This summer I was at a conference in my field that had a tweet up. I don’t just tweet as @sarcozona – I also maintain a real-name, professional identity on twitter, and I went to the tweetup under that identity.
The conversation drifted towards the appropriate way to handle tweeting conference talks that go very badly. Someone said something to the effect of “it’s a good thing I don’t tweet under a pseudonym or I’d say some pretty mean stuff.” The group largely agreed that pseudonyms were a protective shield for poor behaviour. Some of them thought that if they were writing under pseudonyms they’d be saying much meaner and snarkier things. Writing under pseudonyms was disparaged and laughed at or considered bad behaviour by some of the people there. No one defended pseudonyms.
Of course pseudonyms and anonymity can be used to harass and abuse people (but real names don’t fix the problem). Importantly, pseudonyms give us freedom, flexibility, and privacy to explore and express ourselves. There’s a concept described in that linked article called “the elastic self” that I think is really important. I’m going to go on in this post later and give you a bunch of serious and practical reasons why pseudonyms are important, but those reasons might not apply to you. The elastic self probably does. Here’s the article quoting anthropologist Tricia Wang:
Chinese youth are developing new forms of engagement that they can iterate in their social circles with people they know. Before doing that, however, they search for safe spaces where they can safely and anonymously practice new ways of thinking and being. These interactions offer them freedom and distance from their existing relationships. They eventually use the experiences, relationships, and practices cultivated through their Elastic Self in other areas of their life.
Why shouldn’t the internet be a space where we can grow and learn like this?
Earlier in the tweetup, I’d had a fantastic conversation with another woman about the benefits of living online under a pseudonym. It allowed us to explore topics that could be professionally damaging and to learn the ropes of various communities and technologies safely. I’ve maintained Sarcozona much longer than my real name identity online and I do not use it so I can be meaner than I would be under my real name. I use it because I’m a feminist, poly queer with a chronic illness who’d like to talk about those things, have a community around some of those things, and still have some measure of protection from harassment and stigma in my real life.
I tweeted from both of my accounts at the conference. I talked about cool science from my professional account and struggles with my health and encounters with sexism from my pseudonymous account. I believe it’s important to have conversations about sexism and disability in my discipline, but recognize that having those discussions under my real name could be very damaging to my career or even lead to personal attacks.
Before you dismiss or disparage people for using pseudonyms, consider their possible reasons for using a different identity and the privilege that allows you to keep your identity unsegmented:
There are myriad reasons why an individual may feel safer identifying under a name other than their birth name. Teenagers who identify as members of the LGBT community, for example, are regularly harassed online and may prefer to identify online using a pseudonym. Individuals whose spouses or partners work for the government or are well known often wish to conceal aspects of their own lifestyle and may feel more comfortable operating under a different name online. Survivors of domestic abuse who need not to be found by their abusers may wish to alter their name in whole or in part. And anyone with unpopular or dissenting political opinions may choose not to risk their livelihood by identifying with a pseudonym.
At the tweetup, when my little group’s opinion on pseudonyms became clear, I became very aware that I was the only woman in this particular corner and that they were all white and mostly middle aged. I knew several in the group had tenure. Perhaps they don’t need the protection of pseudonymity because of who they are, or perhaps the aspects of their lives that require shelter are lived only in the offline world. But many people would be excluded from many conversations and parts of online life without the benefit of pseudonyms.
We at TSW are pseudonymous. This allows us to have frank conversations about issues like sexual harassment or handling crazy workloads without worrying about repercussions at our jobs. I believe that TSW contributes to a healthier academic culture and that we have a good community. Pseudonymity makes that possible.