For many of my early ‘Internet’ years I used various pseudonyms/handles to interact with the online world. In some circles, this was the accepted behaviour of most users; in others, aggressively acted against. The reasons for the latter always puzzled me.
It seems identity is a concept many associate with government-issued paperwork. That someone would choose not to use their legal name is often perceived as an indication of mischief, and potential harm, so people get suspicious. So much so that otherwise civil conversation is discounted simply because the names of the participants seem made-up. This behaviour of exclusion seems much more prevalent in the ‘free’ world, where the expectation is that a Government prioritizes the citizens’ interest and encourages democratic speech, so dissidents don’t have to fear for their lives if they use their actual names.
Accountability is another card that’s often played, as Salon.com’s Kent Pitman observes (emphasis added):
And that brings me to the claim that life would somehow be better if people blogged under their real name—if there were no pseudonyms. The underlying claim, not always expressed explicitly, is that eliminating pseudonyms would make people more polite and/or more accountable. I disagree that it would, even if it did, I don’t think the cost is worth the value.
First, there is the question of whether you need to know who a speaker is in order to evaluate truth.
I would think this is an issue of common sense, an aspect of critical thinking that I’d like to see permeate all online conversations and communities. The things being said are more important than the people saying them. It is not a name that gives context and disclosure of one’s agenda, but the persona they have developed, online and elsewhere. The name becomes a brand, and nothing prevents one from building the brand around a pseudonym.
The disclosure of one’s real name can easily hurt the conversation. Ethnicity, race and gender are only but the easiest to infer, and can bring to light participants’ biases and preconceived notions, or — worse yet for the discussion — assumptions about an agenda where one may not exist. A pseudonym lets one express ideas without any of these burdens.
On the flip side, everyone from spammers and scammers to corporate entities and government agencies engage in illusory personas, as most recently highlighted by the HBGary leak. ‘Persona management’ is an industry that revolves around creating consent in ‘public voices’ where none may exist.
Anecdotally, ‘geek’ communities accept pseudonyms without pause, and I often find it’s indicative of the critical thinking aspect I mentioned. More ‘traditional’ (old-world) outfits seem to cling to the concept of identity-being-a-real-name, enforcing it on their users quite aggressively.
I hope more people will realize that branding and trust have little to do with one’s legal name, and more to do with how they have engaged the world around them, how they express their ideas or demonstrate their abilities.