Should you prohibit pseudonyms?

Four permanent markers and a stack of blank blue "Hello my name is" stickers on a brown table.

Online discourse is a tire fire. We all know it. Some sites and communities try to clean it up by requiring that participants use their real name. But is that a good choice for your open source community? No.

First, some research has shown that “stable” pseudonyms result in better civility than real names. People’s pseudonyms can be a key part of their identity. Nobody calls me “Funnel Fiasco” in person, but I’ve owned that domain since 2005 and used it across many sites. “Funnel Fiasco” is me. We’re used to using account handles instead of names in online communication anyway. Many people have social handles or account names (including on GitHub and the like) that are something other than “GivennameSurname”. There are many “B. Cotton”s in the world, but “bcotton” is me in a lot of places.

Second, allowing pseudonyms makes your community more inclusive. People who want to maintain a low profile for whatever reason can still be valuable members of your community. Pseudonyms don’t have to be not-names like “Funnel Fiasco”. People may choose to use an “actual” name that’s not their legal one, like “Dirk Hotbod.” This can be particularly true for people whose gender identity doesn’t match what others know.

Finally, how are you going to enforce it? Requiring a government ID before you let someone join your community is a good way to not have a community. If you don’t require an ID, you’re insisting on serving as an arbiter of what seems like a name. Years ago, a local apartment complex called “Pearl on South” joined Facebook as a person named “Pearl Onsouth.” Pearl Onsouth was close enough to a name that it didn’t run afoul of the automated checks. And I’ve seen people named Swastika struggle to convince others that it’s really their name.

If you’re considering adopting a “real name only” policy for your project, think about what problem you’re actually trying to solve.

This post’s featured photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Ben formerly led open source messaging at Docker and was the Fedora Program Manager. He is the author of Program Management for Open Source Projects. Ben is an Open Organization Ambassador and frequent conference speaker. His personal website is Funnel Fiasco.


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