In many conversations, we kept coming up against the same questions… What is the difference between privacy and concealment? Does anonymity truly make the internet less safe? Who is it that’s trying to remain anonymous, and who benefits from their exposure? What’s at stake when an online company forces you to use a “real name”? This document is the result of us setting out to answer them.

What’s a real name?

If there is a case for enforcing the concept of real names, we should start by excavating what ‘real names’ actually are. They vary widely from culture to culture in meaning, history, length, and order, and were initially implemented to track governmental and religious taxation. Real names continue to be highly susceptible to change, differentiation, and permutation, accommodating for nicknames, marital names, and changed spelling through immigration, as well as legal changes made due to preference.


What’s a fake name?

“Fake names” have been around for centuries before the internet was ever a hope or a dream. Some have chosen a fake name, or more commonly known as a pseudonym, to separate themselves from fame or recognition, from actors and actresses, musicians, fashion and business moguls, and athletes.

Others look to protect themselves (and their families) by separating their name from potentially volatile, counter-cultural or transgressive ideas or projects, like writers, artists, politicians, and activists.

Fake names are the nicknames given to you by your friends or family, that exist within intimate or personal social circles.


Online follows offline.

The practice of sharing one's name is embedded in rituals of relationship building. People do not share their names with every person they encounter. Rather, names are offered as an introductory gesture in specific situations to signal politeness and openness.
–Dana Boyd, The Politics of “Real Names”

In Real Life (IRL), when you have a conversation in a room, that conversation disintegrates as soon as all parties leave. This impermanence allows space for candid exchange, open dialogue, learning and the choice to present oneself specific to the context. If a conversation is preserved forever (hello, internet!), and tied to your identity elsewhere amidst complicated power structures, it frequently disincentivizes many people from contributing openly to the exchange. This panopticon environment of surveillance (or perceived surveillance) encourages less open communities overall. The frustrating thing is that requiring this real name is not necessary or additive to most of these exchanges. In many instances, requiring a real name online is essentially like requiring a passport (a highly personal proof of citizenship) to buy an espresso or partake in banter at a coffeeshop (an otherwise reasonably semi-anonymous activity). Imagine an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting taking place amidst current default naming and preserving protocols. It is useful to give true consideration as to why a real name is necessary for similarly low barrier exchanges online.

We’re all viewed through multiple lenses; we always represent ourselves through multiple personae; this isn’t a strange aberration or attempt at deceit but a fact of being human.
–Tim Carmody, Wired

Online, there’re a whole host of reasons why people would prefer a context-specific name to the one on their birth certificate. Alex Skud Bayley conducted a survey asking why people use fake names, and shared some of his finding. To dig further, there is a fantastically great list of people and circumstances where people would be harmed by using their real names, on GeekFeminism.


Who benefits from real names?

Facebook does have a financial stake in people’s identities. Ads generate 69 percent of Facebook’s revenue total revenue—$3.54 billion. Facebook’s whole marketing strategy is inextricably hinged to the idea that users project their real or authentic identities—making it especially valuable.
–Lauren C. Williams, ThinkProgress

There’s money to be made by tying your singular “real” name to behavioral and demographic data. Data mining ties your identity to geolocation to sentiment and buying habits, and this information is passed along to 3rd parties for advertisements. More and more people are demanding that companies be transparent about WHY the data must be tied to identity, and what will be done with it, and if it’s worth the trade-off of using the product or service.


Unenforceable rules.

People who create web forms, databases, or ontologies are often unaware how different people’s names can be.

Currently, there is no set standard for online name verification, nor for the processes in place to implement and monitor. Each platform seems to prioritize different pieces of information for identification, and the algorithms and manual processes are all over the map (but you know, without actual sensitivity to the map, puns!). Some online systems rely on government documentation, others on search results for common words and pattern recognition, though none of it seems to be in place to directly serve the user, and actively frustrates, alienates, and cuts off many people, across multiple demographics.

Many people have faced issues with real names policies for using their real names, like this British cancer researcher who lives in New Jersey, and this Facebook employee who published, my name is only real enough to work at Facebook, not to use on the site. Many Native Americans have names that are also in direct conflict with Facebook’s “real names” policy, though again, they are using their real names.


A friendlier internet.

The often quoted argument goes that people will act more civil if they feel accountable and trackable, and that forcing a person to use their “real name” will accomplish this civility. Sadly, the studies and metrics don’t support this.

Real Names Don't Make for Better Commenters, but Pseudonyms Do: New data from the commenting platform, Disqus, finds people who don't use their real names generate more positive feedback from their peers.
–Rebecca J. Rosen, The Atlantic

Real name policies are a false shortcut, often an excuse for not doing the *real* work needed, which is actual community building and moderation of online content, comments, and interaactions.