Why Pseudonymity Is Such an Important Concept

Posted on Sep 21, 2011 | 92 comments


Fred Wilson wrote a blog post yesterday called “Real Names” in which he talked about a commenter on his blog who preferred not to comment because he didn’t want to use his real name. It’s all told through a graphic & very short so worth your having a quick read. It’s a powerful concept.

The idea of not using one’s real name is something I’ve had to come to understand better through other people providing context. It first hit me over the head when I wrote a post that inflamed many people. I wrote about Job Hoppers. I was too harsh and aggressive and the world came out and let me know.

What really forked me off was that some people wrote such nasty things about me as a person without knowing me and they did it all veiled behind fake names. They did the same over at HackerNews.

My immediate reaction was “Chicken shits!  If you want to have a public debate then at least have the decency to do it using your real name! I’ve used mine.”

That was before I really understood.

I’m glad the whole incidence happened. Though the more honorable people who didn’t choose to use their real names they explained that they didn’t feel free to use their real names in public debates because they feared the reaction of their employers. I guess by 43 I’ve found myself in a situation where I worry about that a bit less and I trust myself to skate close to the line but not cross it (too often).

As I did a deeper dive reflection on the topic I started thinking I wanted: Anonymity + Authority. In other words, it’s fine to not use your real name but I wanted to know that you were an honorable person and not a troll. I was thinking it would be awesome to have systems that could help track this so more authoritative people who were anonymous could rise to the top.

All of this has become a lot more relevant lately given social networking.

Think about it. Friendster started and was the place you had to be yourself. MySpace flourished and left Friendster behind in part because they didn’t care about your identity. Some people jokingly referred to it in its early days as “Fakester” in contrast to Friendster. Turns out anonymity mattered.

Along came Facebook. They wanted to know who you were. You originally had to have a .edu email address to even join. They work hard to this day to try and filter out people they think are fake. Of course they can be duped.

And any even casual follower of the tech industry knows that Google Plus has been criticized for cracking down on anybody who wasn’t a “real person.”

Yet … Twitter doesn’t care. You can be whoever you want on Twitter. They’re fine with Fakesters.

So who’s right? Obviously neither are. It depends on the circumstances.

And my eyes really lit up today when I had a great chat over tea with Dmitry Shapiro, one of the better & more philosophical thinkers about technology that I know. He has founded a new social networking site called AnyBeat to take on this issue. I’ve played around with the beta version the past few days and am already impressed with their ability to ship technology. [no, I'm not an investor in the company]

What Dmitry told me is, “It’s not really about anonymity, it’s about pseudonymity.”

“Huh?”

“Well, it’s not that you want to interact with ‘anonymous’ users, you actually want them to have an identity. It just turns out that often it’s better if that identity is not your real one. That way you can be yourself.”

“But I’m happy being myself. And, harrumph, do I really want to go to another fucking social network. I’m already overwhelmed. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Google+, Quora, Tumblr. My head’s going to explode!”

“Exactly. That’s because those are all efforts. They’re all work. You’re constant interacting professionally and building up your online profile. We want you to come to AnyBeat to have fun. We want it to be a place where you meet people you don’t know. Where you can talk about topics that it might not be appropriate for a VC to discuss in writing. Your views on politics, religion, the world. We want you to play games. Let your hair down.”

“Isn’t that what Wii is for? ;-)

“Well, think about it. You’re old enough to have established your reputation and you know right from wrong. Perhaps you’re not trying to find your true North anymore. But 22 year olds might like to be able to make their views on the world known without having it follow them around for the next 40 years. It’s scary. Social networks are like Iran. You can say anything you want, but in the morning there will be consequences.”

It hit me. He’s right. PSEUDONYMITY. You heard it here first. I think it’s a big concept. Pseudonymity is the combination of anonymity and authority. It is an alter ego name that follows you on the Internet. It allows you to interact with people in different ways.

And as we went on to debate use cases it became clearer to me that there are concrete times where you want to be yourself and where you don’t. But total anonymity is a waste. I don’t see any redeeming value relative to pseudonymity. And to make a good social network based on pseudonymity work you obviously have to have an authority / rating system built in.

Consider:

1. Job Search – You’d mostly want to be yourself, thus we have LinkedIn. A place were it makes no sense to be anonymous. But you might like to start interviewing for jobs or posting on job sites without using your actual name. That can create some awkward moments with your boss.

2. Social Capital / Earned Media – For many people keeping a blog is a way to build up “social capital” or as it’s sometimes referred to as “earned media.” Other than for people like Fake Steve Jobs where the intent is parody then you’d obviously want to use your real identity.

3. Marketing – There are times where you market as an individual and times where you want to market as a brand.

4. Games – Here is where it gets more interesting. In games you may not want people to know who you are. You might not want your work colleagues to know you play World of Warcraft or Call of Duty in the evenings. Even more so if you play in the day time ;-) In an identity world like Facebook it has been hard to play MMO (massive multiplayer online) games because there isn’t a forum for hanging out with people you don’t know. Facebook is for people you do know.

5. Dating – Dating is a place where anonymity can be really important to people. They might like a chance to get to know somebody a bit better before opening up their real identity. I could also see some sites wanting to argue the opposite – we’ll only let you chat if you agree to say who you are.

6. Political Discourse or Understanding the World Around You  - Want to debate gay marriage, polygamy, the death penalty, whether a country has an oppressive regime, religion – whatever. Pseudonymity.

We then went on to film an amazing 90 minute discussion afterward for This Week in Venture Capital. It hasn’t been processed yet but when it is I’ll be sure to post it here. We talked about this concept and also: online video, lawsuits with big media companies, the value or not of circles in Google Plus, the economic reasons behind the NetFlix decision, social TV startup Chill and much, much more.

Image courtesy of PhotoXpress.com. Thank you.

  • http://twitter.com/PrometheeFeu PrometheeFeu

    I very much agree with much of your analysis. I have been using this pseudonym for many years now. There are several online communities where I have built a reputation and I would find it difficult to give up this identity. Much of the reason I use this pseudonym has to do with dealing with employers. I have some political opinions which are unconventional (I’m a libertarian of sorts) and if the day comes when I really need a job to pay the next bill, I do not want an employer to google me, find a rant he doesn’t like and not give me the job I need. I work for a big Silicon Valley firm and sometimes I want to comment on public news regarding my employer. (Usually positive comments and almost always on topics entirely unrelated to my work) But if that comment was connected back to me and me to my employer, I could suffer an unpleasant conversation regarding the role of lowly engineers in commenting company strategy in public forums without consulting with PR/Legal.

    But pseudonymity has its downsides. I wish to start a blog dealing with a couple of rather disparate issues. The problem is that while there are some topics I wish to share openly under my real name with friends, family and co-workers, there are others which are in a gray area and some finally which I do not want associated with my real name for now at all. I’m thinking of having a blog in my real name and another in a different name. The problem comes when the topics intersect. As an engineer, I want to discuss technical issues under my real name so that I may leverage that in the future for jobs, finding employees etc… But technical issues are not always free of politics and philosophy. Consider for instance someone working on the Tor project or discussing the technological impacts of censorship regimes. I have not yet come up with a good way to resolve that issue.

    I do plan on starting a firm some day soonish (1-3 years from now) and at that point, I will consider “coming out”.  I am not ashamed of my online record as PrometheeFeu. (though some parts do not fill me with pride, I readily admit that) I look forward to the day when I feel free enough to link PrometheeFeu to my real name.

  • Moribund Cadaver

    Pseudonymity is a realistic tool for a realistic world.

    It’s also the mark of an adult; the alarmists, and the disingenuous, try to frame these discussions in terms of “we have to stop the evil anonymous trolls!”. But adult tools are adult in part, because they’re dangerous when misused. Your car is a lethal weapon and the resources many adults are capable of accessing can be used to cause great harm.

    The irony of the Google+ name controversy is that Google is doing the impossible: they’re defining for you what your “real name” is. People with deep experience in the situation that broke out discovered a nasty truth: demanding people’s government ID was merely a convenient shortcut. It was safely assumed that the majority of people in a perceived whitebread society, would not be “colorful”. That they’d (mostly) have the most common and recognizable “Americany” names and they wouldn’t be people who had ever decided they’d like a different, or more unusual name, and adopted that instead.

    The truth is, people of privilege in companies like Google wish to perform social engineering and see all of “you” (and us) as the fodder.

    Realistically, nobody has “one” identity save the most dull and boring folk, or those who are deeply “in the closet” about who they really are and live an elaborate constructed identity intended to be “safe” in public. It’s normal and human to have difference faces you show different people in different settings. The Internet has merely enabled people to have much finer and more robust control over that.

    Here’s one more thought: a lot of the people harassed on Google+ (both by the administrators and by self styled “fake person vigilantes” who sought people out to use the report button to silence them) signed up with what a whitebread person would think was a strange or “fake” name. But it turns out many of those folks used that “fake name” in real life – and for all their friends. Even family. It WAS a real name – and signing up on G+ with some wallet name they hadn’t used socially in 20 years was useless. Another example of how “real name” is not as simplistic as many people believe it is.

  • Gary Walker

    Well said, sir.

  • Anonymous

    Most of the time (not always) the non-famous are at little risk from site operators and others who have access to the fingerprints they leave on the web. Even using “9 proxies” you can slip up or be screwed by badly implemented software you had relied on. 

    What people want and need protection from is the casual Googling or random stumbling of people in their lives or hopefully in their lives. Even serious opposition research or criminal investigation is essentially not going to reveal your activity unless people obtain access to the computers you use.

    If you set off your corporate IT department, someone at your ISP, or the operator of a website you visit you can easily be screwed. This generally involves serious (but rarely punished) criminality on the outing party’s part or someone taking advantage of bad security somewhere (again serious yet rarely punished criminality). So play nice with site owners and operators and leave as little identifiable information on their sites as possible.

  • Anonymous

    It’s a very old word. Esther Dyson dealt with it in-depth in “Release 2.1″ which came out in 1998 and she was far from the first.

  • http://twitter.com/PrometheeFeu PrometheeFeu

    Do you really mean to imply that “you do not believe in what you saying hard enough” if you don’t want to deal with souring relations with your co-workers with potential professional consequences by expressing your honest opinion online? I for one really do not want to loose my job just because I spoke my mind in a public forum and I doubt that makes using pseudonymity wrong.

  • Pete Griffiths

    So an old word for an old concept?  :)

  • Anonymous

    Dear PrometheeFeu,

    That’s precisely what I mean. Let’s say you work with the group of people who scratch you a check, and whose opinion you even value. You do not want to ruin it. Yet, you want to say something that you believe in, which is not gonna run well by them. Ask yourself – is it really worth it? If you don’t want to say it to their face, is it really that important to you? Why would you want to say behind their back? We do self-policing every day, don’t we? For example, in the similar situation Salman Rushdie made his call. Theo Van Gogh and Norman Finkelstein did too. I know, these examples are a bit extreme, but with certain topics we need to keep ourselves to a high standards.

    In a more trivial example, if I send a death threat to my team’s kicker who just lost ME a ball game, and next day I am given the card-box with all my pencils and calculator in it…I will think twice about doing it again. And I will tell my son – Son, these people just don’t get it, so don’t you ever do what your dad did. Simple as that.  

  • http://twitter.com/#!/georgelbowen George Lucas Bowen

    There is a direct relationship between Anonymity and Douchebaggery.  Chris Sacca talked about the demise of the Douchebag in his 2009 Le Webb talk in regards to adding identity and authenticity to the web.   Just look at the difference between the comments on YouTube videos vs comments on your Facebook wall.

    I’ve been a part of and moderated a handful of forums for the last 8-10 years and there is a balance between actual identity and anonymity where you can have a real impactful thread or discussion and where you just get Anonymous Trolls with nothing constructive who ruin the experience for everyone involved and prohibit your ability to do anything constructive.

    I like his intentions but he seems to be building a troll playground for heated arguments around hot topics.  I think they are intending to be more of a Facebook for Second Life but will be hard to maintain. 

  • Anonymous

    Buying a bucket of L’s is easier than finding all those extra consonants….

  • http://twitter.com/PrometheeFeu PrometheeFeu

    I could not disagree more.

    “Let’s say you work with the group of people who scratch you a check, and whose opinion you even value. You do not want to ruin it. Yet, you want to say something that you believe in, which is not gonna run well by them. Ask yourself – is it really worth it?”

    That question implies that there is a cost but you are less than clear as to what cost you are speaking of. If the cost is loosing my job, the answer much of the time is no which is why I say many things under a pseudonym. If the cost is people I work with being offended by someone on the Internet saying something they don’t like, then much of the time, the cost is worth it. That’s why I speak pseudonymously.

    “For example, in the similar situation Salman Rushdie made his call. Theo Van Gogh and Norman Finkelstein did too. I know, these examples are a bit extreme, but with certain topics we need to keep ourselves to a high standards.”

    How is it a higher standard to personally expose oneself to retaliation when one can share the same ideas without suffering pain? Sure, in some cases, it strengthens the message and sometimes that is a display of great courage. And yet, there are many things that are good contributions to the marketplace of ideas without being worthy of suffering death or more moderately, unemployment. Let’s say Mark was prohibited by his fund’s policy from making any public statements not cleared by PR/Legal in order to manage the funds’ image. Would it be better if he gave us his insights under a pseudonym or if he simply remained quiet out of fear of being fired? I for one would rather have “Both Sides of the Table” signed with a pseudonym than not at all even if I do not believe it would be worth getting fired over.

    “In a more trivial example, if I send a death threat to my team’s kicker who just lost ME a ball game”

    You will most likely go to jail for sending a death threat. In the example that you show, the problem is not anonymity or pseudonymity. The problem is the content of the speech. You are conflating people behaving inappropriately and people being anonymous/pseudonymous. It is reprehensible to maliciously inflict pain and suffering on others whether under your real name or not. But participating in public discourse without using your name is not inherently reprehensible.

  • Anon4fun

    “Pure anonymous outbursts by anonymous, non persistence people on a forum are social spam.”

    I disagree completely. Quality of content is pretty much the sole determinant of what a post is worth. How long the poster has been posting at the site is irrelevant.

  • Anonymous

    Like I said PrometheeFeu – real trade with the real name attached to it – bad idea, violation of professional-client privilege – bad idea. Any situation other than where money and third parties well-being is an issue – pseudonimity  is a horrible idea. And no, PrometheeFeu,
    nobody prosecutes trolles, death-threaters, cyberbullies, and  Youtube idiots. A few exceptions, like the recent one in UK (http://www.newsytype.com/11291-uk-internet-troll/) just prove my point. Police will never have enough power to pursue these cases.
    If we (utopically speaking) remove pseudonimity world becomes a better place. Same moment. And by the way – the issue is not reprehensibility. The issue is – what’s right. 

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    You know…you are right. And not both. 

    Behaviorally, we converse with other people and it’s human nature to listen more carefully and get the information when we can see, identify, or are familiar with the persona, be it anonymous or not. 

    So, I agree and don’t. Agree that you are right that we should, I should. But when you walk down the street and are yelled at you usually react to the situation not the words.

    Not an absolute but my opinion.

  • http://www.pivotpointsearch.com Scott Thompson

    I recommend the classic sci-fi novel Ender’s Game as a very interesting twist on this topic, though published in ’85. It’s also a damn good book overall  that I can’t believe took me so long to find!

  • Anon4fun

    It goes something like this:

    “What a complex web we weave after discovering that anything done online under one’s real name can come back to bite you, personally and professionally, in unpredictable ways into the indefinite future.”

  • http://twitter.com/BloggingArrow BloggingArrow

    I would take the view that if they’re put of by it, they might not be a good fit anyways.

  • Anonymous

    About 4 years ago I was a product manager for PoliceLink.com, at the time the largest site for cops on the internet. The forums there were an incredibly healthy and engaged community, with the draw being that cops could discuss topics with other cops who understood where they were coming from. We had a strong reputation system on the site (reputation points accrued for participation) but we did not require you to use your real name, and I think that was a big reason the community flourished. Cops needed a place to talk about what it’s like to be cop, troubles on the job, how best to handle challenging situations during arrests, and other things that they would rather not have tied to their real name. 

    One feature that users loved was our “law enforcement officer only” sections of the site (access required you to send us your badge number and a department contact for verification). This seemed like a risky move given the above info, but we never associated this info publicly with user accounts, so your PoliceLink profile always remained separate for your real world identity. Verified users had a special badge that showed up next to their profile pictures and could access restricted areas on the site. Inside these areas, cops talked about some incredible things that they didn’t feel comfortable sharing on public sections of the site. 

    This was an interesting case where knowing another user’s real name was far less important than just knowing that they were actually a cop – goes to show that real name isn’t the only important form of real world identity in some cases.

  • http://twitter.com/PrometheeFeu PrometheeFeu

    ” Any situation other than where money and third parties well-being is an issue – pseudonimity  is a horrible idea.”

    Isn’t money an issue when I could lose my job if I expressed my opinion? Also, are you sure those are the only exceptions you would make? Do you really think it’s better for a democratic activist in Iran to risk torture or remain quiet rather than use a pseudonym?

    “And no, PrometheeFeu, nobody prosecutes trolles, death-threaters, cyberbullies, and  Youtube idiots.”

    You’re lumping together a lot of very different people here.  People who issue realistic death-threats are doing a whole different category of harm than people who are being jerks online. I don’t know the stats on that, but I would wager that if someone issued a death threat to you and you took it seriously enough to call the police, they would investigate and take action.

    “If we (utopically speaking) remove pseudonimity world becomes a better place. Same moment.”

    You are repeating that but you have not actually explained why that is. Do you just have a distaste for pseudonymous speech on principle or is there some underlying reason for your opinion?

    “And by the way – the issue is not reprehensibility. The issue is – what’s right. ”

    Isn’t reprehensible just another word for “wrong”?

  • http://twitter.com/PieterDuboisFI Pieter Dubois

    There remains of course the survival bias part by only posting good trades …

  • http://www.fastnote.com Louis Shaffner

    I don’t think it will “beat” Facebook, but look at Fastnote. It’s focus is different, of course, it’s about notes addressed to specific people and not just general commenting like AnyBeat. Fastnote’s anonymity is actually pseudonymity within the commenting under each note. The writer of the original note is required to be anonymous, but is often referred to by the commenters under the note as “Note Writer”. Also, each commenter is assigned a number; i.e., “Commenter #1″, “Commenter #2″, etc. These pseudonyms give each commenter the ability to address the other commenters as well.

  • http://maxmzd.com maxmzd

    Context is King. The trust you afford to others – regardless if they use their real name or a pseudonym - is based on your interaction history with that person relating to specific topics. Also factored in is the transfer of power based on what /others/ have said about that person, and your relationship with the cosigner. There is no need to use your real name unless there is an actual incentive to do so.

    I’m very glad this is getting discussed. Thanks for bringing attention to the issue, Mark. There’s a lot riding on getting this right. I’m currently working on an open standard for communicating online trust through a central, crowd-sourced API that apps can use to tap into the /real/ open social graph.

    Amongst other benefits, this will allow app developers and entrepreneurs to innovate quicker and reach more people, requiring less capital to become sustainable.

    Here’s a small write-up regarding online identity: http://plmtto.com/overview/identity
    And how context communicates trust: http://plmtto.com/overview/context

  • http://twitter.com/#!/georgelbowen George Lucas Bowen

    Love that book!! Read it several times growing up, always wanted to go off to a school like that :)

  • Ken Seville

    I listened to Dmitry on TWiST and frankly thought this was a solution in search of a problem. However, it seemed like Jason and Tyler were really into the concept, which made me rethink my opinion. What I wonder though is if this is a solution for a certain kind of person who likes to mix it up online. While I do like to contribute, I would walk away from any online conversation where I didn’t feel comfortable being myself. On the other hand, maybe if pseudonimity existed widely I would be more inclined to mix it up more. With that said, I don’t currently have the desire to mix it up, so I wouldn’t sign up. 

  • Moribund Cadaver

    It could be that many people are misapplying an older trust metric to Internet communications. There’s baggage attached to “what’s in a name?” In smaller communities with limited distance involved, a person’s name quickly became their reputation; knowing a name was a legitimate shorthand for gauging their accumulated trust history. The name alone denoted the quality of content.

    That seems simple, solid, intuitive to many. We take it for granted… but it doesn’t always scale up.

    There’s a big oversight when people say “the Internet should be just like real life!” The Internet cannot be just like real life. It shouldn’t have to be; that’s a waste of potential and a sign of a limited perspective.

    There’s a class of person in real life who commonly uses pseudonyms and carefully meters out information about themselves – celebrities. In the old world, only a tiny handful of people ever became notorious and widely known. Only this handful ever had to deal with serious repercussions of “identity management” with an audience of millions.

    But on the Internet, everyone is a celebrity, if measured in terms of exposure. The Internet *is not* a folksy corner store were every man meets another man with a firm handshake. Here, every word one posts can be seen by millions – or billions. Everyone is under the pressure of identity management, potentially.

    The very notion that people such as Zuckerberg want to push, that “everyone should have a single identity for the whole world to see at all times” is actually completely unworkable. It’s just a marketing spiel designed to promote his product. People have a real need to manage their identity – and create “stage names” online, not just a tiny elite of politics, business, or entertainment. If you (the general “you” here) don’t think so, then I’d respectfully suggest your experience is more limited than you may know.

    This imagined world of “security” where everyone was forced to use a single identity casually traceable by any civilian, all six+ billion of them… that’s not security. That’s a complete breach of it, advantageous only to governments and powerful organizations, but oppressive to the individual. It’s everyone living with a floodlight trained on them at all times.

    This evolving conversation is one of the most important we can have at this stage online.

  • lie’s that die

    anybeat is all false advertisement ..altly was a decoy facebook competitor to draw in people for anybeat which is essentially a chat room..it’s a tribe essentially..horrible concept of  a site riddled with lies..sooon people will see the horribleness of anybeat hahah and they willl become a running joke..

  • http://maxmzd.com maxmzd

    The biggest problem I run into when discussing online-identity is limited imagination / critical thinking. Everyone tries to fit solutions into the current free-for-all, public-town-hall style we currently use. In this regard, you’re right, the argument that “the internet should be like real life” doesn’t hold up. But when we begin to dig deeper we see the multiple layers of context based on interactions and experiences which comprise not only our own identities, but our perception of – and ultimately trust in – our peers.

    All of these signals are stored and processed in amazing complexity in our brains. /That’s/ the part of “real life” we need to attempt to emulate online. It will be nowhere near as accurate, but it doesn’t have to be, at least not yet. Eventually the proper algorithms will exist. For now, we need to start building systems to allow for the collection and simple analyses of the signals, all with the express intent of giving as much control as possible to the user for their own privacy and security.

    It’s critically important that we right the ship… if it’s not already too late.

    To start, we need to recognize incentives. Unfortunately, when it comes to online-identity (and privacy / security), the incumbent network owners (FB, Goog, Twitter, etc.) are incentivized by locking in their users (treating them as products to sell to advertisers) in order to grow their bottom line. Users are incentivized by using the quickest and easiest solution to fulfill their needs (in the majority of cases that means being able to consume media and communicate with their friends).

    I don’t think we can convince users to take the steps needed to protect their actions from the scenarios you describe. The hope I see is getting enough entrepreneurs and developers together to build a federated system that shares common data while giving as much control to the user as possible. If all of the players not currently operating at near-monopoly scale will work together, they can realize the incentives of participation, much like telephony carriers and interstate systems. That’s where Palmetto ID+API comes in (hopefully) or a similar system like the Locker Project.

  • Mat Tyndall

    Awesome Mark, glad you’ve seen the light. 

    The way I see it, psuedonymity is essential for preserving any semblance of the diverse set of identities we’re used to off-line with different social circles and situations. I’m hoping to integrate an effortless way to manage these identities with Tagbax, because that could definitely be a killer app (along with a way to build their respective reputations).

  • Michael Gnanakone

    I am afraid that by making everyone more connected to their real identities forces people to bite their tongue on issues they care about but are too nervous/scared to voice that opinion in fear of being outcasted form their social “tribe”… I believe there has to be room for some sort of “Pseudonymity” to foster real discussions not held back by fear of being ridiculed. 

  • anonymous for now…

    I have done this slowly by placing clues for those who are interested and who dig a bit.  If you follow the clues you can find the real name of the pseudonym.  Kind of fun to see who comes through the maze, actually :)

  • http://twitter.com/TrevorFiatal Trevor Fiatal

    Mark, this is brilliant.  Thanks so much for taking the time to write this up separately from your video discussion with Dmitry Shapiro.

    I’ve been spending a lot of time since the Facebook announcements at F8 on how to articulate why my startup (Seamless.ly) makes sense in a world where the FB Timeline exists.  Reading this tonight helped crystallize a critical insight — the FB Timeline will always be a subset of your social universe, not just because there are many data bits you’ll never want or need to be logged there, but especially because whopping great chunks of your life online are only viable when lived through pseudonymous identities.

    Pseudonyms are a vital and important means of enabling participation that otherwise wouldn’t happen.  I should know, as I’ve carefully maintained a pseudonymous identity of my own for over a decade to enable me to participate in various public forums without having that activity linked to my public role as a startup founder & exec.

  • http://twitter.com/Ovurmind Viktor Ovurmind

    I buck against using the word pseudonymity for two reasons.  The first is that it is exactly because  it is a conception which has some thought capital banked against it already (see Wikipedia Link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudonymity ) and secondly – at a more personal level – it sounds more like a diseased state of being than a self-conception of personal freedom.

    If there has to be a word that associates anonymity with authority, IMHO it would be the complete opposite of this idea that my words are deemed “authoritative”.  Instead the cause of personal freedom is in my minds eye a word that makes more sense to me is a conception of  “ideanomity”.

    We know from the days of old that people like Napoleon Hill held the idea to be central to value creation – that any individual who can capitalize an idea has moved beyond the ability to merely dream of value creation.  Yet in our century we have encountered an idea that runs counter to Hill’s wisdom – which is open source.  This encourages ideas to be freely expressed in the pursuit of creating objects that are not encumbered by the capital cost of labour, but imbued more out of a labour of love.

    For me “ideanomity” goes beyond material cause, and simply into the world of free-flowing thought.  Whereas Napoleon Hill would countenance against sharing the idea, because a human idea that has a nucleus of originality is a well of potential capital, the pursuit of personal freedom is, in part for me, is also a freedom from the lust of ambition, or need for success, status or celebrity. 

    A diseased state I am not (and we still live in a world that treats life as a disease and not a fitnesss), and nor am I provider of thought charity or championing thought humility – when I write this, I know it is doing something to my brain.  I don’t know what,  but each paragraph I pull out of my mind means that I am thinking as I write, rather than editing or filtering what I want to express or worse still, publish.  

    It is therefore more akin to an unfinished novel, and anyone who understands how a great novel comes into being, recognizes that it is the outcome of at least two novels that were discarded in the process of creation.   It is the artist who can afford to let things go, but “ideonomity” would not simply be a gallery of thoughtful artistry – it is more akin to free-form expression where there is no ownership of resulting ideas inferred.  

    If I adhered to the wise words of Napoleon Hill, then “ideonomity” becomes a euphemism for foolishness.  Yet we also live in an age where ideas are abundant rather than scarce.  If we are sharing anything in the world of ideas, I would be obliged to say that we share the freedom to think out aloud.  Yet “ideonomity” would not be open source either, but a willingness to say goodbye to a good idea and not lay any claim to it, if it is expressed with the intention to explore, rather than to exploit.

    [v.o.M.]
    “viktor ovurmind” @thoughtspaces:twitter

  • http://twitter.com/PieterDuboisFI Pieter Dubois

    Isn’t pseudonymity a bit like Spiderman? No one knows who it is, but everyone talks about him because of his impact. And then people get all surprised when he takes off his cap & unveils himself.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Astro-Gremlin/100002297905662 Astro Gremlin

    Interacting using an online identity nevertheless generates a reputation, allows friendships, and requires civil and friendly behavior. Mark Twain was really Samuel Clemens, but as an author and speaker, Mark Twain was still a “real” person.  Take my word for it, using a nom de plume does not make one unaccountable.

  • http://twitter.com/farazq Faraz Qureshi

    I run a social network for cruise travelers and everyone gets to pick a pseudonym (Username) and if they choose they can reveal their real name to other members.  We learned that most people don’t reveal their real names and stick with a pseudonym.  Why?  It’s more FUN.

    People want to meet others who have the same passion – in our case – people who love to go on cruises.  But it’s way more interesting to meet a character called “BadPirate” or “CruisinDiva” and interact over your shared passion than whatever their real names are.  What they do for their normal 9-5 is not really relevant.  They want to talk about their passion and pseudonyms help ppl role play. 

    I can envision one social network for keeping up w/ people I already know (fb/g+) and then belonging to multiple social networks that are focused on my passions, mostly to meet people i don’t already know.  and pseudonyms are perfect for that.

  • Anonymous

    Dating is an interesting scenario, where Facebook has corrupted people’s attempts at anonymity.
    As a bachelor, I had gone out with a few girls that I met through OkCupid. They had pseudonyms, as did I, and I obviously knew their first names by the time we were actually going on a date. Say the girl’s name was Christy, then she was in my phone as “Christy OkCupid”. That’s it. I didn’t know her last name, address, friends, anything truly identifying.
    And then I synced the contact list on my iPhone with Facebook. And facebook connected these girls facebook profiles, via their phone numbers, to their contact information on my phone. Creepy! I now knew much more about them than I should. I felt creepy having seen the profiles, even though that hadn’t been my intent.

    Moral is, it’s dangerous when parts of the internet believe in anonymity and other parts don’t.

  • Bruno Bensaid

    Pen names have always been a mystery to me. People are complex, why not admit that someone can write and disclose his real identity when writing an erotica book whereas he/she is also a CEO of a company. People need to have the courage to admit they can do and write on different things. Pen names belong to the past, we live in a time of transparency and honesty…

  • http://obscurelyfamous.com Daniel Ha

    Mark, thanks for this post. I wish I had written this first because this is exactly how I like to think about communities and what makes certain ones successful.

    Your post sums it up quite well. I’ve shared it with everyone on our team here.

  • http://www.omnea.com Alex Murphy

    There is a difference between being anonymous and hiding behind a veil to unleash an unabated string of attacks.  As readers of AVC have seen this week, Grimlock has anonymity on AVC.  Grimlock is building his brand.  When he first started commenting, some were annoyed by the ALL CAPS, but that changed over time as his Personality came through.  That is 100% different than the hooligans that hide behind the “guest” label to throw lobs at the author of a blog post.  Good for you for putting out an opinion and then having a discussion about it.  I agree about your 6 points where using a pseudonym would be nice, but it needs to be a consistent personality that you are engaging with otherwise it is like getting into a fist fight with a ghost where the core points are just hollow.

  • Outre

    If it’s a pen name then it’s very common to “come out” as the real person behind the pen name. Writer’s have been doing it since – well forever.

    In fact pseudonymity has been used during very important political, or philosophical, movements in the past and considered very much a-ok.

  • TP Mullooly

    Mark,  forgive me, I am new here.  But at first glance (a very quick glance) at your icon next to your comments, you resemble the automatic “friend” (Tom) everyone gets at Fakester/MySpace. 

    It’s the same pose in the photo. So…were you my real friend at MySpace, “Tom”?Good post.

  • Tim Leon

    I think you are spot on. There are circumstances where real names work and circumstances where pseudonymity is more appropriate. I’ve started using anybeat and I feel like I will be more active on this service because of pseudonymity.  However, I still like the idea that a service like Google + has a real names policy. What I don’t like is when a service makes a decision with respect to an identification policy and people whine and complain about it. If you don’t like it then don’t use the service. The beauty of free enterprise is that if there is a big enough need some entrepreneur will see it as an opportunity and a new service will be born. We’ll see how it goes anybeat.