Internet use becomes pathological when it is dissociated from in-person life. It becomes healthy when it is integrated with in-person living.

~ John Suler in The Psychology of Cyberspace

When I first started this blog in December of ’03, I didn’t want to use my real name. The idea was to keep in touch with my friends from college. For four years we had been living off our parents’ paychecks, drinking 12 packs until three in the morning, and arguing fiercely over who was the most dedicated Marxist. It was a great time and I figured we could at least salvage the arguing part by keeping them going online.

But I still wasn’t sure about this whole internet thing. I wanted to be able to joke around with my friends and reminisce about our unsavory and illegal exploits of moral relativism. But I didn’t want to be unemployed ten years down the road because HR departments didn’t share our carefree worldview.

And so I went with a nickname, a pseudonym, something that was me but not quite me. But then, as I started meeting more and more people online (and then meeting them offline), taking part in more conversations, and joining more communities, I started to care about the reputation of both ‘el oso’ and ‘david sasaki’. And eventually, those two names came to refer to the same person.

The process of merging our online identity (usually just two to three years older) with our offline histories is something most of us eventually go through. HP is also Alfonso Trujillo. Sensory Overload is also … ummm, my girlfriend. cad is also Claudia. And Cindylu is also … well, she still doesn’t want me to write her full name out.

I think there’s usually a sense of relief when our online reputations and our offline reputations become integrated into a larger reputation of who we really are. I may be cerebral and philosophical online and silly and carefree offline, but it’s all me.

As most party hosts know, it’s usually the people who just “show up” and you don’t know who can create the biggest headaches.

John M. Grohol in Anonymity and Online Community: Identity Matters

What if we were never given the chance to form two different identities with two different names in the first place? What if I had to be David Sasaki from day one? How would my behavior have changed?

More and more websites and online portals are struggling with the issue of anonymity. The Sacramento Bee is the latest national paper to require commenters to use their real names. In the Chinese coastal city of Xiamen the government will soon prohibit anonymous postings on more than one hundred thousand websites registered in Xiamen. Major portal sites in South Korea have also decided to require commenters to use their real names. And in Venezuela our good friend Luis Carlos argues that anonymous postings are feeding the fire of civil conflict in his country.

At Global Voices, contributing authors have always been required to use their real names. There is only one exception, but it’s an important one: authors can use a pseudonym if their contributions put their well-being or their job security at risk. The latter is a point brought up by The Bee’s public editor, Armando Acuna:

A few said anonymity allowed those inside government institutions, such as law enforcement, the freedom to question and challenge supervisors higher up the food chain without fear of repercussions.

Anonymous blogging and commenting also allows individuals living under repressive regimes in Iran, Zimbabwe, and Egypt to publish their opinions freely and to get out news that might otherwise not enter the mainstream media, which is why Ethan wrote a technical guide to anonymous blogging.

But this brings up a larger debate about both institutional and governmental reform: Namely, can you bring about change if no one knows who you are? When you think about the major reformers in world history (Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Simon Bolivar, Kate Sheppard, Benito Juarez), it’s hard to imagine any of them having made any difference if they were anonymous advocates. They were so successful as reformers precisely because they were real people whom the larger public could relate to.

The same could be said for the Sacramento government workers. If they’re fearful of repercussions that might come from challenging and questioning their supervisors, then that’s a problem with the effectiveness of our labor laws. But allowing an online commenter named moonbeam173 to publicly complain about the drinking habits of his/her boss won’t achieve much more than promoting rumors, skepticism, and distrust.

I’m still not completely sure how I feel about online anonymity, but as I’ve become less anonymous myself over the years, I’ve started caring more about what I write and how I act online. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.