Of names, pseudonyms and personas

A lot has been written about Facebook’s and Google’s requirements for people to sign up with real world names. That requirement seems pretty silly to me, as the concepts of identity and personas seem to have a cognitive dimension that goes well beyond the tyranny of singular physicality — even in real life!

For centuries, novelists often wrote, and still do, using pen names, and artists have presented themselves, and still do, using stage names. In many periods of history, pen names were not just a fancy of the authors, they were a necessity for the work to be published in the first place — many of those cases involved women writers who couldn’t get their books published using female names. Pseudonyms also provide a certain buffer from the author’s personal sphere and the public persona that emerges when the work becomes popular. And this is where the issue of names becomes more interesting.

Deeper than pseudonyms, very often creative people make up different personas to represent their work. An excellent current example of this is Lady Gaga, not just a stage name but a persona that is carefully crafted by the artist behind it. She’s just one in a very long list of people who have used entirely different personas from themselves as the public face of their creations. Take Lewis Carroll of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” fame, and whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Dodgson, a “shy, eminent Oxford mathematician and lecturer, had created the nom de plume as a means of shelter from which he could let his imagination run wild.” [1] I can relate to that!

Even more impressive in the department of pseudonyms and personas was Fernando Pessoa, a famous Portuguese writer from the beginning of the XXth century. He published some of his work under his real name. But most of his work was published using dozens of different heteronyms (pseudonym+persona, a concept formulated by him), each one assuming a specific style of writing, maintaining consistency within that style throughout the years, and even interacting with each other through their works! He wasn’t a lunatic; he simply created these selves in great detail so that he could give an outlet to the many creative stances inside himself.

We are all familiar with this need to create and maintain different roles, even if we don’t have different pseudonyms or different personas or aren’t artistically-inclined. Anyone who is a mother, a professional,  and maintains a social hobby of some kind (say, ballroom dancing) can relate to the need to keep these roles in relative separation. Using a pseudonym is a perfectly valid next step when one of these social activities becomes more visible and threatens to invade all other personal spheres.

The Internet is the perfect medium for playing with pseudonyms, personas… heteronyms, as Pessoa envisioned them. It’s pure virtuality with a direct connection to our imagination! We know now that a lot of this freedom ends up as outrageous behavior under the cloak of pseudonymity. That’s ok, we’ll learn to live with these new behaviors and compensate for them as part of the global culture. But this freedom is absolutely necessary, because it empowers people to present and discuss their ideas independently of who they are in real life; real world identities and social status often interfere with the expression and discussion of ideas.

Connecting our public/published selves to our real identity is an option, not a necessity. Let’s keep it that way. And let’s hope the social media providers of the future will understand and support the need for the multitude of selves we all carry inside.


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