Online, our names are tightly and persistently coupled with our actions. Pseudonyms put a measure of distance between our identity online and our real identity. For some, this is necessary and desired. And as Alex Madrigal, writing for The Atlantic argues the policy of using real names online is actually a revolutionary concept.
danah boyd writes that real name policies on social networks are an abuse of power. The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalized by systems of power. Having a pseudonym is important for many people and many reasons.
Even if pseudonyms are allowed, however, we are still identifiable by other means. We do not control the data gathered from the services we use. And what we share and with whom we share it can be used to identify us in surprising ways. As Eben Moglen, law professor and Chairman of the Software Freedom Law Center, brilliantly describes, having privacy is more than just keeping one single thing about us a secret – whether it’s our name, our location or even our sexual orientation:
“[The] problem is all the stuff that’s the cruft, the data dandruff of life, that we don’t think of as secret in any way but which aggregates to stuff that we don’t want anybody to know about us. Which aggregates, in fact, not just to stuff we don’t want people to know but to predictive models about us that we would be very creeped out could exist at all.”
This is not to say anonymity (and pseudonymity) are a lost cause and not worth fighting for. Far from it. Perhaps though, we’re missing a larger picture. The way our Internet is structured – with all of our data concentrated in virtualized servers owned by companies offering client minions like us “free” services – means that, ultimately, pseudonym or not, Facebook and Google still own us (and know who we are).