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