My last post got me thinking about blogging under a pseudonym and the separation this allows me to keep between my online personality and my "real life".
Most of the blogs I read use some kind of pseudonym although quite a few use a real name. That led me to the question - do pseudonyms really protect our identity? How easy would it be for someone to dig behind the avatars we use on chat sites, forums, blogs and so on to discover who we really are.
I am no detective, nor do I possess any special web skills but after a few minutes searching I have come to the conclusion that the answer, for most of us is: Pretty easy indeed.
Let me clarify. I believe the internet offers tremendous anonymity to some people. If you are a l33t haxxor who is paranoid about security and has the ability legal or otherwise to make computers half way around the world jump to your command then I think you can probably hide your identity pretty effectively. I also suspect that some kid logging into Yahoo as MANU4F4 could be pretty hard to trace simply because they haven't been around long enough to leave a mark on the internet. That is until they set up a Myspace or Bebo page with pictures of themselves and all their friends on it.
For adults like myself however I think the story is very different. We are old enough to have left traces of ourselves in many places. School and college websites, employers websites, clubs and societies, newspaper and magazine articles, forums, blogs and so on. All of these clues to who you really are can be found using internet search tools and they can never really be erased. Cached pages can be searched just as easily as live ones.
I tried this out on myself first of all and then on a randomly picked anonymous blogger. Using publicly available information and a bit of deductive thinking I was very quickly (15 minutes or so) able to dig out lots of personal information. Real name and address, details of current and previous employers, education history, family details and so on.
You can probably tell I was getting a bit carried away. My "inner nerd" was coming out and I began to get engrossed in the detective puzzle. When I realised that what I was doing was borderline stalking I stopped. The point had been made there was no need to go any further.
Does this bother me? Not really. My online identity isn't as private as I thought it was but I am not ashamed of my blog or any of my other online scribblings. I have been around for long enough to realise that you don't put anything in writing (online or in ink) that might be illegal, libelous or other wise later regrettable.
Does this make it pointless to use a pseudonym? Make your own mind up. For me the answer is no. The pseudonym creates a separation between this hobby and other parts of my life. It is a bit like taking off a business suit when you come home from work. Same person but different clothes allows you to adopt a different persona.