April 17th, 2012 / 4:20 pm
Craft Notes

Pseudonyms, Authenticity, and Internet Identity

When I was a kid I made up a superhero named Dr. Power. He wore a blue costume, carried a purple Frisbee not unlike Captain America’s shield, and whatever powers he possessed were derivative of whatever comic books I’d been reading at the time.

Drawing Dr. Power wasn’t enough. I wanted to be him. My mom encouraged my eight-year-old fantasy by making me a handsome cape out of blue velvet, and I made my own mask out of paper-mache. The mask sucked, it was thick and heavy and weird-smelling, and I could barely see anything out of the eye holes, but I thought it looked pretty cool.

 For some reason it was important that my friends believed Dr. Power was real, and not just my super alter ego. So I had my brother take a picture of me standing next to Dr. Power while Dr. Power did pull-ups in our bedroom doorway. See, that’s the best you could get with Dr. Power, because he didn’t have time for photo shoots. He had to stay fit. Eveready. You never know when your next deranged enemy will come busting through the wall.

I no longer dress up as Dr. Power, but I still love superheroes. It’s not just their superpowers and flamboyant costumes that appeal to me. It’s their secret identities. The burden of juggling a day job and a crime-fighting nightlife. Struggling to achieve the work-life balance of punching the clock while still defending the city from evil. Utility bills and utility belts. Briefcases bursting with capes and cowls. Spider-Man and Superman, the mild-mannered newspaper men, reporting on their own conflicts while their enemies and deadlines loom. Iron Man and Batman, the playboy industrialists, sneaking away from boardroom meetings and cocktail parties to protect the masses from terrorists.

Writers are like superheroes to me, especially the ones who wear masks.

Pseudonym implies fake, with that big false prefix dominating that little nym. But nom de plume has less of a negative connotation. A pen name is a creative persona, like a stage name. Sean Carter publishes and performs his songs under the pseudonym Jay-Z. Natalie Hershlag is credited in films as her pseudonym Natalie Portman. This is all well and good. Jay-Z and Natalie Portman are more marketable monikers with better branding. I’d be less likely to drink Coca-Cola if it was called Garshlobbaboggmarsh.

I’ve been enjoying Carmela Ciuraru’s Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms, a collection of short biographies of famous pseudonymous writers. Ciuraru’s engaging, well-researched, and sometimes heartbreaking book offers up plenty of fun facts about her multifaceted subjects. For instance:


  • O. Henry, king of the plot twist, may have chosen that name because he was federal prisoner 30664 at the Ohio Penitentiary.


  • Lewis Carroll’s shy, real-life, math professor self was so averse to fame he’d leave the room if anyone ever mentioned his pseudonym or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.


  • Mark Twain was so fond of being famous he’d purposefully saunter down New York City’s busiest streets wearing his bright white suit just as everyone got out of their church services.


  • James Tiptree, Jr. was a critically acclaimed science fiction writer who worked as an intelligence analyst for the CIA before killing her husband and herself.


  • Victoria Lucas, the original author of The Bell Jar, wrote about her complicated relationship with her mother in her semiautobiographical novel before famously gassing herself in an oven.


  • Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell, AKA the Brontë sisters, like many other female writers, wrote under male pseudonyms so their work would be taken seriously.


  • Émile Ajar won the Prix Goncourt, a prize that’s meant to be awarded only once to an author, after already winning it under his real name, Romain Gary. Gary was also a French diplomat, a war hero pilot, a Ping-Pong champion, a film director, and married to Jean Seberg.


Pseudonyms are alive and well on the internet. xTx, Frank Hinton, and Ani Smith are just some of the pseudonymous internet writers whose work I admire. Janey Smith AKA Steven Trull AKA Mike Buffalo said in an interview that writing under a fake name is both easier and more creative. And part of the recent shitstorm inspired by Marie Calloway concerned the ethics of pseudonymity surrounding her “Adrien Brody” piece.

I sometimes write under a pseudonym. Writing under a pseudonym adds an extra layer of fiction to my fiction. It’s a public pseudonym, and as I reveal more and more of myself in cyberspace, backing myself up with hyperlinkable evidence of my existence, my pseudonym suffers, because I can only write and live so much. Selves, like cells, have to die so that others may live. But it’s nice to know I have that mask in my tool belt.


If corporations are legally considered people, then psychologically, they are psychotic.

Facebook is a big psychotic corporation with a strict anti-pseudonym policy. Mark Zuckerberg famously said in an interview: “You have one identity… The days of you having a different image for your work friends or coworkers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly… Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

But there are a multitude of reasons to use an internet pseudonym. Perhaps you review massage parlors on Yelp or engage in political debates online, but don’t want your fervent views on foot rubs or gun control to adversely affect your job search. Perhaps you just like leaving comments on the internet literature magazine blog of the future under the anonym deadgod.

Depending on the social context, you turn up the volume on some aspects of your personality and turn down others. The way you act at a funeral is different from the way you act at a party, but both are you. Just as we adapt to different social situations, so too do we adapt to different cybersocial environments. Your LinkedIn profile is different from your OKCupid profile, which is likewise different from your FetLife profile.

Thankfully Facebook is only one website, and rebel pseudonyms are on there despite the policy. (Imagine what Fernando Pessoa might have done if he could have let loose his heteronyms on Facebook. It’d be like that movie Catfish, but sadder and more poetic. Or maybe it’d be exactly like Catfish.)

To quote a blog quoting another blog quoting a NY Times piece:

“In a very deep sense, you don’t have a self unless you have a secret, and we all have moments throughout our lives when we feel we’re losing ourselves in our social group, or work or marriage, and it feels good to grab for a secret, or some subterfuge, to reassert our identity as somebody apart,” said Dr. Daniel M. Wegner, a professor of psychology at Harvard. … Psychologists have long considered the ability to keep secrets as central to healthy development. Children as young as 6 or 7 learn to stay quiet about their mother’s birthday present.

I worry about the internet of the future. I want to keep the internet weird.

Pseudonymous internet writers give me hope. Masquerades are fun.

People are their truest selves on Halloween.

– – –

Ethan Ryan loves humor, horror, and pop culture. He lives in Brooklyn and in cyberspace.

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  1. Helen

      I like this idea – multiple selves, the play aspect of pseudonyms but for me, it just never seems to work. I like bursting out of the cake and declaring IT’S ME! even when no one in the room/forum would know or care. See my terribly boring moniker here. 

  2. rawbbie

      I think every book reviewer should have a pseudonym, just so they can be honest in reviews.

  3. Helen

      Wouldn’t ‘honest’ quickly move into ‘spectacularly mean’ or ‘catty for the sake of it’ for a lot of people?

  4. lorian long

      wouldn’t ‘anonymous’ mean you’re just a ‘pussy’

  5. Christopher Lirette

      I like this talk of identities and secrets. I think the Zuckerberg position is ridiculous because what a little self we’d be if we could only have one name.

      Also, good picture of you and Dr. Power.

  6. Helen

      Is anonymous different from pseudonymous? 

  7. lorian long

      i don’t think it is when writing book reviews. the idea that ‘anonymous’ or ‘pseudonymous’ allows for ‘more honesty’ when writing book reviews has always seemed kind of gross to me.

  8. Helen

      As a book reviewer writing under her own name, I support this statement. 

  9. lorian long

      yeah i have never written under a pseudonym when reviewing books. i have, however, written under a pseudonym when writing fiction.

  10. Mike James

      Kanye West. Obie Trice. Nas. Drake. Real shit.

  11. marshall mallicoat

       real name, no gimmicks

  12. Bobby Dixon

      what happened to the rest of the comments 

  13. shaun gannon

      real game, no limits

  14. Vomithelmet McGee

      “Lorian Long” sounds too good, surely it is a pseudonym! Also I am suspicious that there are 3 Mikes on this website.

  15. mimi

      ‘vomithelmet’ outshines, far superior to barfbucket, pukepail, ralphfedora, hurlberet, upchuckchukkaboot, blowchunkdixiecup, etc etc etc

  16. mimi

      lo lo

  17. Vomithelmet McGee

      haha shucks, my parents did well. But barfbucket and pukepail! etc! If only you had been there to guide them in the naming of my siblings.

  18. Anonymous

      G. C. Waldrep publishes short fiction under a pseudonym. Sometimes I like to imagine “who” “he” “is”.

  19. Anonymous

      I recently decided that should anyone ever decide to stop ignoring my work and publish me, I will do so under a pseudonym, with the express purpose of never telling my family that pseudonym.

      I have a conservative family, and do not like confrontation, and so, rather than worrying about what my parents might think of this vulgarity here or this scene where three people are fist-fucking on a church altar, I will simply never ever let anyone who is related to me (except my atheist brother, perhaps) read anything I write. So, if they don’t even know the name under which whatever book or story is written, they will pretty much have zero chance of ever finding it.

      This seems to me to be a first-rate solution to an annoying problem.

  20. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      By nature people choose to identify others in the simplest, and laziest, ways. Everyone wants everyone else to be easy and not complicated. Quite often we pick up on this and in turn choose to simplify ourselves for the sole purpose of making people like us more.

      This is all bullshit. Every person is a complicated thing that folds down upon his or herself in the weirdest most contradictory of ways. That Whitman quote about multitudes. A single name, I think, promotes the idea of an easy label, and, motherfucker, none of us is easy, so have a bunch of names, inconvenience the world.

  21. lorian long

      can u keep calling me this, it reminds me of my ex-prof who called me ‘lo’ and even tho that was a nabokovian ‘i’m a 47 year-old & yer a 21 year-old’ thing this still feels nice like that hehe

  22. mimi

      certainly, would be my pleasure  

      glad you don’t mind my taking liberties with your first syllables  

      lo lo  

  23. mimi

      if your parents had triplets i could suggest airsick, seasick & carsick

  24. Mike James

      Your name reminds me of Frank Rapaport, even though his name is Michael Rapaport.

  25. mimi

      i like your logic

  26. Anonymous

      I think there is a major distinction between Character/Personality/Authentic Self.  One, judging by your article, you don’t understand.

      Frank/XTX/Ani employ a pseudonym for one reason: safety.  Their trust issues dictate who they are, and who they pretend to be.  Implying such a practice is healthy or cool is dumb.

      In other words, the acceptance of your superhero alter ego by friends was important to you, not them.

      “In a very deep sense, you don’t have a self unless you have a secret,
      and we all have moments throughout our lives when we feel we’re losing
      ourselves in our social group, or work or marriage, and it feels good to
      grab for a secret, or some subterfuge, to reassert our identity as
      somebody apart,” said Dr. Daniel M. Wegner, a professor of psychology at


      Of course the systematizers think keeping secrets is healthy for maturation.  They fear a person’s authentic self more than most.

      But yeah, I like posting quotes out of context too.  Here’s one:

      “The more elaborate his labyrinths, the further from the Sun his face.” – Na’ima

      Halloween is the happiest day because the 21st-century mind is a garden of illusions built on unused soil.  Try growing a flower worth remembering.

      For fuck’s sake.

  27. Ethan


      I agree there are distinctions between Character/Persona/Authentic Self, but those little slashes are quite thin lines. 

      I’m pretty sure I know what a character is. 


      Persona is a mask.


      Authentic Self, that’s a tough one. It implies there are multiple selves. I’m guessing Authentic Self is the Self that wears the masks? The cold hard skull underneath the smiley face and the frowny face and the :/ face?


      I don’t presume to know why Frank/XTX/Ani employ pseudonyms. All I said was that I admire their writing. I can’t speak on any trust issues they may or not have. I do think it’s cool they use pseudonyms, cuz I think pseudonyms are cool. Maybe I’m dumb. Maybe judging other people’s opinions as dumb is dumb. 


      I misread your sentence as “keeping secrets is healthy for masturbation”. I couldn’t agree more. 

      I dig that Na’ima quote. Here’s another one: “Ask not of things to shed their veils. Unveil yourselves, and things will be unveiled.” Seems appropriate, given the context.

      Halloween is an example of repressive desublimation. (I think I’m using that term correctly.) Every morning, you get up and put on a costume and you perform somehow, at your job, or for your friends and family. Halloween is liberating because it’s a socially acceptable day to wear a different costume. Be the Incredible Hulk or Princess Leia or Jesus or Satan or Cthulhu or whatever. It’s fun. You can even subtly question the rules regulating race and gender and sexuality. But hey, it’s not for everyone. No pressure. Come as you are. Be your Authentic Self, or “just be yourself”. Whatever makes you happy. I always feel a little bad for the people who show up to the Halloween party dressed the way they dress every day though. :/

  28. Richard Grayson

       Crad Kilodney.

  29. Anonymous


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