What’s a real name?

When joining new online social communities, the default to sign up frequently requires a real name as the cost of entry. If there is a case for enforcing the concept of real names, we should start by examining what real names actually are. They vary widely from culture to culture in meaning, history, length, and order, and continue to be highly susceptible to change, differentiation, and permutation, accommodating for nicknames, marital names, and changed spelling.

My father didn’t know his real name. My father got his name from his grandfather and he got his name from his grandfather and he got it from the slave master.

Malcolm X

If a name were synonymous with identity, then the common practice of changing one’s name would be viewed as committing fraud.

Laura Heymann

What’s a fake name?

Fake names, or pseudonyms, have been around for centuries—before the internet was ever a hope or a dream.

Some have chosen to use pseudonyms to separate themselves due to fame or recognition. Others look to protect themselves (and their families) by separating their name from potentially volatile, counter-cultural or transgressive ideas (e.g. writers, artists, politicians, witnesses, and activists).

Different settings can call for different uses of names; nicknames within circles of friends and family, abridged names in casual settings, or an absence of names within support groups.

‘What’s your name?’ Coraline asked the cat. ‘Look, I’m Coraline. Okay?’ ‘Cats don’t have names,’ it said. ‘No?’ said Coraline. ‘No,’ said the cat. ‘Now you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.’

Neil Gaiman

The degree to which a person’s name is a significant part of his or her identity varies from person to person. I see it, in some ways, as a matter of attachment. If your name is integral to your conception of who you are then you are probably quite attached to it; if not, then you probably aren’t.


Sometimes you don’t know who you are until you put on a mask.

Alexander Chee

Online follows offline

An offline conversation disintegrates once all the parties leave the room. 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 an identity owned by complex power structures, people are disincentivized from contributing. The constant awareness of surveillance discourages open communities and free-flowing idea exchanges.

Requiring a real name is not necessary or additive to most of these exchanges. In many instances, requiring a real name online is like requiring a passport to partake in banter at a coffeeshop—a reasonably semi-anonymous activity. It is useful to consider why a real name is necessary for similarly low-barrier exchanges online. It is useful to give 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; and this isn’t a strange aberration or attempt at deceit but a fact of being human.

Tim Carmody

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.

danah boyd

Most people who engage in lightweight obfuscation are not trying to deceive. Instead, they are trying to achieve privacy in public environments.

danah boyd

A false shortcut

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. (See links in the sidebar.)

Real name policies are a false shortcut, often an excuse for not doing the real work needed: community building and moderation of online content, comments, and interactions.

Those who mock the idea of safe space are most likely the same people who are able to take safety for granted.

Roxanne Gay

We see valuable contributions from anonymous and pseudonymous commenters all the time, and they’ve made it clear, many times over, that they would not contribute otherwise.


Unenforceable rules

Currently there is no standard for online name verification. Every independent platform prioritizes different pieces of information for identification, and the processes to register, implement, and monitor are all over the map.

Some online systems rely on government documentation, others on search results for common words and pattern recognition. None of it exists to directly serve the user, and these systems actively frustrate, alienate, and cut off people across multiple demographics.

I have never seen a computer system which handles names properly and doubt one exists, anywhere… So, as a public service, I’m going to list assumptions your systems probably make about names. All of these assumptions are wrong. Try to make less of them next time you write a system which touches names.

Patrick McKenzie

Then who benefits?

Governments are known to spy on the electronic activity of citizens. The NSA in the United States, CSEC in Canada, GCHQ in the UK, etcetera. These actions can be benign under one regime, but regimes turn over, and any information that exists eventually escapes.

Corporations also have their own incentives to comply. Whether to be able to operate within a certian country and win political favors, or for financial gain. Profits are made by collating information regarding an individual’s shoping habits, race, age, income, friendships, sexuality, voting history, fico score… and then selling to advertisers (or political capaigns).

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

The first one who has to protect your privacy is you.

Richard Stallman