Why I don’t use my real name on twitter

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the outing of @GrogsGamut by James Massola of The Australian newspaper. Just in case, here’s a good summary from @tobiasziegler over at Pure Poison. This isn’t intended to be a post about Grog, other than to say that I don’t think it was necessary to publish his identity, and that I hope he comes out of this ok.

The outing of Grog reignited the periodic debate on twitter about whether people should be entitled to remain anonymous/use a pseudonym on the internet. It’s a complex debate, and I can understand the arguments from people on both sides, but I (obviously) come down on the side of the right to anonymity.

I’ve touched on it before (on twitter), but today I’ll discuss in more detail why I don’t use my real name on twitter. Part of it is the professional/personal divide (i.e. the argument used by Tobby and Grog), but for me it’s more about my own privacy.

Last year I had a student requesting to become my friend on facebook. I ignored the request, because while I am teaching them I prefer that my students know a minimal amount about my personal life. I thought that would be the end of it, but the next class this student asked why I didn’t accept his friend request. I politely explained my position on friending students, and he claimed to accept my explanation. Later that week, I received another friend request. This time the request was from a largely empty profile, with no picture, very few friends, and minimal “about” info. One thing stood out though: the birthdate on the profile coincided with the approximate age of my students. Hardly conclusive, but suspicious nonetheless (I ignored the request).

Mildly unnerved, I thought that would be the end of it, but later that semester, after their final test, the student approached me. This time, he asked me whether I would accept his friend request if he un-enrolled from the continuing unit the following semester. I told him that I thought that would be a rather extreme length to go to, and left it at that.

Since then, I haven’t heard anything from this student (apart from encounters related to my teaching duties), but I’d be lying if I said the incident didn’t leave me rattled. I’m pretty relaxed with my students, but this student’s determination to add me on facebook (and thus know things about me beyond what I choose to share in class) made me feel a bit anxious.

When I set up my twitter account, the primary reason I chose not to use my real name was that I didn’t want students (or others) to be able to find out lots of things about me without my permission. I didn’t want to turn up to class one day and have a student ask me “So, you think that Clive Palmer is not a shining example of human generosity and empathy?”

Anonymity is not necessarily about not wanting to be held accountable for your opinions. If you really want to know who I am, just ask me. I just don’t feel the need to broadcast my real name.

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11 Responses to Why I don’t use my real name on twitter

  1. Jason says:

    “not wanting to be held accountable for your opinions”

    This is a bit dumb anyway. In what way would anyone need to be “held accountable” by a bunch of newspaper opinion writers? Or members of the general public? Why? (If the problem is libel, then the cops can sort it out, and they almost certainly will. Libel is largely irrelevant to this debate.)

    • bogurk says:

      I can understand the argument that if you know who someone is, you know if they have an axe to grind or a particular reason for being vindictive. However, I think this usually becomes apparent when you read someone’s writing for a while. Grog always writes well-reasoned, insightful pieces, which is how he gained such a following. As many others have pointed out, it’s the difference between anonymity and pseudonymity. If you think the fact that someone is writing under a pseudonym is influencing their analysis, you can always take that into account.

      • Jason says:

        “if they have an axe to grind or a particular reason for being vindictive.”

        This is pretty much the definition of ad-hominem though. “Oh of course they’d say that, they’re a member of «insert-party-here».” Having an axe to grind does not affect the validity of an argument.

        Besides, anonymity carries that problem with it anyway, and worse. People who disagree will speculate about imaginary axes that the author must have, when there might not be one at all.

      • bogurk says:

        All very well said, Jason.

  2. Nardijah says:

    Great post. There are so many reasons that people want to use a nom de plume, and it is not the same as being completely anonymous. I think James Massola is probably regretting the story he wrote – probably only at his Chief of Staff’s behest. I was so surprised it was James as he hs always been more of a harmoniser and quite a diplomatic identity on twitter – friendly with both the bloggers and the (N/n)ewsies. I remember I was a part of a typical twitter joust between the self publishers and the broadsheets and as a joke a propos the nom de plume debate – we assumed his own avatar as a joke and he took it very well – he was very good natured about it. The blogosphere would certainly miss Grog if he stopped blogging. I hope he keeps his job and can keep writing.

    • bogurk says:

      Hi Nardijah, thanks for commenting, I’m glad you liked my post. I agree completely that writing under a pseudonym is different from being completely anonymous, especially for reasons of trust and reliability. I also agree with your assessment of James Massola as someone who was previously friendly and diplomatic. This anonymity debate has been brewing for a long while now, and it seems to have erupted with fury today. I’ll be interested to see how it shakes out.

  3. SM says:

    I think there is much to be disingenuous about when attacking the alleged anonymity of some writer. Journalists are paid to be the “public persona” and gain other benefits to that aside. For them to want to unmask someone, on the basis that everyone knows who they are is hardly fair. Do they publish their personal details. Of course not, yet in unmasking those anonymous or pseudonymous that is what their actions will entail.

    Anonymity is at best only thinly kept online and its more about respect than secrecy. What occurred yesterday was all about not respecting

  4. stace says:

    I’ve got a question: Can people see my full name on Twitter? I mean if my full name is Bloom Blaam (random name:P) and my username is chachacha, can people see my full name?

    • bogurk says:

      The name that is displayed on twitter is whatever you choose to enter in the name field. So if you don’t enter your name, it won’t be displayed. For example, I used to display my name as just bogurk, now I use “Annette” since I’m not teaching any more. You can always check by looking at your own profile.

  5. Mike says:

    How does this relate to entering your full name on the registration page? When you
    enter your full name on the registration page, will everyone on twitter see it?

    • bogurk says:

      It’s been a while since I started a new account, but I think the name you enter when you register is the name that is displayed. So if you don’t want your name public it’s best not to use it when registering (use a pseudonym instead).

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