What are the practical and ethical issues regarding using pen names on internet sites that expect people to use their real name?
May 12, 2011 11:16 AM   Subscribe

What are the practical and ethical issues regarding using pen names on internet sites that expect people to use their real name?

With the rise of Facebook, there are increasing numbers of sites like Quora that expect or require people to identify themselves by their real name.

At the same time there is a well established tradition in some areas of life that people use pen names, stage names etc, without that being considered questionable in any way.

What are the practical, legal and ethical considerations regarding using pen names on such websites? And do these considerations vary from site to site, or are they fairly standard across most sites?
posted by philipy to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This is really pretty simple. If a site has a policy that requests/requires real names, and you want to utilize the site, the right thing to do is use your real name. If you're uncomfortable with that, don't use the site.

Your example of stage names doesn't compare. Nobody has requested of the actors that they use their real names in order to perform.

And, your last sentence enters into the area of situational ethics.. always a slippery slope.
posted by tomswift at 11:32 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Recently, a Chinese journalist named Michael Anti was kicked off of Facebook because of their real name policy.

The obviously sensitive nature of using one's real name for anything political in China doesn't matter to Facebook, nor does the fact that the man is widely known as Michael Anti worldwide. It is simply a violation of Facebook's policy to use a pen name, and they have a right to delete profiles that do not use the user's real name. Legally, certainly, they have the right to do so as that is part of the terms of service agreement each user agreed to upon signup.

However, news coverage of the case did highlight a "loophole" in Facebook's real name policy, which is that Facebook allow users to set up a "page" instead of a profile for anything, including a fake person.
posted by lesli212 at 11:42 AM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

I know plenty of people who go by not-their-real-name on Facebook. The most crafty use of this is folks who spell out the first initial of their last name as their last name (like Em, Elle, and Jay) and use either their first name, middle name, or pet's name along with that. Most of them have done it for years, haven't been pegged by Facebook, have plenty of real-life friends who know who they are, and seem to sleep just fine at night with no moral quandaries.

It's not like the Internet Police are going to come find you and put you in jail. Worst that will happen is that the website will delete your profile.

The only way I can see this being a problem (legal or ethical) is if you go sign up for a website as Jessamyn West, or someone else who is real and you are obviously not, and then go around masquerading as her causing trouble.
posted by phunniemee at 12:03 PM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I use a name in everyday life that is not my legal name. When trying to decide which one to use in a given situation, I ask myself:

- Which would be least confusing?

Professionally I use my "pen name" and/or my non-legal first name and my legal last name. With people from high school and prior I use my legal name. In situations where I might encounter both, like Facebook, I take advantage of their "alternate name" option and use both,

- Which will require me to be more accountable?

Since professionally I use the handle, that is actually the more accountable name when talking about either game or community stuff. It's vastly more googleable and connectable to my professional life. My legal name is only tied to financial stuff, really.

- Which will require fewer long explanations?

I use the hybrid ("fake" first name, legal last name) in situations (like on my resume) where giving HR a non-legal last name will cause all sorts of hassles with direct deposit, plane tickets, and that sort of thing. I don't really like it, but it's the best compromise short of getting my act together and having my name officially changed.

Ethically, I have no qualms about any of this. You can find me by either name, or both. I'm accountable for my actions under either one. They're both my "real" names - I just happen to have two.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:20 PM on May 12, 2011

The only major concern to me is the practical one -- many of these sites will delete your profile / activity _if_ they determine you're not using your real name. Now, they certainly don't catch everyone (and they vary in how actively they try), but it opens up that possibility.
posted by wildcrdj at 12:22 PM on May 12, 2011

A lot of places have highly hypocritical "real name" policies. A friend of mine is an author who writes and lives under a name which is not her given name. I do know her given name, but I don't know anyone who calls her by it. When she was in some newspaper (I think it was USA Today?), they insisted for some reason on using her legal name (which meant that nobody who heard of her through this article would ever find her books). Needless to say, they do not do do the same for Nicolas Cage.

In my view, nobody gets to tell you what your "real" name is. That's up to you. Anyone who doesn't respect it is a dick.
posted by novalis_dt at 2:03 PM on May 12, 2011

There is no ethical issue with respect to using a pen name on a site that requires a "real" name. There is no such thing as a real name: the name you want people to call you is your real name. What you put on your taxes is irrelevant.

The usual way of name verification is to request a scan of your driver's license. With a few minutes in Photoshop, that can say whatever you want.
posted by jrockway at 2:09 PM on May 12, 2011

There is no ethical issue with respect to using a pen name on a site that requires a "real" name. There is no such thing as a real name: the name you want people to call you is your real name.

I disagree.

Yes, a name is "just" a label, and labels are ultimately arbitrary, but if someone asks me "Hey, are you Sam?" and I say "Yes," I'm lying. He is going to take my "yes" as an implication that I generally answer to Sam. AND I KNOW HE'S GOING TO TAKE IT THAT WAY. So by saying "yes" to Sam, I am KNOWINGLY misleading him.

If a site says "tell us your real name," I know what the site means by that. If I give it a name that's not what I'm generally called, I know I am thwarting the site's request WITHOUT SAYING I'M THWARTING IT. That is what I call lying.

I am not on a moral high horse. I've lied in that way plenty of times, and I will do it again. But I know I'm lying when I do it.
posted by grumblebee at 2:32 PM on May 12, 2011

Response by poster: Let me add a few points that would be great to get some input on...

- Do sites have a nuanced definition of what constitutes a "real name", for example recognizing the validity of pen names in some circumstances? (From the Michael Anti example, I guess Facebook takes a pretty crude approach.)

- Do the TOS vary in their details, so that what is ok on one site may be different to what's ok on another? Or is it much of a muchness?

- What is the relationship between the legal force of a pen name and the legal force of a TOS? (e.g. Does the TOS override what would otherwise be the law regarding valid use of names? Or does the law negate aspects of a TOS that are in conflict with it?)
posted by philipy at 3:55 PM on May 12, 2011

Best answer: Facebook, as near as I can tell, does customer service with a double-bitted battle axe. Nuance does not exist in that universe. Obviously this will vary site to site.

Terms of Service are written by individual companies. There's no reason to believe there will be overlap on this topic at all. They're usually easy to find on any given site - look in the footer.

The enforceability of Terms of Service in general are not a well-hashed-out area of law, in my understanding. (My experience, and IANAL, has been in online video games rather than social media services, but the TOSes are pretty similar.) Facebook, for example, makes reference to "real names" but just says that they reserve the right to remove or change your display name if they feel like it. They don't give any guidelines as to how they're defining "real" (except that you can't use a copyrighted name or make a profile for someone who is not you.) I suspect if anyone went to the trouble of suing Facebook over a name issue Facebook would settle in a screaming hurry, but I'm not aware that anyone has so far.
posted by restless_nomad at 4:07 PM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for your thoughts.

Learning about the Michael Anti case was esp informative, as was hearing about the profiles vs pages distinction on Facebook.

Interestingly in reading about Michael Anti, it looks like he has a Linkedin account under that name. At a quick glance, Linkedin's TOS don't seem to permit accounts under pen names either though, but perhaps they're more flexible in practice.
posted by philipy at 9:43 AM on May 19, 2011

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