Discussing
Should Christians use online pseudonyms?

Nathan Bierma

Melayton
December 13, 2011

With all due respect I believe you are setting up a false dilemma here, because there are legitimate reasons to use a pseudonym online. A big one is privacy. We were always told, growing up, not to give out your first and last names to folks you met online, and psuedonyms help you do just that.<br><br><br>Also, I think pseudonyms are a good way to fight the internet's tendency to "flatten" our social interactions. What I mean is this. If I post to something to Facebook or if I send an email to a public listserv under my first and last name, then googling for "Marta Layton" will bring that up - whether it is my parents trying to see what I am up to online, or a potential date ferreting out my views, or a potential employer considering whether to give me an interview. There may be things I want to do online that are really only appropriate for friends in a certain circle. Not that I am ashamed of them, but just like in our offline life we maintain different personas (how we present ourselves at work, to family, at church, to friends on Saturday night, to the pollster asking our position on some issue, etc.), it may be appropriate to do the same online.<br><br>Finally, I think pseudonyms are a good way of creating an identity, communicating something essential about yourself. In a fairly small town, even today, where there are lots of Laytons my carrying the name puts that connection out there. Historically, last names also communicated occupations (look at the Jews with the last name Cohen, for example). We don't have that today anymore, because for most of us the world is so big, those connections don't mean much. But I think used rightly, pseudonyms are a way to get some of that back. <br><br>Of course - and this <b>cannot</b> be said strongly enough - pseudonyms do need to be constant. In my corner of the intarwebs, people sometimes will post a story under one name and then leave a flattering comment under another name, to leave the impression it is popular. Or they may say inflammatory things and then abandon the pseudonym in favor of a "clean" identity. But those are abuses. Christians certainly should resist this kind of thing. But I think there's lots of good reasons for saying pseudonyms are fine, in some circumstances.

Dianna
December 13, 2011

I think there's something to be said for being willing to be open and consistent about one's identity online. I stopped using pseudonyms years ago because I felt that, if I can't be comfortable putting my name on what I'm writing, then why am I writing it?<br><br>It also might be helpful to point out how pseudonyms can damage church culture. I learned this last week that famous pastor Mark Driscoll used to post on his church's messageboard under the pseudonym "William Wallace II." He posted attacks on congregants, "calling out" unChristlike behavior, and created an environment of suspicion and hurt. Using a pseudonym clearly made him feel like he could do and say whatever he wanted, apart from his identity and position as a pastor. That's problematic at best and terrifying at worst.<br><br>But, ultimately, how one presents their identity is up to that individual, and I know that many feel uncomfortable expressing themselves in a way that family or friends can connect it back to them, and we sort of have to let the individual decide - assuming that their pseudonymous identity is not actively hurting people.

Laura's Last Ditch
December 13, 2011

Here's my silly pseudonym! I do not like my name plastered all over the internet, either, but I do try to write things that I'd be willing to say in person. Laura's Last Ditch is the name of my business, so perhaps that requires I be just as careful. <br><br>I see horrible comments on my local newspaper's website--comments that are nothing short of shameful. You can tell a lot about people by how they act when they're hidden behind their cyber-identities. If only we knew who they are....

Almost An M
December 13, 2011

Nathan - I agree with melayton that there can be a number of valid reasons for using a pseudonym that fall neither in the area of shady or silly. For example, with the move toward missional, it seems that having missionaries speak into that conversation is quite helpful. Yet a good number of missionaries are unable or feel it unwise to share their identity as it can prevent future access either logistically or strategically in the future to the people they are trying to reach. I know a significant number of people that put great stuff out there both in new content, comments, tweets, etc. under pseudonyms.

Mara
December 13, 2011

Can I just say here that there is a lot to be said for a good moderator. Josh has caught me more than once in a moment of reaction more than action and called me on a comment before it ever hit the pixels of the internet. My name usage never crossed my mind. A lot of sites post first, moderate later if at all. Josh and his team do a good job here and keep things on track and understand the emotional nature of the subjects discussed here. <br><br>Maybe I get over reactive once in a while because I come from a line of people who used to resolve issues by painting themselves blue and running at each other with sticks while screaming like banshies. Thanks to Josh I get a chance to put the blue paint away before someone loses an eye. :)<br><br>I can't give out my full name because someone else already publishes under it, so Mara is what I use now online as a courtesy to the published author. I doubt that Nathan would like another Nathan Bierma to publish under his name. For some reason DISQUIS also picked up TEAM JESUS when I made one joke on the Tebow thread and it stuck inside DISQUIS. I don''t understand how DISQUIS works.

Bethanykj
December 13, 2011

Thanks for this post, Nathan. When the "nym" wars were raging this summer, I was dissatisfied with a discussion about what should be allowed and wished for a discussion of what was wise practice and why. <br><br>I typically use my real name or some variant on it, partly because of the reasons you say and I never got real attached to a good pseudonym, but I have also never experienced a targeted campaign of harassment, stalking or abuse, which if that did happen to me would change my habits speedily. It seems any policy designed to reduce bad behavior also has the effect of silencing others who we do not intend to exclude.

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
December 13, 2011

Thanks for the kind words Mara (if that's your real name!) We do allow the use of pseudonyms on Think Christian, as you can see, and try to balance that with careful moderation. As for Disqus, I don't quite understand why it works - or doesn't - either, which is one reason we'll be ditching it soon when we redesign the website.<br><br>Josh Larsen, editor

Xioc1138
December 13, 2011

Pseudonyms have been around in the communications world for a long time.  Since the early days of Christianity, Christians have used secret symbols to identify themselves.  Even in some of the early manuscripts we can see that Christ's name was modified from time  to time with a simple "x".  While not exactly the same as a pseudonym, we can see from this that anonymous identification methods, I think we can make the case that directly identifying things isn't always the best method.<br><br>For the information world, using a pseudonym in online communication far predates AOL and even the web.  Even operating systems like UNIX (and the more modern Linux) have a SUDO where one user can emulate another user.<br><br>As for myself, I use pseudonyms most of the places that I'm found to be on the web.  Why?  Various reasons exist.  Sometimes they are silly, sometimes they are not silly, sometimes they are professional.  They are never used to be evil or shady.  <br>ThinkChristian allows people to fake their names.  So does 4chan.  The use of pseudonyms doesn't really determine the quality of the comments.  That is typically done by the content of a site and that site's audience.In my spare time run some communications lines for missionaries in foreign anti Christian lands.  The people who use my communication channels MUST use pseudonyms, even with their home churches.  Why?  Because even Christians will turn their own into local governments that desire to kill Christians.  So the same thing (persecution) that drove early Christians to retain anonymity still exists today in many parts of the world.<br><br>In the end, I don't really think that this is a religious issue, unless you're trying to use anonymity for unethical reasons, which is really the only sin here.

Chris PrayBuddy.Com
December 14, 2011

On my prayer board, I encourage people to use pseudonyms if they wish to post prayer requests anonymously. Like you said, it comes down to the purpose behind it.

Bluerose
December 14, 2011

<br><br>I use a pseudonym<br>because I consider the internet sort of like a public restroom: you only use<br>one when absolutely necessary and there’s always swear words on the walls. The internet<br>is very public and I highly value my privacy. I don’t post any pictures of<br>myself online and don’t allow my friends to do so either.<br><br><br>

Allan White
December 18, 2011

<blockquote>There may be things I want to do online that are really only appropriate for friends in a certain circle. Not that I am ashamed of them, but just like in our offline life we maintain different personas (how we present ourselves at work, to family, at church, to friends on Saturday night, to the pollster asking our position on some issue, etc.), it may be appropriate to do the same online.</blockquote><br><br>As someone who came of age online, and who makes websites for a living - I have concluded that the reality is that there is no - zero - assurance of privacy in communication online. <br><br>I have many times wished this was not so, but the reality is that everything that we create that is connected to the Internet may possibly be made fully public.<br><br>Rather than fully retreat from online discussion and writing, however, it has made me more careful and thoughtful about what I write and post online. I use my real name, image, and public identity as a tool: to gain credibility in my profession, to engage and elevate debate on issues I care about. The tradeoff in privacy is worth it in my mind - <em>in the areas I engage</em>. I've often wished for a "private" journal that I can share with friends and close family and be totally open and honest. <br><br>I believe online mediums are not the place for that. Personal letters, diaries and the like are the only tools I can find suitable these days for private writing &amp; image-making.

Allan White
December 18, 2011

You bring up some excellent points about persecuted Christians in oppressive societies. My own personal first-world challenges of online identity pale in comparison to theirs. I have no issues with pseudonyms used - especially when those voices can undermine and challenge oppression.

Allan White
December 18, 2011

That's really disappointing to hear about Driscoll. I hope that he, like many learning how to live their faith online, has matured beyond that and made amends.<br><br>I had a painful learning experience come from a ferocious disagreement done via email, which only amplified a misunderstanding into a friendship-ending problem. Having the same conversation in person would have made all the difference.

Allan White
December 18, 2011

Josh, I'd be very interested to hear what you don't like about Disqus. I deploy it on a lot of sites and it's been good so far - but my priorities may differ. What are you replacing it with? Apologies if this is too OT. <br><br>Online identity is related to this topic (how tech enables or not).<br><br>Mara: "bitter"?

Josh Larsen
TC Staff
December 18, 2011

I can e-mail you about that Allan. Thanks for commenting.

SiarlysJenkins
December 22, 2011

Authors have published books under pseudonyms for years. Eventually everyone knew that Lewis Carroll, the whimsical writer of nonsense, was really Charles Dodgson, the ever so serious professor of mathematics. Still, the distinct identities allowed him to be serious in one sphere and whimsical in another. I use a pseudonym, consistently, when commenting on line, when writing for the late and much-lamented <i>Wittenburg Door</i>, and in some other published work. I have also published under my own name. Some of those who know my nom de plume also know my legal name, some do not.<br><br>It is true, as Allen White points out, that there is no REAL anonymity on the web. Blog administrators can see your url in real time, etc. That is the real protection against serious criminal threats. But, its not a bad thing that I can comment freely without worrying that someone considering a job application will happen to stumble across remarks that prejudice their thinking for irrelevant reasons, when they were only looking to see if I had a criminal record. It used to be a lot more work to find out things that are none of your business. I'd still like people to work for what they get, and weigh how much trouble they want to go to. Besides, after several years, people not in my immediate personal circle, physically, know me by this name. It would be disorienting to give it up.

Billwald
January 25, 2012

Anonymous talk is cheap. Is a person who won't put his money where his mouth is worth listening to?

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