To be (anonymous) or not to be: should you use your real name on the internet?

Sometimes fake names lead to real discussions.

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.

Many people search websites, such as Spokeo.com and 123People.com, collect their listings by crawling the web for all mentions of a person’s name.  Let’s return to our earlier CNN commenting example for a moment.  If you use your legal name and actual email address to register and CNN’s privacy policy allows it to share your information third parties, as many websites do, then it will show up on the people search websites.

  • 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.




25 comments shared on this article:

  • Conan776 says:

    “You can’t build a positive online reputation through content creation”

    I don’t think that’s true. Like many who’ve run afoul of Google+, I use a persistent autonym. (If I didn’t, I could just make up a new “real”-sounding name and Google wouldn’t care.)

    So anyone I want to give my online handle to can certainly judge for themselves my reputation. What matters is that choice is left up to me.

    • Sarah Downey says:

      You’re right that you can build up a good reputation for an alternate name. I was speaking more to the traditional “legal name = real name = reputation” model that we’re all so used to. Good point.

  • jon says:

    Thanks for the detailed analysis. I disagree with a couple of your “cons” though.

    - “anonymity makes us meaner” is (a) not particularly relevant, because we’re talking about pseudonymity and (b) not as clearly demonstrated as you claim. South Korea’s experiment with a “real name” policy led to “swear words and anti-normative expressions” falling from 27 to 20 percent but “Nevertheless, the majority of troublemakers continued to swear without restraint under their real names. Besides, instructions for circumventing identification requirements have been available online for some time, and when in doubt, troublemakers can always use foreign servers.” And more generally, as this thread on Geek Feminism highlights, there isn’t really a lot of research that supports the general conclusion http://geekfeminism.org/2011/07/26/reallegal-name-communities-behave-better-wheres-the-evidence/

    - and like Conan776 says, you can very definitiely build an online reputation under a pseudonym — look at GrrlScientist, Feminist Hulk, minimsft, digby, Jack Turner and Jill Tubman of Jack and Jill Politics, Fake Steve Jobs, etc. etc.

  • Shona says:

    After almost 15 years online, I’ve shied away from using my full real name on the internet. A couple of times, people have taken what I’ve said out of context and have used it against me. I Google my name on a regular basis, and do the needed damage control when necessary. With that being said, if someone really wanted to find out who I was, they could. I just make them work for it (which most internet surfers usually don’t bother with).

    • Sarah Downey says:

      That’s a great point: it’s not so much about completely hiding your identity, but rather making it more difficult to determine. Effort thwarts most people from persisting.

  • Tom says:

    I like having separate identities. Even though you could figure it out with only a little bit of legwork, I like people not knowing my name, my age, where I’m from, or other personal details. However, that’s also not to say that I don’t use my real name where appropriate (like Facebook or when applying for jobs). However, most of that isn’t visible by the public.

    I do understand that some people will hide behind the anonymity of a username to do things they wouldn’t in real life, but I try not to do that. Well, that’s not 100% true… I’m much shyer in real life than I am online and my opinions aren’t as easy to get out of me. But I try to stay civilized at all times.

  • ChicagoRich says:

    I have always posted on CNN.com, the Local Newspapers and such as ‘ChicagoRich’. Some of the issues are contentious and if I say something which, while it represents my actual opinion, say regarding religion or politics, it might bring reprisal against my family or employer from fanatics or those with a differing point of view. I recently found that for some reason, when I try to post on CNN or on other media that link through facebook, it will no longer allow me to use anything other than my Facebook identity which is my real first name and last name, and with the city and google, my address and phone number as well as other personal details can be found easily. For this reason, I have to judge it is better for me not to express my opinion of subjects such as islam or the local politics online. I don’t intentionally malign any individual, group, belief or even point of view, but it is hard to guess how anyone’s opinion might be interpreted by another. I wouldn’t want someone trying to raise the property taxes on my parcel of land or murder me or someone in my family because I expressed an opinion that did not agree with someones beliefs.

    I think this is bad overall as if the same logic could analogously be applied to voting for example. People should not be muzzled on line out of fear of the reactions of fanatics. Debate is a good thing, and debating on the internet in various forums is a good thing, even for topics that might be controversial, and anything that takes away from the points of view available makes it less likely that someone looking at a particular topic will be able to come to the most informed conclusion.

    For now I have been effectively gagged from any media outlets that use facebook as the interface for posting.

  • Einthusan says:

    I stronly agree with not using your name on the internet, however if your old enough and know what your getting yourself into, than thats fine i guess. People on facebook always use their real name.

    • Sarah Downey says:

      Yeah, it’s definitely a balance: using your real name intelligently to promote the good things about yourself can be an effective strategy.

  • brahmesh says:

    Oh my goodness! an astounding post dude. Thank you However I’m experiencing problem with ur rss . Do not know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there any individual finding identical rss problem? Any individual who knows kindly respond. Thnkx

  • Marty says:

    Good article, thanks. I usualy take proxy from http://www.proxybridge.com/ and put it in my browser setings. Works great.

  • we need to get the government off our backs and out of our lives and i’m remainig annaynamous and i’m using the name kristi marie summers names change to protect online users as well and i’m a pro-life reagan conservative thatcher constitutional honest courageous christian hones gop autistic man with biblical principles,christian values,common sense.

  • karen says:

    I have plenty of good reasons to care about the privacy and security of our online activity. With online activities, everything is permanent and can dredged up against you, down the road. I’m not talking about things that someone should obviously not have said or done under normal circumstances. What about the off-colour joke you told or something you said that can be misconstrued. Someone can take all of that information and use it against you, down the road.

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