Using real names in online communities

This post is more than 3 years old.

E7EBC5781A8911DA.jpg I remember the first time I was logging onto a remote computer system (a BBS) and was asked to choose a handle - an alias for my online activities. There'd been plenty of times where a computer game or other piece of software had asked for one, but this was the first time when other people were going to know me by this name. Wow! I thought about it carefully...what nickname would be the best representation of my personality and my approach to life, while also exuding the appropriate amount of playfulness, mystery and anonymity? At the time, I chose something that might politely be called "lame."

Since then, I've used a few other handles that were more appropriate and cool (to me, anyway), but lately, I've decided that the handle that best represents of my personality online is the same one that represents it offline: my real name. And in most cases, I'm of the opinion that we should all use our real names when engaging in online discussion and community-building.

It's sometimes a suggestion that makes people uncomfortable, so I want to provide some additional reasoning to consider and discuss:

Participating in a healthy public life is an important part of the human experience. Online discussions are now a part of the public sphere, and when used well, can bring people together in ways that complement and enhance real-world community.

To truly participate in public life, we must do so as ourselves, with our identities revealed. Part of the usefulness of the public conversation about issues that matter to us is the accountability that it demands. If we really want to make a certain neighborhood better, then we need to hear from people who live in that neighborhood and know that they speak from experience. If we really want to flesh out the best ways to approach sustainable economic policy, we need to know who is at the table and what resources, interests, and agendas they bring. If we just want to get to know each other better, we need trust and intimacy before we can form any real bonds. As Duc Francois de La Rochefoucauld wrote, "almost all our faults are more pardonable than the methods we resort to to hide them."

The corollary to the great accountability that comes with real names, as Amitai Etzioni notes, is that "people who use aliases are on average much more abusive, unfair, and intemperate than those who disclose their true identity." I've found this to be true in 100% of the online communities I've participated in. When you can dismiss or berate someone's views without any real accountability to them, it is likely to happen more often (even at the hand of those who wish to be accountable). When you can attack an institution or business or person or idea from behind the shield of a pseudonym, it is so much easier to take off the gloves of civil interaction and dialogue that most of us wear and trade them for sharp words, hyperbole, and points made only to harm, not to inform or improve. When we do not have to consider the impact of our words on another, even if only through a facial expression or grunted response, we can be reckless with their hearts.

I hear some recurring responses to the suggestion that we user our real names online:

Bad people will exploit my vulnerability and come after me. If I am a woman, I will be stalked. If I am a liberal, Bill O'Reilly will have FOX security drag me away.

Maybe they will. In all my years of having personal information posted on the Internet, I have never had a problem where the voluntary online availability of that information was itself the cause for some sort of personal invasion of privacy. Anecdotally speaking, this seems to be true for the Internet as a whole; in the "nightmare scenarios" you hear about, either the perpetrating party already had it out for the victim, or the victim disregarded advice like "don't trust strangers with the pass-code to your life savings account." We are rarely targeted for just "being somewhere" in the real world (where not only might our names be available, but our appearances, habits, and quirks), so why do we expect to be targeted for just "being somewhere" as our real selves, online?

80DDAB941A8911DA.jpgI can't fully point out the faults of my employer/family/government/neighbor if they know who I am - the possibility for retaliation demands anonymity.

In some cases, perhaps. I find that any system which cannot stand up to the criticism of those who participate in it, or any relationship which does not permit respectful and faithfully-engaged conflicts, does not deserve to survive. If you're at the point of wanting to enumerate your grievances in an online discussion, then presumably you've already gone through the standard approaches - direct confrontation, letter writing, reporting concerns to the equivalent of an ombudsman of an organization, etc. By that time in most cases, everyone who would care about finding out your identity because of what you say online should already know your point of view anyway.

It's just too uncomfortable to use my real name online.

Of course, if you're uncomfortable using your real name, don't. I'm not saying we can't have authentic interactions as anonymous parties, and in most cases I would rather we participate in the conversation as an alias than not at all. But in doing so, I hope we reflect on what we're withholding from those around us, and what we're missing out on as a result.

Different people have different degrees of comfort with what they'll reveal online, even when they are trying to use their real identity. For some, a full name is as far as they'll go, while others will post intimate details of their daily routines, love lives, financial doings. There's certainly a line we can cross from "being ourselves online" to exhibitionism.

There are plenty of times when it is appropriate (or more fun) to use an alias online. For example:

  • The subject of discussion or the existence of the discussion itself is illegal or ethically vague (assume that your communications are being read by an NSA analyst or even your local law enforcement)
  • The discussion centers around revealing information where sources need protection (e.g. journalistic or crime solving endeavors)
  • The quality of the exchange is enhanced by abstracting online personality from real-world personality (areas where discrimination has traditionally been present, or where power dynamics would typically prevent authentic conversation)

My hope, though, is that where possible, we will tend toward being ourselves in our online personalities. The world is complicated enough and we're isolated from each other enough that anything we can do to make the world a little smaller, including using our real names, is for the better.

"The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and
hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives
of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods
of light and life no longer flow into our souls."

--Elizabeth Cady Stanton

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