We Need Online Alter Egos Now More Than Ever

By Judith S. Donath

Online, I use my real name for many things. But sometimes, I prefer to use a pseudonym. Not because I want to anonymously harass people or post incendiary comments unscathed; no, I simply want to manage the impression I make, while still participating in diverse conversations and communities.

“Hold on!” some of you are saying. “Writing under a fake name is a form of lying. It’s cowardly and the tactic of bullies and trolls. We need to make people use their real names online to ensure civility and trust.” Indeed, whenever a new controversy about cyberbullying or anonymous rumors arises, a frequently offered “solution” is to ban anonymous comments and insist that people use real names. But this approach focuses on the wrong issue and creates a false dichotomy, presenting the choices as either fully identified, real names or untraceable anonymity.

Instead, we should focus on how to design for keeping online discourse civil and constructive. And this involves supporting the middle ground, pseudonymous identities, which can provide both accountability and privacy.


Online, words persist forever, in vast searchable databases. Anything you say or do using your real name is permanently attached to it.

Insisting that people use their real names online to prevent trolling and ensure civility ignores the fact that using real names online is quite different than using them in person. In the physical world, space and time separate facets of our lives, providing everyday privacy. Even though you use your real name in conversations you have in person with your podiatrist or pastor, those conversations and opinions are not accessible to your co-workers and neighbors. Online, however, the product review you generously provided for an underarm deodorant or for books about coping with binge eating or bed-wetting, will, if written under your real name, be part of your online portrait, what your neighbors, kids and random strangers see about you. Online, words persist forever, in vast searchable databases. Anything you say or do using your real name is permanently attached to it.

It is that very permanence that can be used to design better tools for online interaction. A persistent pseudonym establishes a local identity: you always use it on a certain site or sites, and you build up a history and reputation under that name. You might use one pseudonym to write all sorts of product and service reviews, another in a support group for a personal health issue, and use your real name in discussions on professional forums and to comment on news stories.

The key to making pseudonymous participation productive is to inspire people to care about the impression they are making on others. In physical environments, the body anchors identity; online, one’s history of contributions and interactions functions as one’s “body”, but it can be difficult to see. We can fix this by designing visualizations – data portraits – that make identities based on words and data vivid and easily perceived. Data portraits encapsulate each person’s history and reputation within a community, and thus encourage people to take responsibility for their words, inhibiting bad behavior. At the same time, they can be pseudonymous, giving people the freedom to discuss things they would be reticent to do under their real name.

Many thriving communities allow pseudonymous participation, using various ways of making history and reputation visible. On Twitter, you can see users’ past tweets and number of followers just by clicking on their name. Disqus provides the commenting interface for millions of sites and allows people to choose whether they want to be anonymous, fully identified or pseudonymous. Their assessment? “Pseudonyms are the most valuable contributors to communities because they contribute the highest quantity and quality of comments.”
Yet our option to use pseudonyms is endangered. Online participation increasingly requires using a socially verified account, usually provided by one of the giant social networks — Google+, Facebook, Linked In, etc. – which insist that people use their real names, their users enmeshed in a network of friends and colleagues. Newspapers, blogs and many other sites require people to identify themselves with one of these accounts to take part in any discussion.

So, if persistent pseudonyms can both encourage civility and preserve privacy, why is there such a strong push for real names? One reason is that insisting on real names can seem like a quick and easy way to improve the quality of comments. Another, less pro-social one is that advertisers want them in order to aggregate all the details about you. Insisting on a single identity tied to your real world, credit-card-carrying self makes your comments and reviews into a monetizable package, fit to be analyzed and marketed to.

The chilling effect of insisting on real names stifles political and other controversial discussions, inhibiting people from stating their views on gun laws, feminism, terrorism, abortion, climate change and so on. When such debates are held face to face, in cafes and over dinner tables, there is little concern that, say, a future employer will learn what you said and decline to hire you (unless you have the misfortune to live in a regime with a Stasi-like network of citizen-spies), but as the internet increasingly becomes the venue of choice for such discussions, any opinion stated under your real name is trivially accessible. For anyone in a vulnerable position – people seeking a job, people whose beliefs are at odds with their neighbors or co-workers – the ability to participate in such discussions depends, effectively, on being able to do so pseudonymously.

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