I recently bumped into a colleague who mentioned his 20-something daughter regularly changes her online screen names to essentially prevent herself from building a long-standing reputation online. Her profile picture on Facebook, for instance, is deliberately obscure and not searchable using her full name.
Her reasoning? “She doesn’t want people to know who she is online,” my friend explained.
This somewhat astonished me—namely, because today’s twenty-somethings tend to flaunt their identities openly and live their lives online out loud. But also because our reputations on the web have become increasingly important in landing jobs, school admissions, and even dates. Not living any part of your life online is akin to not building up a credit profile.
And while I’ve been known to lightly scold my kids for sharing too much of themselves online, I wouldn’t dream of telling them to hide from the web completely. Doesn’t this cut in on their ability to connect with others online? Aren’t they missing out on out that wonderful world of followers, fans and Klout scores? Perhaps. But in looking over everyone I’m following on Twitter, I realized quite a few of those whose opinions I’ve come to respect are either writing under pseudonyms or as communities. They’re vocal. They’re active. And I have no idea who they truly are.
And they’ll fight tooth and nail to keep both influence and anonymity as we saw when Google+ was pressured into allowing pseudonyms onto the network.
Anonymity on the web may not work to everyone’s advantage. Professionals working in social media or marketing must show they can build communities. And how do you mask your true identity at a networking event? Surely at some point even a pseudonym must make some personal, face-to-face connections, right?
In thinking about alter egos, I’m also reminded of the very public unmasking of Forbes reporter Daniel Lyons as FakeSteveJobs. Sometimes the more successful your pseudonym is, the harder people will work to unveil your true identity.
What do you think? Is it better to live your life anonymously on the web? To cover your tracks? Or can one strike the balance between being known and being safe?