Anyway, reading this year’s themes for the high school graduation exams, I was once again annoyed by the reappearance of the old platitude of “people online hide behind a nickname”. Uhm, sure, some people do, just like some people hide behind a nickname in real life, because it’s hard(ish) to find the real person behind the ‘nym and make them accountable for their words. But the real issue is that these commenters, who probably never used the internet outside of Facebook, confuse or conflate pseudonymity with anonymity.
Anonymity is trying to not attach yourself to a name. Pseudonyms, especially in the case of persistent ones, are about making yourself a name – a strong, recognizable one, that says who you are.
In some cases they’re simply riffs on the birth name, like Cher, Madonna, or Iain Banks who was Iain M. Banks when writing science fiction. In other cases it’s a different name entirely: Mark Twain was born Samuel Clemens, and Charles Dodgson is better known to the world as Lewis Carroll.
Some ‘nyms are not even chosen but rather thrust upon, like the nicknames of painters in medieval times or the Renaissance: Canaletto, Parmigianino, Correggio…
No one in their right minds would say that these artists are “hiding” by using a pseudonym or a nickname. So why do they think normal people on the internet do? Is it because they’re not famous? Is it because it’s hard to keep consistency? Because everyone is (was) doing it?
Maybe it’s some sort of special attachment that we’re supposed to be feeling toward the name on our birth certificate. Traditions, especially in some countries, dictate to be named for your father, grandfather, aunt, or beloved deceased friend. Plus, your surname(s) indicate a direct heritage, the succession of your mother and father. Abandoning that name, even temporarily, is taken as rejecting all of that – immoral, in a way.
Maybe it’s that they don’t want people to have power over their own names. In a ‘nym world, you can be Dazzle, Christo, Vangelis, Atrus, Direwolf86. They’re stuck being John, Daisy, Carl – or some nickname they don’t like that they got at school or work and got stuck. They don’t understand, or don’t want to believe, they can be something else too, just by choosing.
Or maybe they don’t want to understand that you can have different names depending who you’re talking to, just like we show them different faces, without making it any less authentic.
Because using a different name is being fake, isn’t it? That’s why journalists take so much glee and pride in repeatedly revealing the “real” name of an artist when talking about them. That’s why cheap sociologists can’t wait for an excuse to say that nicknames are for hiding. That’s why Facebook and Google want you to use your ‘real name’ and only support nicknames (badly) because of external pressure. They take pride in the reveal, as if they were unveiling something shameful, as if knowing the name on your ID card somehow gave them power over you.
Well, as you can guess if you know me or have read so far, the answer is a resounding ‘no’. A person can have as many names as they want, and persistent nick/pseudonyms can be more authentic than a birth name. The sooner society at large reconciles with that, the sooner we can get rid of this stupid ‘real name’ and ‘real identity’ fixation.