A pseudonym is a fake or alternative name adopted by a person for either religious reasons, to hide or otherwise disassociate themselves from their real identity, or simply because it sounds so much cooler than their real name.
Pseudonyms and the internet
On the internet, personal information can be divided into two general classes: what the user divulges (whether willingly or by contractual or legal compulsion) and what their computer divulges. The former is given when the website prompts the user to fill in a text box while the latter is silently retrieved by numerous technical requests between the client and server (e.g. IP address, operating system and browser, program versions, tracking cookies, etc.). While both fall under the umbrella discussion of online privacy, discussions about anonymity and pseudonyms focus largely around the former and more specifically about services that require a user to publicly divulge that information.
Ethically, a program should only ask for a bare minimum of personal information on a strictly need-to-know basis as necessary for the program to function and only share that information as the user knowingly and willingly permits. Third parties should only be able to retrieve unshared information via a valid and verifiable court order. While these tenets are generally accepted amongst the programming community, large companies such as Google draw heavy criticism for their lack of transparency and taking a shotgun method to data collation and distribution.
Arguments for anonymity
Until the advent of Facebook, pseudonyms were the generally-accepted standard for all online interactions. This is because very little ever vanishes from the public internet due to the nature of the system. Most websites keep permanent, public, searchable archives of all posts on their forums, which will both be automatically copied in most browser caches and further archived off-site by web-crawlers. Even on services with time limits to their communications (chat rooms, online games, etc.), it's very easy for a user to record data without detection regardless of technical or legal restrictions. Most social media services make users sign blanket copyright agreements enabling the service to store everything they post indefinitely (even if the user later "deletes" it), index it for easy searching, and use it for "promotional purposes" (which is almost never invoked, but still allows the company to repost material without the user's consent). Attempts to remove information from the internet can result in the Streisand effect, where trying to delete information causes other users to spread it further. In many cases, users lose access to their accounts (usually by abandoning them and changing email addresses in the interim) and thus cannot remove information being publicly shared by their page.
This permanence, along with the ability of anyone in the world to access it, creates a number of situations where anonymity is required. A lack of anonymity has a chilling effect on numerous forms of protected speech. A short list of examples includes:
- Anyone who wishes to talk about controversial or taboo topics without risking retaliation. People in countries that violate human rights need anonymity to protect themselves from oppression for political dissent or identifying with marginalized groups. Even under regimes that don't engage in overt oppression, doxing is a common form of retaliation carried out by hate groups and other violent people seeking to intimidate people into silence. Off the internet, certain kinds of participation can result in workplace and hiring discrimination (e.g. companies supporting conservative politicians refusing work to liberals), social discrimination or ostracism (e.g. atheists living in the American south), and financial discrimination (e.g. an insurance company might pressure a client into canceling or renegotiating if they know they're looking up information on cancer).
- Anyone who doesn't want to risk identity theft. Banks, merchants, and other institutes often use security questions that could be easily deduced by an attacker with a target's personal information (e.g. "what is your mother's maiden name?", still the most common security question, could be figured out by looking up the target's mother's siblings, marriage notices, or social media history).
- Marginalized groups such as women, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, and religious minorities who do not want to deal with harassment everywhere they go. A transgender person who just wants to talk about, say, video games doesn't generally want to have to explain their gender choice, be subject to stereotyping, or have their viewpoints dismissed outright (or see their comment threads hijacked by hostile discussions about their identity).
- People with public personas who want to keep certain discussions private. Professors are expected not to engage on any topic they aren't an expert on, which limits their participation in new fields. A celebrity who makes their living maintaining an image might wish to talk about certain topics without it affecting their professional career (e.g. a family sitcom actor might want to discuss the wholly consensual and legal BDSM they do in private with their significant other).
- Children and teenagers may not make the most sound decisions at various stages in their life. For example, anonymity protects a teenager's passing fascination with marijuana from being used against them ten years later when they're fresh out of college and seeking a job.
- Children and teenagers who may be predated upon, whether financially or sexually.
For a much more comprehensive list, see Who is harmed by a "Real Names" policy?".
Arguments against anonymity
Anti-anonymity advocates often make fallacious comparisons to real life, claiming that since nearly everybody goes through their day without wearing a mask, they should be forced to do the same on the internet. The major problem with this comparison is that the average person out in public in real life is actually more anonymous than they are even on the current anonymous internet and it all ties back to identification and public access of archives. While real life may be blanketed in security cameras and interactions that require divulging a legal name, not just anyone has instantaneous access to that information without anyone even being aware they're accessing them. Even figuring out where a person has been requires very time-consuming and visible private detective work as opposed to just searching for a person's handle in Google. Also, while people may not wear masks, you can't get a name just looking at a person and they generally don't have enough distinctive characteristics to make looking up information on them after they're gone anything short of difficult. For real life to be like the internet, everybody would have to wear a name tag everywhere they go (regardless what they write on it) and have surveillance footage of all their interactions transcribed and indexed in a way just anybody can access.
Pseudonyms are also used for criminal behavior such as fraud and child pornography, but this isn't much different from real life since criminal syndicates don't exactly have public mailing addresses and declare drug money on their tax forms. The reality is that it's very easy for criminals to bypass systems requiring personal information (if they even use them in the first place; most criminal activity takes place on specially-designed darknet sites), so most anti-anonymity measures only affect legitimate users with legitimate reasons to stay anonymous. Invoking criminal behavior in anti-anonymity discourse is known as the Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse argument, a variant of think of the children.
Another effect of anonymity is what's known as the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, which states that "Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad". A lack of identity also carries a lack of accountability and social inhibition, thus enabling many people that might otherwise stay in line to say horrible things. The proper solution to that is to enforce community standards with moderation and bans, not keep them in check with fear of real-life retaliation.
- Original Bolshevik leader Lenin's birthname was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov.
- Georgian-born Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was born Josef Vissarionovich Dzughashvili.
- Communist Red Army leader Leon Trotsky was born Lev Bronstein.
- La Cicciolina, a Hungarian-born porn star turned Italian member of parliament, was born Anna Elena Staller. She also uses the name Ilona Staller.
- King George VI of the United Kingdom was born Albert Frederick Arthur George and known to his family as Bertie .
- In hacking and phreaking circles pseudonyms are common to avoid law enforcement while at the same time taking credit for one's exploits. Famous examples include John Draper, aka Captain Crunch and Eric Corley, aka Emanuel Goldstein.
- Almost everyone here on RationalWiki uses a pseudonym, as well as many other larger and less formal online communities like YouTube and Newgrounds.
- Conservapedia sysop "Conservative" uses any number of poorly concealed pseudonyms to spam message boards.
- On IRC (Internet Relay Chat), pseudonyms known as nicks are de rigeur, and very few users reveal their RL names. Until, that is, people get chummy enough to arrange Real-Life
pissmeet-ups, known as "IRLs".
Writers ("pen names" or "noms de plume")
- Lewis Carroll was the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.
- George Orwell was the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair.
- Saki was the pen name of British short story writer Henry Hugh Munro.
- Richard Bachman was a pseudonym used by Stephen King. (It was announced that Bachman "died" of "cancer of the pseudonym" in 1985, but his "widow" continued to "find" notes and manuscripts for years after his "death.")
- Penelope Ashe was the pseudonym of several writers and editors at the Long Island, New York, newspaper Newsday. As a protest to the popularity garnered by the trashy novels of the likes of Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann, they cobbled together an ultra-trashy fake novel (each chapter was written by a different writer) titled Naked Came the Stranger. Naturally, the book made the New York Times bestseller list.
- Eleanor Hibbert used a number of pseudonyms.
- The Brontë sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne went by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell respectively.
- Guitarist James Marshall Hendrix, more commonly known as Jimi Hendrix, was originally born as Johnny Allen Hendrix.
- The Police's bass player Sting was born by the name Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner.
- U2 singer Bono was born by the name Paul David Hewson.
- Singer Engelbert Humperdinck was born Arnold George Dorsey. (Engelbert Humperdinck was the real-life name of a late 19the century German opera composer.)
- The A-Team actor Mr T was born by the name Laurence Tureaud.
- Lauren Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske.
- Carole Lombard was born Jane Alice Peters.
- John Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison.
- Every pope takes a religiously-influenced pseudonym when elected to the Papacy. For example, Cardinal Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger became Benedict XVI.