Pseudonymity and the internet, Breaking Bad edition

Your twitter avatar is not a picture of yourself. You have many things to say, but if you say them using your own identity, your uni might fire you or your students might make fun of you during lecture. The only way you find to express your thoughts freely (so as to keep your sanity and protect your privacy) is through pseudonymity or anonymity*. Oh, and don’t you forget, the NSA is watching.

This post came to my mind because I’ve bit by tongue too many times in public, when I say one thing but I really mean something completely different, or worse yet, I don’t say anything at all. On the internet though, being behind a computer monitor gives us an unusual freedom to say the things we wouldn’t say otherwise. However, regardless of whether I am under a pseudonym or not, I  still think twice about what I’m going to post, because what I say ultimately reflects who I am and can potentially influence the opinions of many.

Here are some of the pro’s of using a pseudonym:

  • Public figure status: if you’re a professor, supervisor, teaching assistant, or have any position related to supervising and managing other people, you might need a pseudonym when you’re online. Here’s a good way to tell if you’re a celebrity or not: you walk into a bar and if you see your students there, you have to leave for the sake of preserving the last bits of good reputation. Congratulations, you’ve reached celebrity status.
  • Sensitivity: If you are posting about sensitive issues, or things that affect, say, the graduate community, and you wouldn’t necessarily want your PI or your committee members to know. Don’t give them another reason to not like you.
  • The case of the creeper: worst case scenario, one of your students is completely head over heels for you, and wants to know every single detail of your online life (Yikes,  I hope that never happens to you).

The cons:

  • Mark Twain published under a pseudonym, as did Emily Bronte, and J.K. Rowling. You want people to know your work, even if it’s not necessarily using your own persona. Many other tweeps/bloggers also use pseudonyms, but it’s hard not to show your true identity if you want to share the awesomeness of your science (i.e. when you want to share the paper you just published in a high impact journal).
  • Trolls. There are many trolls out there that use their pseudonym as a shield and therefore attack others on the internet. Beware of these folks!
  • Mystery. There is always some mystery associated with these mystic personalities. I’m always curious to know what these awesome people look like in real life. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

There’s something about being able to express ourselves freely and for people to know who we are that makes us feel powerful. It’s our innermost desire to be social and to be liked, to know that we are not alone. As long as we don’t feel like expressing ourselves like we do at the bar, after we’ve had a couple beers.

In case you haven’t been following the TV series Breaking Bad (which you should), Walter White, the main character, uses a pseudonym which he likes to be associated with in the world of drug cartels. He likes to be called “Heisenberg,” and under this name, he goes from being an inoffensive chemistry high school teacher (with a PhD from CalTech), to being one of the most powerful meth dealers (and cooks)  in the New Mexico area and neighboring territories.

So I find it very appropriate to post a fraction of one of my favorite episodes. “Say my name,” and at the command of these words, it was understood that everybody knew who the great Heisenberg was.

*Nieves, like ice cream or snow in Spanish, is my real life name. Yes.