Each semester, I ask students to blog publicly. There are many who argue that this is the only way to blog, and although I am not that extreme, I do think it has particular advantages. That said, there are good reasons for and against blogging in your own name. For students who are unsure, I usually urge them toward pseudonymity, though (as you can tell from the URL of this blog) I think that it is probably better–for those willing to take on slightly more risk–to blog in their own name.
We should start with the risks, because many find it difficult to assess the risks of blogging in their own name. You have to be willing to accept that what you write will never be able to be fully unwritten. Your current friends, neighbors, and employers will be able to find it. Some make the mistake of assuming that others will never look. That is a possibility, but nothing you should depend on. You should assume that whatever you put on your blog under your own name will be found by the public. Treat it like publishing in a major newspaper–it may not be ordinarily encountered by as many people, but it is findable by just as many people.
And it will be found not just by your contemporaries, but by your great grandchildren. I’ve always said that it won’t be long before we have our first president who had a Facebook account. Along the way, I think and hope we will become more forgiving of various transgressions, but I think this recent article in the New York Times provides some nice examples of how your past stays with you online. Am I particularly proud of papers I wrote when I was still a student? No, but neither am I ashamed of them. Yes, I cringe a little when I see something I wrote when I was a little younger–like this post on fighting blindfolded that I never could have imagined would be sucked up by Google and still accessible nearly two decades later. It’s the same feeling I get when I see photos of myself or hear my voice recorded. But in all, I am willing to risk large chunks of my life being on display, not just to people I know today, but to people a century from now, when tastes have changed, and the word “chunk” in the line above has become offensive. I’m willing to stand by my words and risk not being hired by someone because I’ve mentioned that I am sympathetic to anarchist ideals, or because I like a particular band, or because I teach in a particular way, or because I’ve made stupid errors in spelling, grammar, or thinking.
Blogging under a pseudonym does not remove this possibility. Maintaining your private identity is very difficult to do, and someone with time, resources, or determination can probably ferret out who you are. But not using your own name, or providing too many personal details, can at least reduce this risk.
There are also significant advantages that you potentially give up by blogging under a pseudonym. I suppose the most obvious is that you have an opportunity to shape how people see you. When people Google your name, what do they find? If you are blogging–and your name isn’t particularly common–your blog is likely to show up fairly high on the list of responses. As a result, people I know have been recognized as experts in their fields, and have found opportunities that they might not otherwise have found.
The idea of personal branding still has some icky connotations of self-promotion and egoism. There was a time when only celebrities and public figures needed to manage their public image, that line of thinking goes. I don’t think this is the case. We take showers because most of us do care, even at some minimal level, of what other people think of us. It’s considered an essential piece of being sociable. This sort of impression management has simply grown more digital. So, it makes sense to groom your impression on the web, and blogging and using social media under your own name is a great way to do that.
It also makes you much more trustworthy as a participant in the social web. People want to know you are a real person, and you are standing behind your actions. As Fezzig correctly notes, “People in masks cannot be trusted.”
I still advise students to choose a good professional pseudonym when they start out. Given that I think that there are significant professional and personal advantages to engaging in social media under your own name, why do I push them in this direction? There are a few reasons.
At the most extreme end, some of my graduate students are professional journalists, and required by contract not to publish on the web. This runs against my requirements, and puts them in a bind. I ask them to still do this, but to do so under a pseudonym. This bends the rules a bit, but so far, everyone has been fine with that.
You can always go from pseudonym to real name, when you decide to take advantage of those opportunities blogging under your real name brings, but you can never go the other direction. So, the risks are much lower starting out if you choose a name to write and engage under, with the potential of “coming out” down the road.
If your name is John Smith, blogging and engaging under your real name is probably already pretty anonymous. You might actually benefit by instead blogging as “SmithyTheArchitect” since it creates a brand that is findable.
Finally, you can do both. It’s harder to keep things straight, but you can produce material that you are particularly proud of under your own name, and engage in other ways under a pseudonym. Doing so means keeping separate online lives for each identity, which can be supremely difficult, but some choose to go this route.
In the end, I manage to convince about three quarters of students in my courses to engage pseudonymously, and the other quarter use their own names. If you do choose a pseudonym, think seriously about the image you want to project. Corndog1991 may be your handle from way back on AoL, but it might be time to upgrade. Run your name (and domain) by others to make sure you are not missing some obvious connotation, and that it is something memorable and not easily mis-spelled.
In the end, it is your decision: I just want to make sure that you know the risks and rewards–as much as it is possible–at the outset.