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The Power of Pseudonyms in an Online Community

Written by Molly Talbert | on October 18, 2016 at 8:00 AM

The power of pseudonyms in an online community

How do you balance lively conversations with some members’ temptation to bully and troll? People usually think that it comes down to identity -- if your online identity is connected to your offline identity, you’re less likely to troll, since everything you say or do lives online forever.

Often, online identity is framed as an either-or decision -- either it’s completely connected to your “real identity” (including your Facebook page, LinkedIn account and everywhere else) or you’re completely anonymous and untraceable.

But is this either-or way of framing the conversation the only way to look at identity online? No, and that’s where the underused concept of pseudonyms comes into play.

Why Do People Use Pseudonyms?

Pseudonyms are often misunderstood -- there’s an assumption that people want to hide behind fake names for nefarious reasons. But the data says otherwise.

Disqus, a comment hosting service, conducted a study a few years ago about pseudonyms. On their service, they allow people to post under their own name or under a pseudonym -- whichever they prefer. And they were curious why certain people chose one over the other.

What did they find?

It turns out that 70% of their respondents who do use pseudonyms do so for privacy reasons, so they can speak openly and honestly in a productive manner. Rather than seeing a pseudonym as hiding their identity, people in their study found that pseudonyms helped them embrace their identity online and speak what’s actually on their mind.

That honesty is incredibly valuable in many types of communities and forums. Think about reviews for acne cream, or a book about something sensitive, like Crohn’s disease or living with cancer -- if people had to post under their real name, they may have been too embarrassed or ashamed to write a helpful, honest review.

Balancing Identity With Privacy

Beyond knowing that the majority of pseudonymous people have good intentions, why is there so much power to a pseudonym, as opposed to a real name or no name?

Requiring a name isn’t inherently bad. And neither is anonymity. But there are pros and cons to both approaches, which are important to examine, and which illuminate why pseudonyms can be so revolutionary in a community setting.

First, let’s look at the pros and cons of providing your real, government recognized name:

Pro:

Proponents of this school of thought think accountability is important for two reasons.

  1. If everything you say is easily traced back to you, hopefully you’ll think twice about what you say, preventing potential trolls from trolling.
  2. If you’re trying to build a presence online, or are already a thought leader and want to use your name recognition to boost traffic, then using your name is hugely helpful. Remember when President Obama hosted an Ask Me Anything (AMA) on Reddit? If he’d done that anonymously, no one would’ve have known to tune in or why they should ask this person questions. The result was an enormous traffic boost.

Con:

But there is one enormous con to using your real name, and it can have real, negative influences on member engagement.

  1. If you include your real name, you’re forever accountable for actions (imagine a future boss or potential date searching you online). Even if you post behind a private community, everyone in the community knows who you are and can hold you accountable for comments or contributions -- for better or worse.

If you knew the whole world was watching, could you speak? With the internet, that’s basically the case -- everything that happens, everything you post, is permanent. Anything you say can come back to you.

Is Anonymity the Solution?

Now let’s look at the pros and cons for anonymity etc. etc.

Pro:

That’s where anonymity comes into play. Proponents of this school of thought generally see one enormous pro:

  1. Anonymity can spur engagement if you want people to feel safe expressing their true opinions or to participate in sensitive discussions. Shedding your name takes away the fear that people will forever judge you or assume you’re close minded. That’s why anonymity is often the solution.

Con:

But, similar to requiring “real” names, anonymity brings it’s own set of challenges. Along with the pro, anonymity brings with it one large con.

  1. Some people think it shields users who want to fuel fires or be hurtful online and that anonymity actually gives trolls the power to troll.

So, what are you supposed to do? In terms of spurring engagement and creating safe, thoughtful spaces, does it have to be an either-or question -- total accountability or total unaccountability?

The Power of Pseudonyms

As we live more of our lives online, we’ll continually bump into this decision of attaching our real names to our activities. (Although books like So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed offer compelling reasons not to attach our names to anything online.)

Pseudonyms could be the answer to this dilemma because they provide both accountability within the community, since they’re trackable, as well as a shield from the wrath of the outside world. Just look at Reddit, one of the largest community creating spaces online, with over 200 million total unique users with unique pseudonyms.

One of Reddit’s defining characteristics is their take on the issue -- each Reddit user creates a unique user name, which becomes their identity on the Reddit platform. This doesn’t mean you can’t use your “real” name -- just like President Obama’s AMA, you can use your real name to call attention or promote yourself -- but you get to decide for yourself.

How Are Pseudonyms Different Than Just Posting Anonymously?

By using a community-specific pseudonym, such as a Reddit-specific pseudonym, users can maintain a semblance of privacy -- nothing comes up when they’re Googled -- while still maintaining a track record and building a reputation within their community. Believe it or not, people can find meaning and create community even if they don’t know what name is on someone’s driver’s license, or where they’re from, or what college they went to. Sure, in professional communities, those details can be important, but it doesn’t mean all communities need them. In some instances, those details can hinder conversation or create biases.

Although pseudonyms are a type of anonymity, they help foster community because a member uses the same name over and over again. Soon enough, you learn who’s an expert, and who’s just full of air. Rather than judging someone on their profile, you have only their user name and comments. And that’s really all you need in order to build community -- people and ideas.

Maintain Respect

Still, many people have that nagging thought -- just because most people won’t troll under a pseudonym doesn’t guarantee nothing bad will happen. Although pseudonyms allow most people to talk honestly and productively, all it takes is one person to ruin everything.

That’s why, no matter your policy -- names, pseudonyms, or anonymity -- you need to have a policy in your community. Create terms and conditions that everyone must follow, and hold them to it. Trolls will be trolls, but there aren’t as many out there as the internet would have you think.

Topics: Online Community Management

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