Maintaining Privacy with an Online Alter Ego

Paper Bag (#95734) by Mark Sebastian from Flickr

Paper Bag (#95734) by Mark Sebastian from Flickr

I just got back from the interactive track of South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin – the most amazing conference for all things related to social media. I attended as many sessions as I could but there were dozens of other talks I wish I could have attended. I came back to Phoenix buzzing with ideas.

I attended an interesting session by author/journalist Pernille Tranberg from Copenhagen. She co-authored the book Fake It! Your Guide to Digital Self-Defense.  She uses her real name on LinkedIn and Twitter, but she uses fake names on Facebook and for filling out forms online. She has two complete alter egos. Her friends know her fake name on Facebook but she generally doesn’t share that information with others.

In a world that pushes of online transparency, her ideas run in the opposite direction. This is a great tactic for people to use who don’t want everyone looking them up or if they want to have a private online life that is completely separate from their professional life. Having a fake persona makes it less likely that your boss or prospective boss will be able to find you on Facebook or anywhere else you use your fake name. Additionally, if your fake identity is ever stolen it won’t be devastating for you because there are no assets connected to your alter ego.

If you’re interested in creating an alter ego for yourself, check out Fake Name Generator. It will give you a name, address, email address, username, password, profession, and even information like height, weight, blood type, and mother’s maiden name.

Now, does using a fake name violate the terms of service of social media sites that require you to use your real name or have a policy against one person having multiple accounts? Yes. But if no one reports you, how will they ever know?

I also attended a session on Bullying: Social Media as Problem and Solution which featured Marta Gossage, community manager for Reddit. She spoke about how people are encouraged to use pseudonyms on Reddit and by doing so it allows people to share and connect with people in a way that they don’t feel comfortable doing in real life. She said it also reduces the amount of harassment because most people don’t know each other in real life and participants on the site are good at enforcing the ideal that they can attack an idea but not the person.

Marta encourages people to use fake names because it’s easier to share without fear of judgment when no one knows who you are and because it’s easier to delete a fake identity than a real one from the internet. This is particularly true for young people who don’t think before they post and may regret the things they post which might affect their ability to get jobs or accepted into college.

I have a friend who maintained two Facebook profiles during law school – one was under her real name that was mostly a placeholder in case a professional contact tried to look her up. The other was under her fake name where she was free to be herself. Knowing what I know about her career plans, it made sense for her to separate her social life from her professional one. (Don’t worry – she doesn’t do anything bad. She’s just a bit of a free spirit in a conservative industry where some might look down on her boisterousness.)

If you want to create a fake persona online, remember what Benjamin Franklin said: “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” Be careful to only share your fake identity with people who will keep it private.

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  • http://twitter.com/tdhurst Tyler Hurst

    Though this really doesn’t solve anything, nor does it teach anyone how to stand up for ourselves or cope with online abuse.

    Wouldn’t that be a better solution than creating at least one fake person?

    • http://www.CarterLawAz.com/ Ruth Carter

      I see where you’re coming from and I think you should be willing to own everything you do online in the real world. However, there are times when it might make sense to use an alter ego – like a kid who is gay or bullied who uses an alter ego to connect with others who couldn’t share what they needed to to get the support they needed if their real name was attached. I also understand using a fake name on sites to protect your data but your friends you connect with know who you really are. I can see young people and job seekers protecting themselves by using fake names to keep their private lives separate from their professional lives.

  • http://www.constitutionaldaily.com bl1y

    The trick to maintaining online anonymity is to not be interesting enough for anyone to care. It’s basically the same as being anonymous with your real name. And having nothing to lose by being found out doesn’t hurt either.

    As for the Benjamin Franklin quotation, you misinterpreted it. Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead, so be careful not to share your fake identity with anyone, even if you trust them to keep it private.

    • http://www.CarterLawAz.com/ Ruth Carter

      Thanks BL1Y. I admire you and The Namby Pamby’s abilities to keep your identities a secret. I hope someday I’ll be at an event and I’ll hear one of your voices and you’ll get to smile as I struggle to connect the voice to the name.

      • http://www.constitutionaldaily.com bl1y

        My identity is pretty far from secret.

        • http://www.CarterLawAz.com/ Ruth Carter

          You’ve kept it a secret from a lot of us. I only know what I’ve been able to piece together from your podcast. I remember you and Namby talking about getting accolades for your blogs and how you couldn’t put them on your resumes. ;)

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