October 18, 2005

Using Your Real Name on the Internet

While I understand completely the needs for privacy and safety on the Internet, and I especially think that it is important for younger people to use handles or aliases whenever posting to the Internet, I feel that once one is an adult, it is far better to use one's real name whenever making posts or in any way putting something up on a Web site. I believe this to be true even for communities that have a habit of using aliases, though I know in that case that some might disagree, arguing custom as the reason.

There are many reasons for my belief that one should use one's real name.

  1. Credibility: If you are speaking out on an issue, especially a controversial one, your opinion will have a lot more weight if you sign your own name. Imagine, if you will, that you are reading through a forum discussion on an important issue and you come across a post signed by "Datagrrl." How professional can "Datagrrl" be? Not very. How much weight are you going to give to "Datagrrl's" opinion? Not much. Now imagine reading a post signed by a person's real name, even their real first name. Uh-huh. That's right. Let's say the person's real name is Janie Strewzynski. You are going to give a lot more weight and consideration to Janie Strewzynski's opinion than to "Datagrrl," even if you don't necessarily agree with what Janie Strewzynski has to say.
  2. Doing as the Romans do: If you haven't noticed this already, in many online communities of a more serious nature, using a pseudonym is the exception rather than the rule. Here's an example. On the page I've linked to, almost all commenters post with at least their real first names, if not their full names. But the second commenter posts anonymously. In response, the fourth commenter says, quite mildly, "Your opinion would have more weight if you weren't hiding behind a pseudonym." In short, if you are posting in a forum where others use their real names, use yours too.
  3. Maturity: It is an act of maturity to take accountability for yourself. If you are tempted to make a post using an alias, that can be a sign that perhaps you shouldn't make that post. Is what you want to post something hasty? Hot-tempered? Mean-spirited? Nasty? Are you attacking someone? Calling names? No matter how justified you may feel in the moment, I guarantee that making such posts will serve no one any good, and it will haunt your conscience long after the flames of your temper have died down. If you really must make such a post, try this method instead: Write the post. Say every nasty thing you want to say. Call names until you run out of ideas. Read the offending person the riot act. Then—and this is the most important part—DO NOT, I REPEAT, DO NOT MAKE THE POST! Save it to a file if you wish. Print it out and burn it if that makes you feel better. Best yet, just delete it.
  4. Professionalism: Using your real name is more professional. However hard it may be to swallow the fact that names mean something, the fact is, they do, and people do pay attention to them, and people gain impressions of you, good or bad, based on the name you present. Imagine, if you will, that you are reading a forum of doctors who are carrying on a medical discussion. As you read, you come across a post signed by "Datagrrl." Imagine the picture you get in your head from that pseudonym. However "fun" or "wild" she may be, and however much you may like or admire those attributes in a person as personal characteristics, "Datagrrl" just doesn't seem like much of a doctor, or at least like much of the kind of doctor you would want to consult. Now imagine the picture you get from Janie Strewzynski. Unless her posts belie the image, you get the idea that here is someone who is cool-headed and considers her words before speaking; someone who takes her profession seriously and doesn't dishonor it by bringing a pseudonym to an important discussion. Don't get me wrong; "Datagrrl's" pseudonym, in the right place, is fine. There are just some places where you need to park your personas at the door and bring out the real you.

For all these reasons, I decided long ago to either have the guts to sign my real name to everything I say on the Internet, even when I know I might catch flak for my opinion, or keep quiet on an issue. I have never regretted that decision, even though I have at times posted opinions that weren't popular. At least I was standing up for myself using my own real name, and at least I was standing up for my beliefs, and in many forums, that in itself has counted for something.

Now, mind you, if you are in any way not sure of your safety, then of course you should take all measures to make sure you are safe. If one of those measures is to be anonymous or use a pseudonym, then by all means do so. Especially, children should not use their real names ever.

But I encourage you not to hide behind a pseudonym, especially if you are doing it in order to make posts that you may later regret. Instead, just don't make those posts, as discussed in point 3, above. Everyone, including (perhaps especially) yourself, will be happier in the long run.