Pseudonymity and Real Names

I’ve summarised the presentation that I gave in Lancaster at our CX Hub meeting in December – starting to map the space of pseudonymity – in my first Creative Exchange research post.

What are the implications of ‘real name’ policies online?

In the early years of the web, the oft-quoted sentiment that “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” summed up the sense of exploration and playfulness that an apparent freedom from ‘real-life’ identity offered. In recent years, however, online commerce and government sites have more and more often required linking of accounts to a single, ‘true’ identity. For example both Facebook and Google have ‘real name’ policies, requiring users to enter and use their official names, and have been enforcing these policies with greater regularity.

The arguments for online pseudonyms have already been well articulated. In exploring modern pseudonymity, I am also interested in the broader historical context of the use of fictitious names, nicknames and multiple identities. I am collecting examples of pseudonyms old and new to map out the range of uses and affordances offered. Some are ‘owned pseudonyms’ where the person and the identity they have created are widely known to be connected. Performers often choose owned pseudonyms like this. Others are ‘anonymous pseudonyms’ where someone will try to remain totally unconnected from their pseudonym. Political commentators have made use of anonymous pseudonyms to protect themselves from retribution for their writing.

Beyond the advertising potential of reducing multiple personalities to a single, well defined identity, I can see another motivation for companies like Google to prevent the use of anonymous pseudonyms – and that is simplicity. It may be just too complex a challenge, even for technologically advanced companies like Google, to attempt to maintain a guaranteed disconnection between web users and their pseudonyms. The digital tools offered by ever growing scales of computation and networked storage seem to be reducing the likelihood that a pseudonym can remains detached from its author. Indeed, modern text analysis tools have been used to revisit historical pseudonymous writing to draw out subtle features that link the real authors to their noms de plume, and approaches like these may soon be ‘outing’ more current pseudonyms online.

I have a feeling that both ‘owned’ and ‘anonymous’ forms of pseudonymity are still incredibly valuable to a functioning society.

Pseudonymity and Real Names

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