Anonymity and Pseudonyms in Social Software

On Facebook, and now Google Plus, real names are required. Since its launch, there has been a fair amount of controversy surrounding the Google Plus policies, including this from a former Google employee who goes by the name of Skud, who had her account suspended. Today Jyri posted (on Google Plus) about Pseudonymous Accounts and why they should be permitted. He argues that people should “not be booted off the system for using a made up name” and quotes the diary of a gay teenage girl, Agnes, writing about her love interest, Elin, in Show Me Love:

This is not an edge case. Nor is it just about the two billion people who live under oppressive regimes. If you are a person who “thinks different”, think back. Were you ever the nail that sticks out, at some point in your life? Like in Ã…mal, the home town of the two girls Agnes and Elin, the community preventing you from being all you can be is the neighborhood school, church, friend group… often it’s your family.

Later in the afternoon Bradley Horowitz, from Google, posted about some changes to Google Plus addressing some concerns, allowing people to associate fictitious names with their accounts under “Other Names” (which can also be used for maiden names and the like), clarifying the rules during the sign-up process, and the implementation of a warning system prior to account deletions. He noted that he himself goes by the name “Elatable” on various places on the internet. And I think Google is being responsive and trying to do the right thing (That “Data Liberation” link gets me every time!)

The point I think is this: Pseudonyms are not in themselves harmful. Yes, they can be used for harm, as when people use them for anonymous, slanderous attacks, trolling, etc., but in the vast majority of cases there is no harm done. Importantly, they can serve to protect vulnerable groups. There’s even a comprehensive list of people harmed by Real Names policies. In the cases where pseudonyms are being abused, it is the harm that should be stopped, not the pseudonyms.

To my mind there are three categories of Pseudonymous behavior, and they should be treated differently:

AKA or “Also Known As” is a common use case. It’s like a stage name or a nom de plume. Say your Nom de Web is Kryptyk Physh. It’s not your “real name”, but you’ve staked your claim to it, it’s easier to register an original name in crowded namespaces, and your friends have come to identify you by it. These names are usually accompanied by a real name, like Bradley associating himself with “Elatable” or my friend Todd using his customary handle “Telstar Logistics“. The person is not trying to conceal his or her identity, just use a handle. Harm? None. It’s fairly easy to design systems to accommodate this, and this is the use case that Google Plus was addressing with their changes today.

Pseudonym A false name, or a name unassociated with a real identity, to preserve anonymity, for protection. The spectrum of danger ranges from people trying to avoid email-harvesting spammers, through gay teenagers risking the judgment of their peers and family, workers fearing they might lose their jobs, journalists in corrupt regimes or political dissidents who could risk prison or death. Sometimes their friends and allies know who they are if others don’t, in a kind of identity steganography. This is a strong case for allowing pseudonyms to exist online, and such white hat users can generally be identified by the content they post and their behavior online, which distinguishes them from

Trolls, a rubric I’m using to include Trolls, Harassers, Griefers, Spammers, Pimps, Exploiters, Slanderers, Criminals, Impersonators, Haters and so on — these are the abusers of anonymity, using false names as a convenient fig leaf to cover up anti-social behavior and to escape the consequences they’d face if they’d used their own names. Strong moderation is the solution to this problem. (And not to be forgotten: people harass others using their real names too.) On many systems there is a combination of real names and pseudonyms. The system can be designed to elevate in trust people using their real names, as Amazon does, and similarly can be designed to raise or lower the reputation of people using pseudonyms, by their behavior, using their posts, comments and contributions, rather than their identity. A general policy (that I use for my own sites) is to publish cogent, considered posts by anonymous contributors, but throw out posts that are angry, unproductive or concern trolling.

“Real identities” have real benefits to users — creating communities of trust, silencing trolls, people standing by their words. Nothing can destroy a happy social space faster than allowing the trolls to go unchecked. The use of real names online has gained momentum in recent years, I think as a consequence of the rise of social networking; in an earlier era this wasn’t the case. But most peoples’ pseudonymous online behavior falls into the first two categories — only the third needs policing. Pseudonyms, which provide so many benefits to the first two categories, should not be banned because of the third.

How real names benefit Facebook and Google is another story, for another post.

48 thoughts on “Anonymity and Pseudonyms in Social Software

  1. Not all real names are equally identifying.

    My real name is Mary Lojkine, and if you Google that, you will find me. If my real name were John Smith, you’d find dozens of people who might be me.

    The John Smiths might argue that pseudonyms give them identity (category 1), whereas they give me the anonymity that the John Smiths get from their real name (category 2). Using real names makes people more accountable for what they post on-line, but it doesn’t affect everyone equally.

  2. How real names benefit Facebook and Google is another story –> are you pointing towards targeted information & advertising?

  3. ‘In US Common Law, pseudonym used “consistently, openly and non-fraudulently, without interfering with other people’s rights” is a legal name’

    So Google was Doing It Wrongâ„¢

  4. Thanks for speaking out on this. Let’s hope Google gets this right, because it has created a definite end to the G+ honeymoon phase, which was already being dented by the brand accounts issues. But there most average users were going, “well, it’s *just* brands”…

    I think anyone from a majority/dominant social group or culture is less likely to fully grap the deeper issues of this.

  5. The biggest beneficiary of “Real names”, by which i mean communities where most users have real-looking names, are technophobes.

    When thinking about average internet users I always think about my parents. If my parents came across a social network where people talked about interesting things, but everyone used handles like “matrix31” “elatable” “Skud .” and so on, they would feel alienated and would not use it [*]. However, if the people were shown as “Shawn Marion” “Brad Horowitz” and “Jean Doe” they would easily relate, since that’s how they relate to semi-strangers in real life–by their names. That’s also how their current online social networks (aka mass emails) work.

    However, that does not mean that they would need to see 100%-real-looking names to feel comfortable with the community. 90% would probably be okay, and 95% would definitely be acceptable. Based on that, i think that simply asking people to use realish names (as Google+’s policy currently requests) is sufficient to make a comfortable community, so long as you have good controls on abuse (huge challenge).

    [*] Flickr is the big exception here, because so much effort went into creating a great community, and people’s identities are more about their photos than their names. Still, not using real names makes discovery difficult.

  6. @myfreeweb Eeenteresting

    @Deutsch Inder – Yes and no…there are a bunch of posts conjecturing about that already (viz or though that’s not the the only benefit, there are many. A company that has as much information as Google has —- your address book, your email, your search history — doesn’t necessarily care if you’re James Butler or user #0890s78999w3334 either🙂

    @Andrew Yes, that sounds right too…familiarity, regular names. And thanks for the Flickr props🙂

  7. Another issue is community standards.
    What’s bonhomie in /r/gonewild is inappropriate in #python
    G+ should not try to flatten the idea of community.

  8. the chinese threads on this topic in google+ are more global and, pardon me, perhaps smarter.

    this link worked a couple of days ago .. seems google sees fit to 404 it

    maybe they deleted the guy’s account ..

    it is not just personal security, such as is practical in syria, china, egypt, etc. but also cultural habits and long built up social capital in names that work across other sites, like qq, msn, etc..

    the google+ team is very parochial for such a seemingly global company

  9. Well there is also an international angle. If my name is MatÄ›j Cepl guess how many people on the Internet gets it right (even if Unicode was working everywhere … ha ha)? If Skyd is actually Kirrily Robert, how many people have clue how to pronounce her name (I don’t)?

  10. Many people I talk to shrug their shoulders when conversation turns to anonymity and pseudonyms. They say that Facebook’s (and now G+’s) real name policy isn’t important, because it’s just a name.

    The apathy doesn’t surprise, but it still bothers me. Years from now, we’re going to discover cultural and societal artifacts that were driven by decisions like this.

    It reminds me of something Marshall McLuhan wrote: “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” We need more participants in the networked society need to take these conversations seriously.

  11. Well put. There’s also the interesting wrinkle of what standards social sites use to determine whose names are “real” or not: Facebook, for instance, has a history of using a word filter to recognize presumed non-names…a word filter that’s told people like Kenyatta Cheese and others (like this girl named Kurdistan – ) that their legal names are not “real” enough for the social network.

    Ironically, it was apparently this filter that resulted in writer Brett Dykes (a name banned from Facebook) from registering as Douchebagus Maximus (all clear under the filter).

  12. Real names and pseudonyms have their uses and benefits. Each use has it’s place, and google+ or facebook may not be that place. An influx of pseudonymous users would change they whole dynamic of the site. google+ doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t in my opinion, everything to everyone. If you want more pseudonymity, or pure anonymity, then there are other places on the Internet better suited to your needs.

  13. There are cultural aspects that the G+ team seemed not to have taken into consideration, such as the widespread us of a Engish/Western/Christian names in Hongkong and other areas of Asia. Also, I read that a guy with the name “Ping” was suspended. While the name has picked up meaning here in the West, the syllable (could be a number of different characters) is very common in Chinese names.

  14. It’s the internet. You’re not anonymous. If you don’t want people to know you say or think something then don’t do it publicly.

    And as for activists under oppressive regimes use TOR and don’t use anything to do with Google.

  15. I’m ok with allowing fake names, but I do believe in the concept of identity. You can identify yourself how you choose, but every post you make is associated with that persona you have created online. I think it’s important for developing credibility. I still think it’s possible to be anonymous AND an authority. my two cents.

  16. I’m not sure that you get the chance to both go from 0 to 20 million in no time flat, and also build a sense of community at the same time.

    The systems (that are gone) that I remember that had a strong sense of shared community and purpose and group identity all went through an extended gestation of time when people tried things out and where community leadership emerged. That’s the kind of leadership that you can show when there are 10,000 or 100,000 people engaged, but at 20 million, who could possibly have the personal reach to engage the network and show how things are done?

  17. Thank you for this article. I’d like to add another wrinkle to your reason for wanting something between an AKA and a pseudonym. I work for a very conservative company and I have very liberal views (somewhat to the left of Dennis Kucinich.) I also belong to one of the most mistrusted groups in the USA…Atheists. While I don’t worry that I’ll lose my job for my beliefs (since they are not critical of my employer) I do recognize that my world views might be a barrier to employment should I decide to change jobs in the future.

    I have created a pseudonym on LinkedIn that has yet to be discovered so I haven’t yet been kicked off. I’m clear in my self description that this is an “alter ego” created so I can speak freely about controversial topics and that my views will not be seen as representative of my employer.

    At some point I hope that this alter ego becomes a nom de plume as I try my hand at writing. If I become successful enough, perhaps I’ll no longer need to care about my views becoming a liability for employment. I want people I trust to know about my alter ego but want the public at large not to connect the two names for now.

    Thanks to myfreeweb for info about US Common Law. Very helpful.

    I’m fortunate in that both my names are unusual enough that I am the primary person identified by search engines.

  18. Pingback: Google + y el derecho al anonimato

  19. people always complain about Trolls, Haters etc…but isn’t annoying also the category of suck-ups, kiss-ups or whatsoever you wanna call em?

  20. There is another reason for a pseudonym besides protection, and that is “because I say so.” It’s my choice to identify myself however I want, in any context. Who is anyone else to say how I should identify myself?

  21. it seems to be that the problem has not been clearly stated yet.

    on one side, you have the sensible arguments for “fake names” as noted here and elsewhere. on the other side (corporate), there is no clear reasoning given just yet for demanding real names — never mind that Google terms it as “common names” which is a can of worms with an radioactive can opener.

    perhaps the way to make it clear is that social networks should discourage multiple accounts from a single person. that’s it. a lofty goal and a simplification of the problem without PR speak. so really, what they seek is one person to an identity — and forget the semantics of the name. if I want to be called “awesome sauce” then so be it, as long as there is single person attached to that through accountable means.

    it would be a step backwards if social networks were more restrictive than Ellis Island. y

    the sense of trust and community is very important, and a sense of verifiability is good, more so to avoid the Trolls. it is not going to be perfect, just like our online “friends” never are.

  22. Let’s get real about this – it’s about joining a social/commercial “ecosystem” the essential feature of which is not your name, but your credit card. Enough said.

  23. Communication in your local neighborhood might be another area for anonymous communication, sharing and organizing. One needs to communicate, but not necessarily by disclosing one’s identity.

    In the real world, if you have a yard sale or moving-out sale one usually sticks a sign post at the street corner but without personally identifiable details. If one is to attract locals to such a planned event, social networks need to support such use cases for anonymous postings.

  24. AKAs /Psuedonyms are not just phenomena of the online world – this is an accepted practice since time immemorial. How many celebrities, artists, writers, etc changed their names to be more marketable/palatable or to hide their true identity to the world ? (Will Shakespeare anyone?🙂

  25. I think a large part of the reason that real names have become more common is that *so many more* people are now on line that people have come to understand *why* online harassment is important to deal with; it’s not just “some little playground spat” that can be ignored, anymore.

    And since in the pseudonymity interregnum (between about 1983 or so, when Usenet started to get big) and the last 2 or 3 years (when Facebook did), dealing with the fact that there are just a fair number of creeps out there was probably the number 1 or 2 reason to adopt a psuedonym, that’s important.

    There are, as this piece notes, lots of people for whom the creeps in question are much more concrete and specific — your ex, who wants to beat you up, frex — but I don’t think that anyone *who’s actually given the issue any thought — has a problem with those people wanting to be pseudonymous. Except perhaps Republican Politicians.

  26. Tom, what an ignorant thing to say. To dictate that we should all be forced to use our real names everywhere unless we belong to one group is really heavy-handed. There are many reasons to use a name other than the one on your birth certificate.

    1. It’s a professional name (actors, musicians, writers etc)
    2. No one knows your “real” name (IE you’ve been Skippy all your life)
    3. You don’t want to spam all your friends with Zynga crap – so you create a separate FB profile where you can happily trade manure til the lonely brown cows come home with other new friends.
    4. You’ve been a victim of stalking or abuse. You want to connect with those you trust and not be so easily found by those who would harm you.
    5. You don’t want advertisers linking your interests online to your credit card habits (and yes, they are doing this…why do you think Google and Facebook care so MUCH? You don’t really think they care about trolls do you?? Don’t you remember Beacon? It’s so much worse now.

    All of my online presences are under an altered name. If I get suspended, I simply won’t use the services anymore. And I do use their services. Plus, as a marketer, I’ve bought ads on both FB and Google platforms. Kick me off and I’ll spend my dollars elsewhere.


  27. It seems to me that there’s no inherent right or wrong about a social network or forum requiring real names: The provider decides what type of community it wants to build, and people can join or not, as they see fit.

  28. Pingback: The CMO Site - Keith Dawson - Google+ Struggles With Identity, Pseudonymity, Anonymity

  29. How about this – I am Filipino on my mother’s side. Back home (as we say), it seems like everybody goes by a nickname. I mean, I just found last year that my Uncle Jesse’s real name is Diasdado. As you know, I could also tell you about my Auntie Lita, Auntie Babes, Uncle Butch, Tito Jhun, and on and on and on. For all intents and purposes these are their names. These names just happen to not be on their birth certificate. If you used their “real names” most of their good friends and even family would have not idea about whom you are speaking.

    So, if on the internet, you are known everywhere as “C1bayr” and you create relationships based on it, isn’t that name as valid as what is on your birth certificate. Put another way, should Natalie Portman be forced to use her “real name” on the internet? I think we would all agree that you should be able to make your own name, just as long as the intent is not to deceive.

  30. @Jon, ha! something Filipinos understand instinctively. I have relatives back in the Philippines that have their nicknames like “Brother” and even “Spaceman” on their bank accounts and even their gravestones.

  31. In 2007, the idea of Community/comment moderation was still seen as a violation of all that was once good and true about the Internet. Today moderation is seen as the obvious way to stop communities from deteriorating, and it’s mostly no big deal. So, given that online community culture *now* views moderation as the norm, I cannot imagine how the benefits of Real Names could possibly outweigh the downsides to eliminating anonymity.

    For that subset of anonymous users who are hiding behind it to cover their hate/harassment, etc. the answer is to stop the systems that reinforce their behavior. Allowing them to create havoc in a community is a reinforcement and as every good dog trainer knows (thanks to Skinner), “behavior that is reinforced is repeated and strengthened.” Stop the reinforcement, by moderating (bouncing) them off the discussion, and the problems of anonymity drop dramatically.

    However, I have seen the realISH name policy work quite well in at least one very active (3 million unique visitors a month today, around since 1998) programmer community. Though I have seen only anecdotal evidence, there really *does* seem to be a difference in how people treat one another when it *feels* like people talking to people, as you would meet at a dinner party. Even when everyone there is aware that the real-sounding names might be completely made-up.

  32. Caterina — great post. The way I see it Google’s decision to block pseudonymous accounts is first of all a shortsighted business decision. It turns what could have become a major advantage over Facebook into a weakness. Moreover, Google does not require anyone to provide their real name — all it wants is name that looks like real. In other words Google is open to having Joe Smith the Troll on Google+ (at least initially), but closes its doors to anyone who wants to use a well known online identity.

    More about this in my open letter to Larry Page:

  33. Great analysis of anonymity by a woman whose real name is Fake. (couldn’t resist – hope you haven’t heard this a thousand times already…)

    Facebook and Linkedin succeed as real-name communities because connecting with real people is a key benefit they offer. Is better organization of your real-life relationships (via Circles) enough of a draw to make it work for Google+? Probably so.

    Google Circles seems like it’s a natural to manage both real and pseudo/aka identities from one tool… you choose which ID to use for different activities… but then Google would know both your secrets and your real name (!)

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  35. The value proposition of publishing personally identifying information on the public internet sucks out loud. The upside is merely a matter of convenience, the downside is the increased risk of genuine loss to identity thieves and so on.

    There’s a great opportunity waiting for the next big social media app, let’s call it Facelessbook. It would give people the tools they need to mitigate the error they made when they gave away their privacy.

  36. My name is Caterina Fake, and I am a 45 year old male truck driver from south chicago. My given name was Ima, I had so much trouble with people assuming my name was not real, so Inchanged it to Emme Poster. Then I changed it to Caterina Fake. I think my name reflects my inner self, as I am a kind and gentle 6’5″ former Rugby player. Some women say I am a Chauvinist, to which I say, “yeah, maybe, but I am at least in touch with my inner pig”.

  37. Even on my “anglo” side – mestizo ako – my Dad was always called Brother (or really, “bruuther” with a Texas twang). That is how all the family called him. So it not just Filipino. In this land of Jay Gatsby (James Gatz) and Cary Grant (Archibald Leach), the ability to invent oneself and give the new id a unique name (Lady Gaga) is part of the “American Way”. God love it!

    PS I know Cary Grant was born a Brit, but he did reinvent himself as a quintessential American. “North by Northwest” wouldn’t work any other way.

  38. Pingback: Google+ Identity Crisis: What’s at Stake With Real Names and Privacy « News Worldwide

  39. To place it in a bigger context: It is all about how many freedom you are willing to pay for an illusion of more security. In the small case of G+ it is just the spammers and trolls in other cases it is restriction to freedom of travel, digital fingerprints in passports, body scanners and so on.

  40. Hi Caterina,

    thanks for the article.

    Here in Germany some politicians ask also a complete tracing of the internet and since the rampage in Norway they ask more and more. In my opinion it’s impiously.

    For myself I use the inet since over one year through a VPN channel so it’s more difficult to trace it. And my real name will never appear in the inet (I hope).



    P.S. I don’t know if you know this, but there is an articel in the most popular News magazin in Germany:,1518,776897,00.html

  41. Kudos to Sue Donum for an outstanding idea for the next great social media app. If I had the technical expertise, I’d start it today. If anybody does create this app, please sign me up (make that sign up my pseudonym)

    BTW, my 15 year old daughter has been on Tumblr for the past year or so and apparently “everyone” on it uses a pseudonym. Some even connect in real life (via phone or Skype) and still use their screen names when they talk to others. They know how many predators are on the internet and have protected themselves. Perhaps we should look at this approach for guidance.

  42. Pingback: Anonymity and Pseudonyms in Social Software – Media Strategery

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  44. Caterina,
    Thank you for this post! Since coming to CafeMom to head sales and strategy in June, I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between social media networks and community. Key elements of sense of community include a feeling of belonging and acceptance, trust and emotional safety, and clear boundaries. At CafeMom, we help millions of moms meet in hundreds of communities gathered together for various reasons — having a baby in September, being a single mom, dealing with an autistic child, living in the midwest, etc. There are a few things we believe are key to our success with community — it’s only for moms, anonymity and moderation. There’s a huge difference between what a mom will post on a social network to potentially 500 or 1000 people and what she can post in a trusted community of moms like her who understand what she is going through. Anonymity is a part of this — would you post something like “I don’t know how to deal with my teenage daughter’s drinking” or “I am hating my baby twins right now because they never let me get a night’s sleep, what to do?” on Facebook? Most people would not. But these are the sorts of conversations that many moms need to have and gather to help each other get through. It’s the power of community — and occasionally of moderation — that enables these conversations stay appropriate.
    Edward Vielmetti above points out a key issue though: “I’m not sure that you get the chance to both go from 0 to 20 million in no time flat, and also build a sense of community at the same time.” Even though CafeMom has 7.1 uniques, our hundreds of communities are smaller and they are connected by being a mom, common interest and concern.

  45. Pingback: What’s Really Behind the Real-Name Debate? - Liz Gannes - Social - AllThingsD

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