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Agreed: Google+ should allow pseudonyms

Happy one month birthday, Google+! Let’s pretend I meant to write this post today instead of on Monday, which is when everyone else was writing and thinking about Google+ vs. the pseudonyms.

Last weekend, a large number of Google+ accounts were suddenly suspended. The issue was that these users were not using “real names” on their account (“real” as determined by Google). As Mashable reported on Tuesday, it now appears that Google is “working on ways to handle pseudonyms”. (Edit 07/29: adding explicit links to Robert Scoble’s account of his conversation with Vic Gundotra and Bradley Horowitz’s post).

Initially, I wasn’t sure where I stood on the issue. I don’t use a pseudonym in my online interactions (I have that luxury – see below). And I understand and appreciate where Google and Facebook are coming from in encouraging the use of “real” identities. (On a related note, I have started to come down on the side of open and non-anonymous peer review.)

But after reading a few excellent posts on the matter (coincidentally or not, mostly from female science bloggers), I must say that I come down on the side of the pseudonymous. Why? Because a pseudonym (much like a pen name or a stage name) is NOT the same thing as a fake identity created for malicious or fraudulent intent. And because a pseudonym is sometimes necessary for the person’s safety and freedom from harassment.

The first article to really call my attention to the pseudonym issue was Bug Girl’s blog post. I credit Bug Girl’s over-the-top title for grabbing my attention. (Normally I am not a fan of such sensationalism, but well, in this case, it worked.) Bug Girl makes many critical points in her piece, including this one (links removed, emphasis hers):

I initially adopted a pseudonym because I had been the target of some white supremacist groups in the 90s, as well as experiencing stalking. Later I discovered that I had become a high-enough level civil servant that I was actually PROHIBITED, by law, from having opinions online.

I would say these are pretty damn good reasons why she (and others) should be allowed to use a pseudonym!

Additionally, many online pseudonymous folks are in fact better known by their pseudonym than by their “real” name. In this regard, the pseudonym (like the pen or stage name) is connected to a body of work. Pseudonymous folks may have an extended online presence that is connected to that pseudonym – requiring them to suddenly use their “real” name could actually result in disruption of dialogue and much confusion. GrrlScientist makes this point (and others) in her piece on the Guardian:

Like it or not, the fact is that many people routinely use pseudonyms, and online pseudonyms typically feed over into real life. As I’ve already stated, my pseudonym is the name that I go by in daily life, and further, my pseudonym IS my identity. I’ve published under this pseudonym. I’ve copyrighted documents and photographs under this pseudonym. I’ve signed contracts and received payments, email and snailmail addressed to this pseudonym in several cities in two countries. I’ve given lectures at several universities in several cities in several countries under this pseudonym, and I use it on my business cards. Even my spouse refers to me by my pseudonym, more often than not.

In response to a commenter, GrrlScientist adds, “oh, and since you mentioned it … on the rare occasion when i do attend a party, i do introduce myself as grrlscientist.” Which I think is awesome.

I’ve quoted these two posts, because they happened to be the first posts I read on the subject, but obviously, there are many many good posts and comments about why pseudonyms should be allowed (and I list here just some of the ones I’ve come across and read). Janet Stemwedel has two great posts on pseudonymity, Google, and ethics (first post here and second post here). It is from her first post that I found SciCurious’ excellent defense of pseudonyms. Bora posted on Google+ explaining that pseudonyms are names and followed up with a Storified-Twitter discussion about what makes a name “real”. And finally – I haven’t even read the whole piece yet because it is epic – Tony on tekfrenzy’s thoughts on pseudonymity.

Update 07/28: GrrlScientist has written an open letter to Google.

One last thought: let’s not forget that the use of your real name on the internet used to be extremely uncommon, even unadvised. I remember being warned not to use my real name as my email address – I think this was back in the late 90s, early 00s? The insistence on using one’s “real” name is a relatively recent development in online/social media.

Signing off with one of Bora’s tweets. I second the thought.

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