Privacy

Real names, real problems: Pseudonymity under siege

Pseudonymity, part of Net culture since its early beginnings, may become a quaint relic of the early Internet

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When you sign up for Facebook, the social network's terms require you use "your real name as listed on your credit card, student ID, etc." Given the tens of millions of fake accounts on the site, however, it's not clear how stringently or effectively this rule is enforced. Last January, users of Facebook and Instagram suspected of violating their terms of agreement were asked to provide government-issued IDs to validate their accounts, spurring another round of protests. (Facebook did not respond to requests for comment about its real names policy.)

As a result, some members of the nym community shun the major social networks entirely. Others, like Elsa, maintain multiple personal accounts (which also violates the terms of service for many social networks). But hiding in plain sight may soon no longer be an option. Last month, Facebook said it was considering deploying facial recognition software to analyze users' profile photos. The ostensible reason is to make better suggestions for tagging images, but it could end up inadvertently outing people who operate under multiple identities.

That's one reason why, when engaged in her real world kink persona, Elsa is careful to avoid having her face photographed.

What's in a nym?

People adopt nyms for a variety of reasons. Some do it to create a clear boundary between their professional and personal lives. Some maintain separate identities for different contexts, adopting a unique one for each group they participate in. Some have used the same nyms for so long that large bodies of work and longtime relationships are associated with them.

Gaius Publius has been writing political blog posts under a pen name since 2003, for sites like AmericaBlog and Truthout. 'Publius' is, of course, the pseudonym used by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay when composing the Federalist Papers; he added Gaius to distinguish himself from other political bloggers who've also adopted the name Publius.

The reason for the nym is straightforward: Publius doesn't want his opinions about climate change or NSA surveillance to affect how others in his profession perceive him, and he doesn't want to self-censor to protect his professional identity.

"I would rather selectively reveal my political leanings to people in my life person by person, instead of having them stumble across these things through my writing," he says.

Nym rights activist aestetix has been using a pseudonym online for so long he doesn't really remember how it started. (Like Gaius Publius, he declined to provide his legal name for this article.) Among other activities, aestetix gives public talks at security conferences about online identity. During the Nymwars, aestetix had his G+ account suspended for using an unacceptable name, only to be reinstated later without explanation.

"There are people I've known for 10 years who know me only as aestetix," he says. "I've developed an entire portfolio built around that persona."

Others adopt a nym because their lives may literally depend on it – like political dissidents, victims of sexual or spousal abuse, or just people whose lifestyles subject them to social prejudice, notes Randall Farmer, longtime online community manager and author of the Social Media Clarity podcast.

"Cancer survivors or members of Alcoholics Anonymous may not want to share who they really are," he says. "Pseudonyms let these people do things online they couldn't possibly do if they had to be identified. Sites that require 'real' names are stomping into an area that's very complicated."

Sophie's choice

Nearly two years ago, Sophie S. dropped the male surname she was given at birth and began living as a woman. But the transgender software developer in San Francisco had already been online as a woman for more than a decade, mostly in massive multi-player games like World of Warcraft.

"Growing up I always had major issues being perceived as a man," she says. "Playing online games where everyone knew me only as a female helped a lot in making the transition."

Three years ago, Blizzard Entertainment began to require members to use their legal names in an attempt to root out abusive players. Sophie, who had registered for WoW using the name on her birth certificate before creating her female persona, suddenly found her male name revealed to other players.

"I wanted to play Starcraft 2, but everywhere I went it said I was Steven," she says. "I didn't want everyone to interact with me as male. I emailed Blizzard to see if they would be willing to change my online name to Sophie. They said they wouldn't do it without legal documentation of a name change."

At the time she didn't have the money to file the paperwork for a name change. Instead she closed her account and started a new one as Sophie.

"I lost my friends, contacts, all my achievements, she said. "Everything I had built up over the years I lost when I had to start over from scratch."

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