Encouraged in my thinking by an article on the Guardian blog, which perhaps went a bit off-topic among the comments, I found myself wondering why it was that the internet (even the better controlled and respected parts of it) encouraged people to involve themselves in interactions pseudonymously. Most communal sites, when you sign up to them, will not merely allow you to operate pseudonymously, but in a sense actually encourage you to. (You might well argue it would be very difficult for them not to). Considering though that the web began as a way for academics to swap articles and information (presumably in their name) among one another, I was wondering what the historical basis was for this prevalence of pseudonymity. – All I managed to come across though in the literature I accessed were what seemed to me justifications after the fact, and even then more or less special cases: work-based whistle-blowing, bloggers living under oppressive regimes (I know, it is only my western European prejudice that this latter is a special case, but the blogs I am talking about are dominantly European / American both in origin and in usership); – and I felt myself none the wiser. (Any answers?)
For my own part, as I mentioned before, I first used the pseudonym Obooki on internet poker sites, and if I had to assume now why I chose a pseudonym rather than playing under my own name, it would simply be because I perceived it was the done thing: I went on the site, I noticed that pretty much everyone else used pseudonyms, so I thought I’d follow suit. – I can’t see now how it would have made any difference to me if I’d be compelled to play poker under my own name (which in this case, since you are required to give your bank details anyway, they could have enforced).
When it came to commenting on the Guardian, however, I feel my motivation changed. That I retained the same name shows how to a certain extent I carried over my poker practices to the litblog, but I also think it brought out a general sense of secrecy and shyness which has always been part of my character; and perhaps even more than that, it brought out the authorial perfectionist within me, who has long been afraid of having any texts or opinions attributed to his name which aren’t long worked-over and to which I haven’t a committed belief. And I think too of the small boy at school who’d never put his hand up to answer a question for fear of making a fool of himself. – Suddenly a pseudonym becomes safe: a man bound by timidity can now make a fool of himself, and then – once the shame and embarrassment has worn off (which might take a few months) – the pseudonym can easily be discarded and a new one taken up. Not, of course, that I feel I have made much a fool of myself (or only occasionally) – and so I’ve stuck with Obooki (which is not, in truth, a role I am playing or a different persona I have adopted – although I might at times kid myself about it and like to play up the idea – but is by and large myself) and I find I don’t mind now if Obooki comes to be identified alongside my actual name: – indeed, when the Great Publisher comes for my Book and publishes it, I find myself now toying with the idea of prolonging the pseudonym. – I even feel – as perhaps is evidenced by the many failed blogs on this site, and the sense of reticence sometimes now to comment (even to write the comment, but then think better of it and not post it) – that Obooki is slowly losing his unnatural confidence and becoming cramped again by my own uncertainties, just in fact as he did as a poker-player and was forced to give up that respected profession.