you’re writing. Similar to criminal informants, coming forward with your true identity makes the content of your statement more believable and trustworthy. If you truly stand by your posting and are prepared to have your name associated with it forever–internet archives can live a long time–using your real name shows your conviction.
- Pro: It helps keep your name out of people search databases.
- Con: Anonymity makes us meaner.
Study after study demonstrates that being able to say what we think without fear of repercussion brings out the worst in us. With the advent of anonymous online commenting came trolling, cyber-bullying, and general unpleasantness. There’s even a scientific term for it: “the online disinhibition effect.” And anonymity can have far worse effects than just discouraging thoughtful and polite discourse: it has lead to murders and suicides, as in the sad case of Alexis Pilkington, the 17 year-old girl who committed suicide after being harassed online by anonymous people.
- Con: You can’t build a positive online reputation through content creation
If you’re prepared for a little self-censorship, posting under your real name can be a smart strategy. Knowing that anything you say online may show up when someone Googles you, use your postings to your advantage. Post intelligent, grammatically-correct, spell-checked, well-reasoned content. Express yourself in the field in which you want to become established. Don’t forget that good search results can be better than no search results.
What should you do?
Think long and hard about posting anything under your real name. If you decide to do so, ask yourself the New York Times question: “If this content were ever publicly released, would I be okay with seeing it on the cover of the New York Times?” If the answer is “no,” use a pseudonym. You can use this handy Fake Name Generator to come up with a false identity on the fly.
Abine’s MaskMe (beta), a free browser add-on, lets you create and manage your accounts and identities. You can create an unlimited number of Masked Email addresses that forward messages to your real inbox: one for friends, one for work, one for family, one for your superhero alter ego, etc. MaskMe will automatically fill in online forms as each of your different selves.
Regardless of whether you do decide to use your real name, think about using an anonymous email. MaskMe lets you generate masked emails that forward to your real account. If you ever have trouble with spam from a website or an account, simply block the masked email associated with it.