In the beginning of time, as the Internet knows it, the original social networks involved telephones, terminals and call handles. It’s true. Much of the tools were used for classified information, hacking instructions, or general tomfoolery. As those tools enhanced, some of the confidential messages began to evolve into less-then-secret information and over time, what was mostly private is now public and no one minds anymore. A lot has changed since the early days of handles. It’s cooler than cool, now, to identify yourself with your name. It’s even “professional” to no longer be anonymous. If you can get a Gmail account with your name, you know you are good to go. Fifteen years ago, however, this was not the case. You wouldn’t have dreamed of giving your real name, back then.
Interestingly, most people just trusted that the information that these anonymous people were sharing was accurate. Most people began to rely on the Internet as a source of accurate information. In fact, when I was in college, some professors wouldn’t allow the use of any websites as citation references, because we tended to trust the information too much without doing follow-up research. Now, the writing style guides for MLA and APA have special formatting just for websites. We cannot deny that our view on exchanging information has significantly evolved from a non-trusting fearful experience to a “more is better” mentality.
So, why would you want to use a username or handle? There are a few reasons to do this, some of them are value building and some are not. When you get a chance, read this somewhat humorous article about some more disturbing examples of nom de plume (pen names) that were creating for a variety of reasons.
While those are interesting, this article will focus on some situations where it would be better to use a pen-name than not.
It would seem that one of the most common reasons to use a pseudonym these days (handle, username, nickname) is for self-preservation or protection. Many people like to draw a line between “Real Life” and “Online Life.” These distinctions are so important primarily for the content that is shared online and how damaging to a person’s reputation it could be. This, in itself, has way more complications than you’d like to think (here, read this article about how complicated it can get). People have been fired more than once for writing content online that could damage other people or other company reputations. For instance, if I decided to write a damaging blog about one of my clients, that… wouldn’t go over very well and we can almost expect for that relationship to end. Some people would choose to create an anonymous personality online in order to get around saying damaging things and not be held accountable for those things.
Another reason to use a pseudonym is to control, to a finer degree, what information gets posted online about you. If your name is John Doe… well, first of all, I’M SO SORRY! Secondly, good luck finding anything on Google that actually represents you. In this case, picking a less-then-common pseudonym and creating a full identity online that actually represents you, John Doe, truthfully, is an excellent idea. If you picked Amyric Lawson as a name, then you can pretty much guarantee that all results that are returned with “Amyric Lawson” will be related to you and your posts. Here’s an article written by Keven Purdy at Lifehacker about using pseudonyms to control your searchable online identity.
Pseudonyms are a good muse. Writing under another name helps them to try on a new way of thinking and opens up a deeper level of creativity. This has been a practice online for decades and offline for centuries. If your primary focus is Tolkein’s work, it may be easier to use a name that has an ancient and more Rohan or Mirkwood feeling to it.
You can also use a pseudonym is to strengthen a brand. You can have one brand name… say “MegaBrand” and this will be everywhere on the Internet. Well, you can create another profile, say “MiniMega” that supports the same values that MegaBrand supports and allows for cross promotion.
Of course, there’s also the “two plus brands” issue, where you are one person who has several niche interests that don’t fully support each other. In this case, you can create multiple identities to support these two interests separately. For instance, if you like cooking, then you can associate yourself, online, with all things cooking. But if you now want to blog about “Random Conversations Overheard in the Subway” then you would probably be better off creating a separate identity in order to keep the topics separate. It would not necessarily strengthen your cooking brand to discuss random conversations. Again, dealing with multiple identities online can get confusing, so you will need to be efficient and mindful when posting content. Make sure you’re on the right twitter account!
As I mentioned earlier, one of the biggest downsides to using pseudonyms is that it may be hard to always know which profile you are in and to keep everything straight. Additionally, if you are posting damaging content, there could be negative repercussions that are probably not worth it if you really think about it. Another downside is that if you wanted to ever establish your own credibility with your real name, you would have to start over from the ground up unless you were also developing your own brand simultaneously.
No matter what reason you want to use a pseudonym, it is always good to really understand the intent of your actions. Why are you interested in doing it? Some questions to ask yourself about whether it is a good idea or not are: Is there a fear of “being caught” or “exposed” as your true identity? Is your content damaging or destructive on the whole? Are you providing value to the world? Is there something better and more value-building you could do with your time? If you can answer these and still decide that going by a pseudonym is what you want to do, then give it a shot and see how it works for you.
I’m interested to know what my readers think about pseudonyms and whether they are always good, always bad, a little bit of both, and when you think using pseudonyms are important.