The whole issue of pseudonymity has come up again, both on Google+ and on ScienceBlogs. While I’ve been on the Internet for nigh on 20 years, my initial point of entry was through a Usenet group that strongly preferred real names (or something real-name-ish). As a result, I’ve never tried to maintain a separate Internet name– all of my Usenet posting and all of my blogging has been under my real name. So I don’t have a great deal invested in the question, on a personal level.
There are a couple of points, though, that I think are worth making about the recent discussion:
1) There’s a much-linked story going around about a public health official who was ordered to stop blogging after an Internet troll complained. This is being passed around a lot with titles like the one Orac used, “The consequences of blogging under one’s own name,” but that’s not quite right. What this shows isn’t the peril of blogging under your real name, it shows the peril of blogging when your boss(es) would rather you didn’t.
This is a known avocational hazard of blogging, but is entirely independent of the name under which you blog. If you have a blog, and talk about stuff related to your job, you are taking a risk unless your employer is ok with what you do.
Anonymity or pseudonymity is a way to duck the issue for a while, but no pseudonym is perfect, and anyone can be found out. What matters is whether your employer objects to what you do or not.
In fact, this lesson is clear from Orac’s own post. As he says there, his pseudonym is regularly “cracked” by people who don’t like what he says, who then proceed to write angry emails and letters to his employer. What allows him to keep blogging is not the fact that his real name doesn’t appear on the blog, it’s the fact that his employers don’t object to his blogging, and are even supportive of his efforts.
It doesn’t matter how careful you are about hiding your name– in the end, you can be found out. What matters is whether your bosses will back you up when crazy people figure out where you work and start emailing them. If they approve of what you do, you’re fine even if you blog under your own name (I have had people complain to my chair about stuff I said on the blog, to no effect, because he saw no problem with what I wrote). If they don’t like what you do with the blog, it doesn’t matter what name you attach to it, you’re going to have problems.
Now, you can argue about whether employers can or should order employees to stop blogging, but that’s ultimately between individual bloggers, their bosses, and the legal system. The important thing is that blogging about what you do for a living necessarily involves some risk, whether you try to hide your identity or not. It’s your employer’s opinion that is the key issue, not the way you sign your posts.
2) The argument against allowing pseudonymity is that people will behave better when their real name and reputation are on the line. The counter-argument is that this does not necessarily require real names, but rather consistent identities: someone who always blogs or comments under the same name will build up a reputation over time, and the reputation attached to that online identity can play the same role as the reputation attached to a real name.
There’s a key qualification that’s not usually stated, though: The reputation attached to a consistent online pseudonym can serve the same role as the reputation attached to a real name, provided the person cares about how that pseudonym is perceived. Which is not necessarily the case– some people have consistent online pseudonyms which they use to engage in all sorts of jackassery, and either don’t care, or make it a point of pride.
Does this justify a real-names-only policy? Not really. I suspect that most people who act like jackasses under consistent Internet pseudonyms would act like jackasses under their real names as well. Going to real names only would reduce the problem of bad behavior somewhat, but not eliminate it. But it’s worth remembering that while consistent pseudonyms can function almost as well as real names in a reputational sense, that doesn’t mean they will.