Pseudonymity – is it always appropriate?


(Sarah Hawk) #1

Do you think that there are times when pseudonymity isn’t appropriate?

I spent 10 years as the only female in a team of 15 software developers. I wasn’t ever treated differently at the office, but online there were often times when people reacted strongly to my gender. As a result, I started using my surname (Hawk) for all online interactions. I never withheld the truth if it came up, but I was comfortable with people assuming I was male because it evened the playing field in a lot of ways.

The name stuck and these days only my mother calls me Sarah.

Recently I sent out a welcome email (you all had one similar). The response that I got said that I was obnoxious to call myself Hawk. I’ve been thinking on that a lot. On the one hand, I understand that in a corporate environment, it might seem strange. On the other, in this business (especially in the tech/startup community, which is my background) it’s very common. And it is my name…

I think that pseudonymity is appropriate online and we all have the right to our own boundaries.

Do you have rules around using full names in your communities?


Fun With Real Names In Online Communities
Anonymous questions
(Darren Gough) #2

I’ve never been comfortable calling you Hawk - it feels odd, other worldly to me and just a bit bizarre to call you by your family name from the off. I feel like I’m in the Matrix or something :smile:

It’s interesting because in theory your first name could be anything (you could be Hawk Smith) and that feels fine to me, if unusual.

Quite interested to know what others think around this. I think the setting (the corporate environment) plays a part, but then I know Rich quite likes calling you Hawk. Maybe it’s just personal preference?


(Tobias Eigen) #3

That’s an interesting story, @HAWK - I did not assume it was your real name and found it to be a bit strange in this context, to be honest. It’s nice to know your real name. In your welcome message you are shown to be “HAWK Feverbee”. :smile:

We prefer to use real names in our community, but we’re also open minded and if someone really wants to use a pseudonym as their username we’re ok with it… but then we do still like them to share their real name.

One of the challenges we face is that many of our members tend to represent themselves as their organizations. E.g. the username will be their organization’s acronym. This I would like to avoid, both because we have an organization directory already and because people move on from organizations to new jobs and we’d like to imagine that they’d want to remain in our community under their own identity, and just switch their organization affiliation.


(Sarah Hawk) #4

There are a couple of things that I find interesting about it.

Firstly, theoretically anyone should be allowed to decide what they are called, and to suggest that is obnoxious feels inappropriate to me, but I think that culture probably has something to do with it. Both my country (NZ) and the startup arena are fairly casual.

But my question here relates more to the concept of pseudonymity than to my personal situation. I don’t expect (or insist) that anyone to call me Hawk, especially those (like you) that I have a personal relationship with. But I think that there are sometimes important and appropriate reasons to protect your identity/privacy online (again, I’m not suggesting that I have any), so I’m interested in whether others have communities that don’t allow for that.


(Christine Hamman) #5

That’s very interesting, @HAWK. I wouldn’t have any issue with someone using a pseudonym at all. In my community, a full name is required for registration in order to create transparency between the user and the reviews they write. We feel it creates an honest environment. However, on a forum or through personal emails, I don’t see how it would or should be an issue.


(Sarah Hawk) #6

That’s not ideal! In the subject line you mean? Email or PM?

That’s interesting in itself, because different names in different places undermines the idea of a personal brand. What are your thoughts on that?

I do agree that full name should be required for registration, (and probably displayed somewhere in a community like this, which is predominantly professional).

Thanks for your perspectives.


(Tobias Eigen) #7

The PM - even here all your posts say “HAWK FeverBee”. I updated my post above with a screenshot now that I’m allowed to do it.


(Sarah Hawk) #8

Ah, I see what you’re saying. That’s just displaying my username and title, which does make sense.
Interestingly though, based on this feedback (mainly your point to not realising it was my real name) I have just tried to update my full name and can’t. I’ll have to dig a bit deeper.

Edit: Done! That probably makes more sense to people on a professional level now, as well as protecting my personal brand. Thoughts?


(Steph Bright) #9

Hi Hawk, I think this is a really interesting point of discussion.

Especially that you first adopted it to mask gender, even today as more women are working in tech industries people can act very differently towards you. I think this demonstrates your genuine reason for adopting your name which made you feel comfortable, and it’s unfair to challenge that.

Perhaps it is a cultural thing. Where I grew up in South East London calling people by their surname is what the ‘lads’ do, they consider it a cool way to refer to each other but other people from different areas sometimes find it a bit common. So it’s interesting how a name can have so many implications among different cultures.

In my eyes, there’s nothing obnoxious about it - I’d say that’s a highly judgmental view and with only a name to go by I’m not sure you can make any kind of informed judgment about someone’s character. Essentially it’s a name. It actually is your surname, and you’re not hiding your full name. And even if you’d made it up randomly because you didn’t feel connected to your given name that’s up to you. Who cares that much about a name?! It’s the person that counts (cheesy but true).


(Richard Millington) #10

Think we’re talking around 4 interesting interrelated concepts here.

1) The opinions of the loud minority rule out what most people are happy with.
I would never be worried with 1 to 3 complaints. More than that you might want to think about it. You might have 100 people who like it but never say so.

2) Expectations in different contexts.
In some professional contexts, using a pseudonym can sound off and off-putting. If we meet a client and introduce ourselves as Hawk and EliteSniper17, we’re probably not going to be appear very professional.

3) The psychology of pseudonyms.
We have a weaker connection to pseudonyms than real identities. I’d much prefer to enforce real names as usernames here, but not sure people would accept it. The reason is we feel a closer connection to ‘real’ people. Also, we can look each other up. I can get more info about your experience/expertise from LinkedIn etc…that’s pretty valuable. If we attend events, and we meet, we’ll probably introduce ourselves by real names etc…so we might not know who is who. That’s why I much prefer real names and faces in profiles. I wouldn’t enforce it, but I definitely prefer it. There are plenty of opportunities when pseudonyms are important for identities, this isn’t usually the case for professional communities.

4) Personal brand. Sarah Hawk is more powerful than HAWK. Hawk is too generic to be your brand. If I hear someone called Hawk created a great website and want to hire her, I’m not going to find you if I just search for Hawk. I’m going to find bird pictures :). Your personal brand is your name and work, not the pseudonym.


(Sarah Hawk) #11

I dunno, I think it has quite a good ring to it. Like superheroes. When did you start calling your self EliteSniper17 btw?


So, what are you working on? Part 1
(Darren Gough) #12

I also like there were 16 snipers before who didn’t make the cut…


(Janet Swisher) #13

I come from the open source world, where pseudonymity is common and accepted. For some contributors, in certain parts of the world, keeping their real identity separate from their online identity might be necessary for their personal safety. Others are just adamant about privacy. Even when you know someone’s real name, even when they are coworkers, it’s common to refer to them by their online handle. So, I have the attitude that your name is whatever you tell me your name is. (I assumed “Hawk” was a nickname; didn’t realize it was your surname.)

I also strongly encourage responsibility and accountability for your identity. If the community supports pseudonyms, it should be difficult to change pseudonyms. It should be a “brand” within the community, in both the positive and the negative senses of the word. Yet, it should also be possible to migrate to a new identity. I’ve known people who started contributing to open source at a young age, and later wished to have a more “mature” identity than their younger selves had chosen.


(ForumSentinel) #14

I could write a novel on this but I’ll just share a thought that hopefully makes sense lol. Our largest and most popular portion of the community, the MISC, has been established as a “boy’s locker room” mentality, including all the juvenile and offensive (to many) behavior we can allow while still protecting the business. That’s not a very female friendly atmosphere and most females either receive extreme “white knighting” e.g. lots of reputation points and polite comments from a few or outright abuse from others. Many females will stay anonymous to avoid the issue altogether while the small group who proudly declare their gender either do so for attention or because they can hang with the guys. We also have a female section for those who don’t want to deal with it.

I have no issue with pseudonyms because it gives them the option to either share or hide information that will drastically affect their treatment, at least when they first join (which is the critical part in whether they stay). Once they show they can deal with the silly behavior they are often accepted (to the majority).

Full names are a no-no which is unfortunate because of the rise of “internet detectives” and those who want to track down people and just ruin their lives (much like swatting and the like).


(Sarah Hawk) #15

Thanks for your comments @Janet_Swisher – it sounds like we come from similar backgrounds in this regard.

That is what I mean when I say personal brand. I see that @richard_millington has a different definition of it, based on his response above. I’m not referring to how someone would find me if they Googled, but more how people think of me and address me. I was at a conference last year when someone said “Oh! So you’re SitePoint’s Hawk” and realised that it has very much become my brand.

[quote=“Janet_Swisher, post:13, topic:985”]
I’ve known people who started contributing to open source at a young age, and later wished to have a more “mature” identity than their younger selves had chosen.
[/quote] That is a very good point and something that I think we should communicate to our children’s generation. I got stung by it to a degree (as did many, I believe) when Twitter started out. I joined relatively early on (early 2008) and @hawk was already taken, so I went for @ilovethehawk as a bit of a joke. I never dreamed that it would become what it has, especially in the professional arena. I occasionally cringe at myself, especially when it’s displayed on my lower third during Google hangouts!


(Piper_Wilson) #16

I totally think that pseudonymity is appropriate in certain circumstances. As long as you aren’t being dishonest about it.

I asked a similar question last year. https://experts.feverbee.com/t/how-much-personal-information-do-you-share-publicly/333.

The short version is that I used to use a pseudonym online. I had a personal experience in the past which left me ultra vigilant, perhaps overly so, for my safety. When I posted that question, there was no problem using my pseudonym.

Now that has changed.

One of the requirements when I was hired by the company I used to volunteer for, was that I use a face picture on my profile. I’m not required to use my real name within our overall community, but I am required to use my real name with the other employees.

I would be more comfortable using Piper Wilson, but I’m a big kid now. :wink:


(JeffKRoss) #17

I can completely understand how calling yourself Hawk served a beneficial purpose in the male-dominated context and I don’t blame you at all for doing that. In our 44,000-person internal community at my company, names are synced with official first and last names on record and display that way, but we’re adding in October the ability for people to use a preferred name instead of their official first name. We still want them to use the same preferred name that is used in Outlook and our employee directory and not come up with “The Terminator” or some such thing.

We also allow personas in the case of departments that have multiple people manning an account and they want to be known as HR4U, for example, instead of their individual names. This helps people know they are getting the “official” answer from the right business area, although there is a trade-off in doing it that way and as a rule we prefer people to use their real account for posting vs. a persona. That’s a bit different than your conext, though.

Years ago I got the nickname Blue from a lot of people outside work and I would be happy to go by it as well, although nobody at work knows me as that, so it would be a bit odd for me to use that here.

Nice to learn more about you, Hawk!


(Sarah Hawk) #18

It’s fantastic to hear of an organisation that is so flexible when it comes to identity @JeffKRoss
At one of my former employers, I was known by all my colleagues as Hawk (it was a social media agency so they met me on the internet), but when I used the name Hawk on an internal chat system I was specifically told to change it because “I didn’t deserve special treatment”. I found that pretty insulting, and surprising TBH.


(Michael Van Riper) #19

Funny you should bring this up, my full name is Michael Van Riper. People
know me professionally for the most part as Van Riper and call me Van.
Those that are not familiar with Dutch surnames assume Van is my first name
and Riper is my last name. It was a conscious thing that I did to drop the
"Michael" back in 1994 after my father’s death. Longer story behind the
name change here
http://www.metacmgr.org/2010/03/apple-never-falls-far-from-tree.html.

Like you, I don’t go out of my way to hide the fact that my full name is
Michael Van Riper. I simply introduce myself as Van Riper and my
communications are always signed from Van Riper or Van.

Cheers, Van


(David Silvernail) #20

We allow pseudonym’s on our site ControlBooth.com due to the fact that many of our members work for companies that prohibit their users from representing themselves in their technical roles online, NDA’s are common at the top levels of this industry. We have people who work for “The House of Mouse” and other big name venues and production companies who aren’t allowed to reveal their employer to avoid the corporate liability for statements made by the employees online.

These people represent the top echelon of the industry and they would not be able to participate if we didn’t allow pseudonym’s on our site. We even go as far as to work to protect their real world identities, often from well-meaning but clueless colleagues who accidentally make a remark that could out them


It’s Harder To Build Relationships When People Wear Masks