Now, this might seem a little hypocritical of me, since my other article this issue is all about being proud of the skills you’ve acquired in fandom, but I’m going to take a while to look at why many fans choose not to use their real names online. There are plenty of people out there happy to be known only by usernames or by names they’ve chosen for themselves (pseudonyms, or pseuds for short) rather than their legal names. But why is that? Why not use your real name for your fandom endeavours?
Well, there are a few reasons. The first is the same reason many people don’t use their real names on the internet (in public forums, at any rate); it makes it easy for people you’d rather not find you to find you, and if you slip up and reveal a little too much about yourself you might be opening yourself to identity theft and/or a whole world of trouble. For some people, it’s just a matter of keeping their privacy as much as possible; for others, there are very good reasons they don’t want to be easy to track down.
Even if you don’t mind people finding your Facebook profile, your work website or your email address, though, it might be tempting to use a pseudonym to keep people in the dark about your fandom activities. Why is that? Well, fandoms tend to operate on a level of excitement and with a speed of reaction that may not be entirely understandable to non-fandom people. If your employer, for example, came across a post that said ‘I was reading Harry Potter last night and it occurred to me that Hogwarts isn’t very accessible for disabled people’, they probably wouldn’t think much of it. If they came across a post to the tune of ‘ARHGSDFJKL Star Trek trailer DID YOU SEE THE FACE’, however, they might be very confused. As a result, many fans choose to hide their immediate fandom responses behind a name that’s not so easily searchable.
Then there’s the relatively lax boundaries of what’s socially acceptable content in online fandom compared to the rules of social acceptability in the rest of life. For example, you would probably hesitate to hang a painting of two of your favourite characters snuggled up, naked, in your university’s most busy corridor – so it can be a good idea not to attach your real name to such a picture either.
Alright, those are some really great arguments for anonymity (not identifying yourself at all), you might say. But why use a pseudonym? Well, despite the potential embarrassments of being outed as a hardcore fan to the wrong people, a lot of us are actually quite proud of our contributions to fandom. We want our hard work to be acknowledged, we want to know when people are trying to speak to us specifically, and we want to be able to form a community. For all those things, we need some sort of identifying moniker. And sometimes, handy though a username is, it just doesn’t fit the bill. We don’t always want to be a string of characters or a short sentence – we almost never want to be known as our first name followed by our favourite colour followed by the name of our first pet (which is how some of us were taught to form usernames in the early days of our internet use) – we want to be identified as people, with real-sounding names. Just… not our own.
Some people are confident in relaxing their pseuds and telling trusted internet friends their real names once they feel close enough to them; others are more cautious and prefer to stick to their pseuds. In these cases, using a human-sounding name as opposed to an obvious internet username can help to foster the sense of familiarity we crave without actually exposing ourselves to too much risk. It’s always best to be open with your friends if you’re doing this – ‘on the internet my name is Christine, I prefer not to give out my real name’ – but bear in mind that your internet friends may not be using their real names either, so don’t divulge too much personal information if you’re unsure of their trustworthiness.
So… that’s why you might want to use a pseud. It doesn’t mean you’re up to no good, and it doesn’t mean you’re ashamed of your fandom or what you bring to it. It’s just a name. Some people even use pseudonyms just because they don’t much like their legal name! Recently, J.K. Rowling hit the headlines as her pseudonym was exposed – and she wasn’t up to anything bad either, just trying to be a little anonymous for a while. You don’t have to feel bad about not using your real name online – in fact, especially if you’re young, it can be advisable not to. So pick yourself a nice pseudonym, go out there and conquer the world! Or, you know, write a fanfic. Whatever you like.
Eleanor Musgrove (if that is her real name…)