In praise of pseudonyms…

A remarkably inappropriately titled article appeared in the Telegraph this morning.

“Facebook will soon let you post using someone else’s name”

The article itself, however, said something quite different: that ‘Facebook is reportedly working on a mobile app that will let its users interact without using their real name’. If true, this could be important – and a very positive move. Facebook have long been the champions of ‘real names’ policies: for them to recognise that there are important benefits that arise from the use of pseudonymity and sometimes anonymity is a big development – because there are benefits, and pseudonymity is one of the keys to real freedom of speech and autonomy, both online and in the ‘real’ world.

Firstly, to dispose of the Telegraph’s appalling headline, a pseudonym is very rarely ‘someone else’s name’. There are cases where people try to impersonate others, but these are a tiny fraction of the times that people use pseudonyms. Pseudonyms have been used for a very long time, and for very good reasons. Many people are better known for their pseudonyms than for their ‘real’ names – and they certainly didn’t ‘steal’ them. Did Eric Blair steal the name George Orwell? Did Mary Ann Evans steal the name ‘George Eliot’? Did Gideon Osborne steal the name George? And looking at the first two of those names, did Orwell and Eliot, ‘belong’ to someone else? Of course they don’t. Another George even springs to mind: George Osborne. Should we inset on calling him Gideon, because that was the name his parents gave him? I’m politically opposed to him in every way – but I’d defend his right to call himself George, and defend it to the hilt. Pseudonyms often belong to the people using them every bit as much as their ‘real’ names. In some ways they’re even more representative of the people: when choosing a pseudonym, people often put a lot of thought into the process, choosing something that represents them in some way, or represents some aspect of them.

Sometimes it’s about presentation – and sometimes it’s to protect your ‘real’ identity in an entirely reasonable way. It’s not that you have something to hide – but that your autonomy is better served by the ability to separate your life in some ways. Without that ability, your freedom of expression is chilled. As I’ve written before, there are many kinds of people for whom pseudonymity is crucial: whistle-blowers, people whose positions of responsibility make open speech difficult, people with problematic pasts, people with enemies, people in vulnerable positions, people living under oppressive regimes, young people, people with names that identify their ethnicity or religion, women (at times), victims of spousal abuse and others. It’s also something that helps people to let of steam, to explore different aspects of their lives – or simply to enjoy themselves.

I use my real name most of the time online – amongst other things because my ‘online presence’ is part of my job, an because I make professional links and connections here – but I’m in a privileged position, without any of the obvious vulnerabilities. I’m a white, middle-class, middle-aged, educated, employed, able-bodied, heterosexual, married man. It’s easier for me to function online with my real name – but even I don’t always do so. Over the last decade or so I’ve used a number of pseudonyms, and still use one now. For many years my main online presence was as ‘SpiritualWolf’, prowling the football message boards: I’m a Wolves fan. I didn’t particularly want to connect what I was doing on the football boards with my work life or even my home life – and wanted my football postings to be judged for their content, not on the basis of who I might be. Online life works like that. I created ‘SpiritualWolf’ – but I also was SpiritualWolf. It wasn’t someone else’s name – it was my name.

Even now I used a pseudonym – KipperNick – when I play at being the BBC’s Nick Robinson, in his role as cheerleader for UKIP, a role which, sadly, he often plays better than me. It’s a very different kind of identity – a clearly marked parody account – but it allows me a certain kind of freedom, and lets me have some fun. I don’t use it maliciously – at least I don’t try to….

…and that, in the end, is the rub. It’s not the pseudonymity that’s the problem when we’re looking at malicious communications, for example: it’s the malice. By attacking the pseudonyms we’re not just missing the target we’re potentially shutting off a great deal of freedom, chilling speech and controlling people when that control is really unnecessary. I’m delighted that Facebook has begun to realise this – though I’ll believe it when I see it.

 

Thanks to the many people who replied to my initial tweet about this earlier today – I’ve shamelessly used your examples in the blog post!

6 thoughts on “In praise of pseudonyms…

  1. One of the best pseudonyms was Fleet Street Fox it says it all and did she steal that? I am sad in a way that we now know who she is. There will be some who cite misues. I always wonder why the minority get such huge publicity – the tiny percent of benefit fraudsters for example. You present a real argument and as always my thanks for the post.

    PS. Isn’t IDS a pseudonym in a way and I think he likes this as it gives him an identity and an air of ‘superiority’ we should refer to him as George Smith that would be much more apt and honest, then perhaps those who admire him may actually see he is really ‘naked.’

  2. It’s not that you have something to hide – but that your autonomy is better served by the ability to separate your life in some ways. Without that ability, your freedom of expression is chilled.
    It’s a big and subtle subject.
    I don’t use a pseudonyms although I have many reasons to do so.
    I don’t because I don’t really want the division into different online selves and I notice that you, Paul, mention more than one of your own. It becomes a lot of work as well, that is if you (the poster) is interested in being recognised or followed in any of these roles. Not a motivation of mine.
    But I think this is part of the subtlety.
    I have to entertain a discipline in how I present and what I present.
    I wonder if malicious pseudonymous posters have large followings, that is people that recognise them for their posts. Usually not, I think. They usually just ride the wave of malice on the tail of their victim.
    Then there is the common situation of people who are in the employ of someone else. They just cannot speak freely.
    But this is interesting too. Because I think lawyers, most artists, writers, politicians, journalists and quite a few others would want a voice identified with themselves. Lawyers not in some circumstances.
    Often their voice and the voice of their employer becomes synonymous.
    And then again there is PR, the deeply offensive practice that is now common of media, including social media, manipulation by companies large enough to care about their reputation in this way, done in the dark under complete cover.
    As to Facebook and pseudonyms, it is a difficult problem technically.
    I expect what they will do is tie the pseudonym to a real person (who may or may not have other online Facebook presences) but offer not to reveal the link. So, if you trust them …
    And that is why it is called pseudonymous and not anonymous.

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