why pseudonymity matters

My friends are an interesting bunch. I’m not talking about their brilliance, creativity, and charisma, although they have that in glorious abundance. I’m talking about their hacking (in both the computer and the MIT sense), their naked parties and their bondage parties, their experience with all manner of drugs.

I’m glad I know people who have had these sorts of experiences, and are willing to talk about them publicly. The things you learn, you know? I like having friends who come from a variety of experiences and perspectives so that my world can be bigger than my own experience.

But I used to be a teacher. And let me tell you, when I was a teacher, there was no way I would have admitted that I knew these people under my own name.

To be quite clear: I’m not ashamed of knowing them. I don’t think these activities are anything to be ashamed of. I don’t think (given some common-sense boundaries about consensuality of sex and reversibility of pranks) that they’re immoral. But they are occasionally illegal, and they are certainly hard to explain. And when I was a teacher, I lived in fear that some parent would discover I associated with people like that, and insist I be removed from contact with their children. Or that my students would discover these things and use them to demean me or destroy my authority in the classroom. (In fact, I was at one point harassed by students based on the results of a Google search.)

In short, had a real names policy been ubiquitous while I was in that role, I would have had to choose between my job (my career, my livelihood) and engaging with my friends online. Not “I could have had to choose”, if some parent had googled me and hit the ceiling. I would have had to, because the chilling effects of that policy would have prevented me from engaging online with my friends at all.

Pseudonymity, and password-protected spaces, let me do both. Pseudonymity lets us do the same thing that meatspace and its constraints have let us do for millennia: present different aspects of ourselves in different social contexts while remaining within social norms — even when the presentation of those same aspects in other contexts would violate norms. Meatspace lets us do this all under the same name because sound fades in time and space, because meatspace is seldom recorded or indexed or searchable, because meatspace typically shows us the people we’re interacting with and lets us make choices accordingly. The post-Google internet gives us none of those affordances, but gives us — has given us — instead: names. We can name and group our contexts and aspects to give us the shelter of local social norms. We can be a part of the social norms that matter most to us, even when they are out of favor with some more culturally dominant norm that has the potential to hurt us if we violate it.

This is what danah boyd means, I think, when she says “Real names” policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people. Policies that force us to present all aspects of ourselves under our hegemonic, dominant-culture name are policies which threaten our expression of the aspects of ourselves which are not in conformity with that dominant culture, and to engage with communities of the same. And the degree to which that is a threat to people is exactly the degree to which they are already out of conformity with that dominant norm. It is the reason why lists of who is harmed by a real names policy are teeming with people who belong to some sort of minority, espouse a locally unpopular belief, or are already vulnerable for other reasons: lesbian and gay teenagers; women who have experienced stalking or violence; members of minority religions; dissidents. The reason they most need a pseudonym to engage with their communities is the reason they are most threatened — truly, physically and economically and psychologically, in the real world, threatened — if pseudonyms are not allowed.

Some people express concerns that, without real names, the internet teems with awful people; real names are needed as a safeguard against that. This is poppycock.

Firstly, the internet teems with awful people because some people are awful. They are awful under their real names, too. The most cursory glance at history or the world around you will reveal that.

Secondly, per Anil Dash, if your website’s full of assholes, it’s your fault. There are tools, grounded in both code and norms, for promoting positive culture online. He goes into them in depth. Not one of them is “real names”. “Accountable identities”, yes — people who engage with a community under a persistent pseudonym accrete a reputation around that pseudonym and will act to protect it, and be treated by the community in accordance with that reputation. Persistent pseudonymity is importantly different from anonymity and I do wish people would realize that.

I was on a mailing list in the 90s that was central to the intellectual and emotional lives of many of the people on it; its founder operated pseudonymously. I have participated in numerous online communities under persistent pseudonyms — whether because as a teacher I wanted to separate those aspects of myself from my public persona, or simply because I have the world’s most google-able name and I don’t want everything of me to be available and traceable to everyone else — and in this capacity I have formed relationships, real relationships, with other people operating under pseudonyms. I met two people I like and respect tremendously in a community where I have been rigorous about never associating my real name; nor did I know theirs for years. So when people say real names are important for accountability, or culture, or engagement, I could not be more blistering and sure when I say, poppycock.

This post has veered off inevitably into the personal — naming is one of the topics I am most deeply passionate about — so let’s veer more. As some of you know and others may have guessed, “Andromeda” is not what I was named at birth. (Really, now. My parents are wonderful and interesting, but they’re not crazy.) Andromeda is my “real name” in every way that matters: I have been going by it since I was 13, which means nearly everyone I know has only ever known me under that name; it has been my legal name since I was 18; it is what is on my passport and driver’s license and social security card, even if it is not the name on my birth certificate. It is the name that is associated with nearly all of my professional and social accomplishments. It is my name.

This has made me profoundly sensitive to what other people wish to be called. If people say their name is danah (uncapitalized) or Skud or Jennifer 8. Lee, if they tell me they’re transitioning and going by an opposite-gender name now, that is damn well what I am going to call them, because anything less would be a mark of profound disrespect.

Anything less would be me trying to colonize their identity: to tell them that their assessment of who they are matters less than mine, and that my norms dominate their understanding of themselves. And this is what real-names policies do. They posit that some normative concept of our own identity and self-presentation has primacy over our understanding of those things; they rip away structures that allow us to participate respectfully, or even acceptably, in communities with diverse norms, and in doing so privilege the most mainstream of those norms; they threaten people who are already vulnerable by removing their ability to engage with communities where certain parts of themselves are safe, or risking reprisal from more powerful people and norms if they do. And they are not necessary. The internet can be civil without them, or uncivil with them — and either way civility is not a more important value than free expression, or employability, or physical safety. Sometimes some of us are lucky enough to not have them be in conflict; let us not assume this is, therefore, true for everyone, at all times.

Edit: There is now a version of this at the wonderful my.nameis.me project: http://my.nameis.me/227/andromeda-yelton/ I’m extremely honored to have been asked to contribute.

17 thoughts on “why pseudonymity matters

  1. Fan.tastic. Post. Seriously. I live in queer communities where naming can be life or death stuff, and where “real names” can get people killed. The internet is once of the only places we’re empowered to self name. Our registrars offices and id bureaus could take a lesson. Thanks for this clear articulation.


  2. Fantastic post! Wiccans have been going by pseudonyms for centuries for just that reason. I am involved in BDSM too, and as a former teacher and practicing Wiccan, lived in terror about being found out. And this before the Internet!


    1. Just FYI, Wicca hasn’t existed for centuries. It was founded in the 1940s. So please don’t compare when it doesn’t exist.


  3. I identify with this so much. I’m queer, an atheist, and a proponent of some non-mainstream political views. I’m also a middle school teacher in Texas and, as such, vulnerable. I don’t want to have to choose between my job, which I love, and my online life. At work, I have to keep a large part of myself hidden; online I can be my complete self in a way that I can’t during the work day.


  4. Amen to all of the above! It disappoints me tremendously that a service whose *defining feature* is the ability to have multiple social circles to reflect real-world communities does not understand that those circles may best be inhabited under differently-named persistent identities.


  5. America was founded on free speech. Much of that speech was highly emotionally charged and hate filled. Much of it was simply name calling in an attempt to goad other parties into rash behavior. People also changed names or how a name was spelled as they wished, no one thought it odd. Pseudonyms and anonymity are a foundation of free speech. It does allow chaos, meanness, and sometimes downright lying. So what? The freedom it guarantees is worth it. You cannot have free flow of information and at the same time try to block the ideas you despise. Forcing “real names” hurts not only the vulnerable but eventually it also hurts those that consider themselves invulnerable. There is filth and sickness on the internet. On this everyone agrees. Exactly what parts are filthy and sick is where the debate and strong words come in. While I may or may not agree with you, and I have a feeling there is much I’d disagree with, you are free to do and say as you please. This issue is much deeper than protecting those living alternate lifestyles. This issue is about protecting the whole free world. Freedom has nothing to do with civility. Freedom is sometimes big and ugly and mean. Sometimes I’m big and ugly and mean too. Sometimes it is necessary to be that way. Let no one pretend that this debate about names is about making everyone play nice with one another. It is about controlling, tracking, sorting, labelling and bullying all people into some group’s ideal behavior. Those invulnerable group members have no idea how close they are to becoming just like the rest of us scared average Joes.


    1. I completely agree that — much as I like civility — we shouldn’t be sacrificing free speech to it, and we can’t protect the flow of important ideas without (maybe) erring on the side of letting awful things have air time. And you make a good point that pseudonymity is an important part of US history (who doesn’t like reading the Federalist Papers?).

      On other things, maybe we agree, maybe we don’t — I try to cultivate friends who disagree with one another, and thus, necessarily, sometimes with me too. 🙂


  6. This is brilliant. I like that you point out that pseudonyms online are just an attempt to reclaim the normal level of obscurity we could take for granted in meatspace. Otherwise, the internet is like living your whole life in a crowded room that simultaneously contains your grandma, your ex, your professors, and the person who shipped your last Amazon.com order.

    I went through a long phase of using pseudonyms (LiveJournal), not using them (Facebook became big around the time I started college), and using them again (leaving college for the real world). I hate how some people assume that if you use a pseudonym, you’re up to something nefarious. No, I just want to stick a folding screen between the me that writes plays and the me that worked as a lab technician. I also wanted to choose a nom-de-plume inspired by one of my favorite stories. And I’m also not that attached to my real last name, which is itself a pseudonym made up at Ellis Island.


  7. Possibly the best piece of writing I’ve read, on the internet and elsewhere.

    I’d like to comment that the people who fear that pseudonimity protects the aggressors, entirely forget that it also protects the /Victims/.

    I moved 3000 miles to avoid the people who abused me for 10 years, then another 3000 miles to avoid the people who spoke about the first group as if they were saints. I know of nobody who will walk into a rape crisis center wanting the world to know that they, their real professional name, just walked into a rape crisis center.

    The idea that walking into a rape crisis forum should be different is unforgivable.

    Having to maintain multiple google accounts to keep this whole fiasco separate from the alternative culture pseudonym separate from the creative nom de plume and that separate from my real, professional name– that is so much more chaos that is warranted.

    How I wish your post were required reading for the internet.


    1. Thank you for commenting. I’m honored by your compliments.

      I’ve been keenly aware, in writing about pseudonymity, that I have the privilege right now to be able to do so under my own name, and that there are people out there who face much more danger without pseudonymity — the stories people need to hear most, but for the same reason the ones that are the least likely to be told. I’ve been hoping that, by speaking out, I can also speak for. It is helpful to know that, from your extremely important perspective, I’ve been doing a good job of this.


  8. I agree compeletely! I do NOT like it when the manageing partner looks at me alot either, but I have to work with him so I do NOT say anything.


  9. (I was browsing the My Name Is Me project, and your name hit me with a physical shock of joy. I wouldn’t have recognized you without your name. You know my friend K* at camp. You probably don’t know me, and certainly not by this name because it didn’t exist then. You might have heard of me: K was the one with the boyfriend who went to a different site and wound up with the harem; I was one of the more notable members of the harem. The social crowd that sustained me through adolescence intersected nontrivially with yours. )

    This is my name. This is the name under which I have accumulated my reputation, the parts that I worked for, the parts that came naturally, and the misconceptions. This is the name I give people who matter. I’ve done some excellent things; I’ve done some pretty damn lousy things. This is the name I am known by. I keep my government name separate for many reasons, some of which I discuss and some of which I do not, and they are sufficient that I am willing to go to the trouble and effort of maintaining separate identities.

    I like to choose when or whether to have the conversation about how I am bisexual, polyamorous, pagan, genderqueer, feminist, activist, centrist-leaning-liberal, pro-choice, sex-positive, kinky, and into open source software. Particularly with my workplace and the hypothetical elderly relative set. (My oldest living relative who I have a chance of seeing more than in passing is my father, who has the privilege of knowing my real name’s email address, and has traced that back to my blog.)

    No matter how proud I am of being who I am and doing what I do, having That Conversation is draining, even when there are few personal consequences if I turn out to not witness for my people well enough and the person who is questioning my right to exist or hold my beliefs dismisses me as subhuman or wrong. As myself, I’ve already marshaled my forces, worked out the intricacies of bipolygenderqueerkinkster ethics with K* as a teenager over endless emails, and had the conversation with the people who matter most. As the person I am in the workplace, I’m a little at loose ends. It’s not something I expect to come up, and I don’t really want to talk about it.

    I don’t need to be forced into a conversation about why I hold the positions I do in the workplace. I do not tend to bring potentially controversial issues into the workplace, because I generally do not feel that the workplace is the correct forum for that, and I do not need to have that conversation with my boss, and I do not need to possibly get fired for something about myself that I had no intention of bringing into the office setting.


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