Should Christians use online pseudonyms?

Nathan Bierma

Who are you?

On the Internet, that's been a complicated question for a long time. Back in the Jurassic era of the Web, people signed on to AOL with screen names like "cubsfan72," "dancerdoreen" and "pastorbob." Many kept that habit when they signed up for Yahoo mail and Gmail, and later Twitter. (Facebook always required proper names). A silly screen name was a chance to show off your allegiance to a team or cause, to take on an informal persona, to be the vanity license plate you always wanted or, most seriously, to hide who you really are.

That's the problem with anonymity - or more accurately, pseudonymity - on the Internet: it's either silly or shady, either goofing around or putting on a disguise. The only real problem with silly pseudonymity is when you want to do something serious, like apply for a job, and don't want to put "[email protected]" as contact information at the top of an otherwise polished resume. Other than that it's fairly harmless and not worth policing. Shady pseudonymity, on the other hand, can lie behind cyberstalking, false identity claims and spam - not to mention comment-thread shouting matches.

The differences between silly and shady pseudonymity are vast, but you have to use a single policy to address both. And so Facebook has a strict requirement that not only discourages pseudonyms, but even discourages the use of middle names as first names, as author Salman Rushdie recently found out in the midst of a public feud with Facebook. Until recently, Google Plus had a strict names policy that prevented brands and businesses from joining; it even shut down a personal page created by the technology website under the name Techathew Cruncherin. Spats like these have been called the "nym wars."

These episodes made Facebook and Google seem heavy-handed and tone-deaf. It's even harder to root for them in the nym wars when you consider their primary motivation is money. Facebook and Google want you to have one verifiable online identity so that they can gather as much information about you for advertisers as they can. Paradoxically, this means their security policies are for the purposes of snooping.

Can Christians find better reasons - ethical reasons, not commercial ones - to combat pseudonymity? The answer probably lies in the distinction between silly and shady pseudonymity. By itself, a pseudonym isn't necessarily a problem, a danger or a sin; it's why you took the pseudonym and what you use it for. (After all, many books of the Bible are pseudonymous.) And so, even when using a silly screen name, conscientious Web users could agree to fill out the first and last name boxes that usually accompany screen names on Web-based e-mail or social-media services. That would allow for the silliness without the shadiness.

More importantly, I think conscientious Web users should avoid pseudonymous comments, as the temptation seems stronger to go nuclear on someone when hiding behind a screen name. Even better, of course, commenters could aim to be civil and constructive. The real problem here is human nature in a fallen world, and no pseudonym policy can fully account for that.

(Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.)

Topics: Online, Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Technology, Arts & Leisure, Theology & The Church, Faith, News & Politics, Social Trends