Should You Use Your Real Name Online?
Most people, especially in tech, can benefit significantly from having a professional online presence that shows their expertise.
It also allows you to reach a much wider audience than just your team or department. Someone on the other side of the world might need help with a particular problem and stumbles upon your blog that demonstrates you are an expert on that specific topic.
Building up this online presence under your real name might have some risks for you. Perhaps your employer doesn't want you to work on side projects, or you are looking for another job and don't want your employer to know.
Or maybe you don't want to have a crossover between your professional and personal online presence when someone searches for your name on Google and want to separate those two.
Whatever your situation, using your real name online might have some unwanted downsides that could prevent you from building up this online presence in the first place out of fear.
Are these fears realistic, and how can we avoid some of the unwanted adverse side effects? Let's look at the options.
One of the easiest ways to minimize any adverse effects is to stay fully anonymous. Use a nickname, don't use pictures, no personal info.
It's a safe option where the risks are minimal, but it also reduces the upside. If you are building up a professional online presence, your goal is to show people your expertise, and staying anonymous prevents you from getting recognition for your work.
Under an anonymous identity, you can't take credit for any content you put out without fully de-anonymizing everything you've done under that identity.
If no one knows you are behind it, you also don't get the credit when you want it to be linked back to you. A potential employer, investor, or client will never know it was your work if you published it anonymously.
If there is no way for you to take credit for what you put out there, you negate any benefits of building this online presence in the first place.
Especially if you built up this online presence while staying anonymous, you might not have been as careful as you would typically have been when you know people can hold you accountable for everything you did or said.
Staying anonymous is a safe option, but if you want the benefits, people need to know you made it so you can get recognized for it.
Does that mean you need to use your real identity if you want the attribution?
Not quite. There is a middle-ground between full anonymity and using your real identity.
As we established, the value you get from your professional online presence comes from other people recognizing your expertise.
The value is in the link between the work you put out and you as a person.
Although we usually associate these two by name, that isn't the only way.
The name is just a way we as humans remember and address a person. It doesn't matter if that happens to be the same as your real name or not.
Many programmers know who "Patio11" is and what he's done. Of course, that isn't his real name, but his audience can associate the work and the person just by the nickname.
As long as your audience can link your work to you, you can get recognition for your work.
We can just as easily create this link with something else, like a pseudonym.
Use a Pseudonym
Using pseudonyms is more common than you might think. Ashton Kutcher, Christiano Ronaldo, Tiger Woods, Muhammed Ali, George Orwell, Dr. Seuss, and J.K. Rowling are all synonyms. You might not even have been aware that some of these people were using pseudonyms instead of their real name!
Each of them had different reasons to use a pseudonym. Some of these reasons might not apply to you, but there are plenty of good reasons to go with a pseudonym online too:
- Hide your real name to make it harder to be linked to other personal information or personal social media accounts.
- Easier to rank for in Google if you have a common name or the same name as a famous person.
- Easier to get a good domain name because the .com and other popular extensions for common names are usually not available.
- Easier to get the username on online platforms.
- Easier to build a personal brand. You can make your name more memorable and keep a consistent online presence with the domain and usernames.
Using a different name also helps with consistency when your real name changes, for example, when you get married or divorced.
Whether you choose to use your real name or a pseudonym, the most important thing is consistency. Choose one and stick with it because if you change it, you'll lose a lot of the recognizability you've (hopefully) built up.
You should also plan for what other people will use online. Can coworkers find your LinkedIn profile if they search using your real name?
What happens if other people mention you online and use your real name? Does that mean only other people's mentions show up in Google for your real identity, and you don't have control over what gets displayed in Google?
Online Privacy is Hard
An important side note about using a pseudonym online is that you should not expect your real identity will remain secret.
There are many, many ways someone can find your real identity.
You might make a mistake yourself by using your real name where you wanted to use your pseudonym, or you might be forced to give your real information (for example, if someone ever pursuits legal action against you).
Companies like ClearView AI even use facial recognition to uncover all your online activity despite posting things under different online identities.
Keeping your real name hidden from everyone is pretty much impossible, and you should not expect your identity will remain secret. No matter how careful you are.
That isn't risky by default. The danger lies in the information you share under that name.
If your personal website's "About" page says you enjoy long walks with your dog "Fluffy" and your ISP's security question asks what your pet's name is, you can see how that could be bad.
It's the information that is used for social engineering, doxing, and other actions that could negatively impact your life. Not the name itself.
Having a body of work online that's yours is a great way to display your competence and increase your career prospects but building up that online presence under your real identity also has some risks. However, the risk is not using your real name; it's in the information you share under that name.
You can use a pseudonym to separate your professional online presence from the rest of your online activity. Pseudonyms are very common and have many other benefits other than just privacy and security, but don't use them solely for privacy. You can not expect your real identity to remain secret online.